The Little Mermaid Live Action Brings Great Controversy

by Jada Ingelton

After years of following a trend that inspires directors and producers to create live action versions of timeless and previously animated movies and stories, 2019 seemed to be the peak of the remake industry when it brought forth the several releases of  Dumbo, The Lion King, Aladdin and more. In the summer of 2019, it was confirmed that a live action film of Disney classic The Little Mermaid would be in the works to start shooting and, of course, with news of production came that of casting.

    Through an announcement on Twitter, and confirmation in a post on Instagram, it was revealed that singer-songwriter and actress Halle Bailey will be playing Ariel in the live action film, set to begin production in April of 2020. 

Bailey’s casting will be the first time in history that Disney has cast a woman of color to play a traditionally white princess in one of its live-action adaptations. While many people, including well-known names such as Chrissy Teigen, Mariah Carey, and more showed praise and respect for the director’s choice, many others did not support the idea at all. Fans even took to creating the hashtag ‘#NotMyAriel’ and ‘#NotMyMermaid’ in protest. 

  “Ariel … is a mermaid… and a fictional character.. .. Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black. Black Danish people, and thus mer-folk, can also genetically (!!!) have red hair.” wrote ‘Freeform’, the network that produces the show Grown-ish in which Bailey stars as a main character. The fiery Instagram post was just one of the many that spoke in defense of having a black ‘Little Mermaid’, after the heated backlash of it hit the stands. Despite the fact that the world has seemingly come to a place where almost everything can be seen as a way to diversify the community and talk about race, a cartoon remake is no place for that. The Little Mermaid that fans grew up loving and watching was a porcelain tone, red-headed girl who just wanted to experience a life outside the water, so why use the live action version as a way to take away from that?

As a black woman, I have no problem with cultural awareness and enhancement, in fact I would encourage it above all. However, casting a black actress to play an originally created white princess is a misrepresentation of the story. It would be like creating a live-action remake of Mulan and having the actress portraying her be black or hispanic, rather than the Asian shown in the animation. It has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with accuracy. 

Live action remakes have been argued by supporters of this casting, as an opportunity to recreate something rather than remake it. The original story of The Little Mermaid, which was written and published by Hans Christian Andersen, did not specify a race or ethnic background for Ariel. In fact, it is heavily implied that the character might have been meant to be a minority race. With that being said, the beloved 1989 film does not show a minority race Ariel, it shows a white one. A live action version of a once animated story should not be open for interpretation or judgement, but it should be about bringing to life what audiences already know and love. If people really want to provide an equal amount of on-screen attention to the minority groups, then they should focus on creating or retelling stories where minorities are actually specialized.

When asked about his bold decision to cast Bailey for the film, director Rob Marshall said: “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance – plus a glorious singing voice – all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.”  Even though Marshall’s decision is strictly based on talent and ability to deliver, the controversy still seems to stem off a black and white issue. In turn, it will later become a chance to encourage interacial couples as the casting of Ariel’s love interest will be played by a Caucasian man. While that may not have been the intention of the production, had the directors stuck to looking for a princess that correctly represented their Ariel, none of this debacle would have even uproared. 

The controversy of the film will continue to be conversation in social media until the film’s release, which could be assumed to be early 2021. Whether or not Bailey will give the audience the Ariel they want with her acting skills and vocals is beside the point- we still won’t see the Ariel we grew up with. Not everything has to be about giving more or not enough attention to a certain group of people. Some matters are just about what’s right and what is wrong. Needless to say, Bailey is under a lot of pressure with her latest role, and without a doubt, people will be watching to see just how all this will play out.