A Black Ariel? Must Be a Whole New (Disney) World​

Rob Marshall's upcoming The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey in the traditionally white character role of Ariel, sure has stirred things up in the sea of social media. Disney-glittered little girls, it seems, see it differently.

It is a well-known fact that, however ambivalent you may be to Disney, you will feel it breathing down your neck once you have children.

Disney's influence is especially potent if you have a daughter, who will succumb to the lure of the magical marketing tag team effort known as the Disney Princesses. Before you know it, she'll strut around your home in a crown, declaring that all her possessions must be encrusted with glitter.

Once my daughter was born, I tried to resist Disney. I swear. The Princess culture disturbed me for many reasons. Here are two: 1. they turn little girls into rabid consumers and 2. they conflate physical beauty with empowerment.

But as Peggy Orenstein wrote in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) you cannot fight their influence: "It has become nearly impossible for girls of a certain age not to own a few Princess trinkets."

That's what happened in my home. My daughter never watched a Disney movie (thought she caught the second half of Niki Caro's Mulan at a friend's house one day). I never bought her Princess stuff, but nevertheless, she collected items like a Belle (that's the Princess who loves books) pencil case and an Ariel coloring book.

And so you may be surprised (or not), to know that when my children were young, I took them to DisneyWorld. During a one-week Orlando vacation in the blistering August heat, I broke. We visited Epcot Center, which is divided into two main sections: the Future World (like a big science fair, mostly indoors in the air conditioning) and the World Showcase, featuring 11 countries, including Italy, China, France, and Mexico.

And Morocco. Let's see what they have in the Arab country, I wondered in some amusement.

In that section, I learned that the employees were students who actually hailed from Arab nations. It was rather fun to speak Arabic with the cashiers in the gift shop, the Restaurant Marrakesh staff, and the snack cart operators. It was strange, I mused later, to speak Arabic with actual Arabs, who had been plucked from their home countries and popped into this bizarrely constructed false universe -- with its tiled fountains and geometric artwork.

Suddenly, an announcement blared through the streets of fake Agrabah: the star citizens of Morocco -- Aladdin and Jasmine -- were now available for photos.

I'd had my own bizarre interaction with the employees who play Disney characters. In the Magic Kingdom, I'd sympathetically asked the woman in a Snow White costume if she didn't get terribly hot in her heavy dress. She'd responded, blinking and smiling sweetly: "Oh, but I love to spend time with the flowers in my garden."

And I have my own past with the Disney film Aladdin. As a young Arab American middle school student, I had been part of a letter writing campaign to protest the gross orientalism and racism of the 1992 film. You remember the opening lyrics: "Oh, I come from a land/ From a faraway place/ Where the caravan camels roam./ Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face./ It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."

So yes, maybe I am a hypocrite, for standing in a long line, pushing a double stroller, watching little girls in Jasmine costumes while waiting for our photo opportunity. All I can say in my defense is that vacationing with toddlers makes you lose your mind.

After half an hour in line, we finally glimpsed Aladdin and Jasmine. They were both tall and slim, dressed perfectly in their costumes: he in his jaunty vest and tarboush, she in her blue harem pants and bralette. Eventually, I saw their faces and the shock thunderbolted through me: Jasmine and Aladdin were being played by young white people. Jasmine's black hair was actually a wig, and her face looked darker than it should perhaps due to some intense tanning or paint.

A white Jasmine? But of course, I thought, with a sick feeling. I should have known better.

Disney has tried, in recent years, to be more culturally diverse, and it has failed. It only produced a movie featuring an African American princess in 2009 (and Tiana spends a significant portion of The Princess and the Frog in the form of … a frog). Jasmine is a harem odalisque, and the rewriting of Pocahontas continues to befuddle students who learn about her true encounter with John Smith, and her later marriage to John Rolfe, in history class.

There have been some bright spots. In 1997, Whitney Houston produced a version of Cinderella, directed by Robert Iscove and starring singer Brandy in the lead role. And now, there will be another African American actor starring in the role of a traditionally white fictional character: In a live-action version of The Little Mermaid, directed by Rob Marshall, Halle Bailey will play Ariel, the red-headed mermaid who sacrifices her voice for a man (don't get me started).

And some people are freaking out.

Here's "Rhys": "The little mermaid was written as white, was white in the film, is based in Denmark and based on a European fairytale, but is cast as black... How is this not racist and cultural appropriation? If this were the other way round, those celebrating would be boycotting. #Ariel #Halle"

@Woo_ahhh (who eventually suspended their account) wrote: "Us white girls, who grew up with The Little Mermaid, deserved a true-to-color Ariel. Disney, you made a huge mistake by hiring Halle Bailey. This is going in the TRASH."

@TripNFall told me, replying to my Tweet, "Lets do the same for tiana and Moana and still how y'all feel? This is racist changing her to a black woman after 28 years of her being a pal red head. Your racsim is showing, us Disney nerds want the Ariel we all grew up with."

Folks, there was even a hashtag: #NotMyAriel.

And all I can say is Oh, please.

I cannot muster any sympathy.

Apparently, neither can Freeform, a cable network owned by Disney. It issues a statement a few days after the story broke, telling folks the truth: "the character of Ariel is a work of fiction."

For too long, brown girls have seen beauty be defined by whiteness. This is more harmful than companies like Disney have wanted to admit.

Almost 30 years ago, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about the need to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors –metaphors for diversity – in children's literature. She was responding to the fact that white children could always see themselves ("mirrors") in books, while children of color could not. Books in which children of color starred could serve as mirrors for those children, and as "windows" for other children who could observe and learn.

Some books could even serve as a sliding glass door – allowing a child to view another unfamiliar perspective or world, and then enter it.

We need this in movies too.

Just ask an African American mother whose daughter's eyes light up at the sight of Tiana (in her gown, not in her frog form). Just ask a Chinese American girl who has a Mulan poster in her bedroom. Or a Latinx girl who sees something of herself in Elena: Princess of Avalor.

My daughter might feel the same about Jasmine, if I ever let her watch Aladdin.

But things might be changing. Perhaps, at last, it really is a whole new world, one in which Disney can provide a sliding glass door. One in which we can admit that black children as well as white children will benefit from Halle Bailey's Ariel.

Related Articles Around the Web




Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.