Ain’t I a Mermaid?
Apparently, the woke mafia isn’t slowing down. Not content with canceling actors and comedians who molest women and minors, forcing Hollywood sets to hire intimacy coordinators, or turning our kids into trans activists by listing their pronouns in their corporate e-mail signatures, now they’ve gone too far. Last month, Walt Disney Studios released a trailer for a live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and to the dismay and shock of conservatives everywhere (despite hearing about the casting a year ago), we learned that the titular, fictional, imaginary, mythical, very-much-made-up, not-at-all-real mermaid princess is now Black.
If reading the above paragraph caused your eyes to roll back into your head so far that you could see your brain, you’re not alone. Truth be told, part of me didn’t even want to write this column. It’s obvious to me, and most thinking people, that casting an undeniably talented actress and singer named Halle Bailey (who is also Black) to play Ariel in a live-action remake of one of Disney’s most popular animated features harms absolutely no one. And yet, as predictable and annoying as this hubbub is, I feel I must respond.
Most of the criticism leveled at Bailey’s casting seems to be based on the idea that Disney is somehow being unfaithful to the “source material.” When it is pointed out to them that Disney retains ownership and copyright over the 1989 cartoon and can certainly do whatever they like with their own stories, the critics backtrack, and point out that the cartoon was itself based on a story by a Danish writer named Hans Christian Andersen that was published in 1837, and both Andersen and all his characters were most certainly White.
But that argument falls apart fairly quickly when the original story (“Den lille havfrue”) is revisited, and the reader discovers the mermaid’s heartbreak when the prince marries a human woman, a plot by her mermaid sisters to kill him, and her noble suicide when she refuses to carry it out. Also, there’s no miniature crab with a Jamaican accent, which I feel is a real oversight on Hans’s part. So it’s clear that Disney itself wasn’t overly concerned with “faithfulness to the source material” 33 years ago, and no one was complaining back then. No, this isn’t about an overreach of creative license. It’s about racism.
I could start, I suppose, by noting that the very first mermaid in popular culture was a Babylonian goddess named Atargatis. Like Ariel, she also wasn’t real—but she probably wasn’t White, either. So there’s that.
I could also respond to the many critics who use formal scientific language when they assert that mermaids wouldn’t get enough sunlight to provoke any significant production of melanin in their skin, and therefore the Little Mermaid must be White. To them, I’d simply note that anyone with human skin who lived in the North Sea off the Danish coast would die of hypothermia before she was ever old enough to trade her voice for a pair of legs. It’s much more likely that mermaids, if they existed, would live much closer to the Equator, and the Jamaican accent of her little crab friend certainly corroborates this theory. Therefore, Rob Marshall really had no choice but to cast a Black actress in the role, because science.
These rejoinders are admittedly fun, but they’re not the reason I defend the right to racial diversity among imagined creatures of the sea. If you want to know why it’s not only permissible, but praiseworthy—even important—to see a Black Little Mermaid in 2022, I’d simply remind you of the famous doll experiment from the 1940s, when researchers Kenneth and Mamie Clark offered young Black children a chance to choose between Black dolls and White dolls. When asked, “which is the pretty doll,” or “which is the nice doll,” they would invariably reach for the White dolls. When asked who the “bad” doll was, they’d point to the Black doll. When asked to choose the doll that was “most like them,” they would often reach for the White doll, or else begin to cry. The kids who participated in the experiment were as young as five and had clearly internalized harmful attitudes about race from the outside world. As Stephen Sondheim might remind us, children will listen. When the Clarks’ experiment has been re-created, as recently as 2021, the results are distressingly similar.
Then, I’d invite you to fire up your nearest web browser, go to YouTube, and search for “Little Mermaid Reactions.” There, you’ll see countless home videos of little Black girls watching the teaser trailer for the first time and can witness firsthand their joy when they see someone who looks like them singing a beautiful song about a desire to live and be accepted in a world of her choosing.
If, after all that, it’s still impossible for you to celebrate a talented young woman getting a dream job in a film that little girls all over the country, little White girls included, will surely love, then I’d simply request your silence on the matter. Perhaps you could trade your voice for a pair of fins and go jump in a lake.▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion practitioner. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. His podcast, The Rewind Project, is available wherever you listen to podcasts.