The Little Mermaid Reboot: The representation needed in today’s age


Rikkie Gunawan


Noelle Escalante, A&E Editor

The 2023 adaptation of the movie “The Little Mermaid” stars Halle Bailey, an African American singer turned actress. While this may seem like a victory to African Americans, accusations of “blackfishing”, which is the fetishization of race through exoticism and otherness, caused rocky waters for minority representation in film.

“The Little Mermaid” first released its trailer in September 2022, opening with shots of Ariel’s classic red hair and iridescent green tail, only later showing Bailey. According to Newsweek, the trailer received 1.5 million dislikes and an abundance of racist comments shortly after it was released on YouTube, causingYouTube to disable the comments and dislike button. “#NotmyAriel” also went viral on Twitter.

Why? Bailey’s skin tone. In short, since the cartoon version of “The Little Mermaid,” released in 1989, portrayed Ariel as white, the expectation was that Disney would cast a white actress. This attitude has sadly been mirrored in other projects – the upcoming Rick Riordan “Percy Jackson” television series cast a Black Annabeth, despite her being described as blonde in the books, leading to outcry. Similarly, when Rue was revealed as a Black in 2012’s adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” the Internet lost its collective mind despite clear characterization and description in the novel indicating she was Black all along.

Amid the growing need for diverse representation in the film industry, Hollywood’s attempt to share the spotlight with other minority races is laudable. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, Black girls and women made up only 5.7% of lead characters in 2019 films.

Some of the criticism regarding Bailey’s casting as Ariel were masked in concerns the new adaptation would fail to stay true to the original Disney film. But the “preservation of the original story” camp falls silent about the true ending of the original 1837 Hans Christian Anderson story, where the mermaid is not only unnamed, but commits suicide when the prince ultimately marries another woman. Disney had to adapt the ending of the story to be more family friendly; why can’t they adapt their casting to a more realistic reflection of its audience?

Another concern accuses Disney of choosing “diversity as the sake of diversity.” Setting aside the absurdity of insisting a fictional character be any race in particular, this argument is further debunked when considering the lengthy history of white Hollywood actors portraying dark-skinned characters, including Jake Gyllenhall in “Prince of Persia” (2010), Ben Afflect in “Argo” (2012) and Christian Bale in “Exodus: Gods and Monsters” (2014) among many notable recent examples of white-washing in Hollywood.

Disney films will only continue to reboot and change and their efforts towards inclusivity are a step in the right direction. Inspiring a new generation through representation by someone who looks like them will create a long-lasting legacy and lineage of leaders empowered by their identity, no matter how different they look.