Film

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.

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