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Opinion – why Halle Bailey’s portrayal of Ariel is so important

The new trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid features a Black actress in the title role. Conflicting responses from young children and racist adults prove why Ariel’s new casting is so important. 

Scheduled for a 2023 release, a live-action The Little Mermaid has created buzz since it was first announced in 2016.

When Halle Bailey, a young Black musician – and five-time Grammy award winner alongside her sister Chlöe – would be playing Ariel, internet commentary racked up a notch.

Since then we’ve only been party to piecemeal snippets of production, like pixelated snaps of Bailey and co-star Jonah Hauer-King filming on a beach in Sardinia.

But last week Disney finally released the first teaser trailer for the film. The one-and-a-half-minute video sees Bailey sitting beneath the ocean on a rock, singing the chorus of famed song ‘Part of That World’.

Despite its relatively uneventful content, the trailer has caused an enormous media buzz – almost all of which centres around the colour of Bailey’s skin.

Fans of the original film have called out Disney’s new casting for ‘weaking their faithfulness to the original story’. Others have accused Bailey’s role of tick-boxing.

Before YouTube removed options to ‘dislike’ it, the trailer had amounted more than 2 million thumbs down from viewers, and countless derogatory comments mocking Bailey’s appearance.

Whether they’re disguised as gatekeeping the ‘accuracy’ of the story, or – one of the more bizarre – concerns that Bailey’s Ariel denies red-heads an important point of representation,  response to the film has been undoubtedly racist.

As Bailey’s supporters have pointed out, efforts to maintain the ‘original Little Mermaid’ are unfounded for a plethora of reasons – not least because the true ‘original’ was a thinly veiled queer love story with a tragic ending.

Other critics have suggested its ‘historically inaccurate’ for mermaid to be Black. Perhaps they’ve yet to realise that mermaids are fictional, mythical beings.

Claims that The Little Mermaid is pushing a ‘woke agenda’ through ‘forced diversity’ are particularly bemusing.

Twitter has exploded with self-pitying commentary that white people are ‘being replaced’ when Black actors are cast in roles they were previously excluded from. But white people have played non-white characters since time immemorial.

Unsurprisingly, those casting decisions have never caused even a fraction of the controversy that Bailey’s Ariel has.

However, in a sea (pardon the pun) of negative comments, parents have been sharing heart-warming videos of their children reacting to the trailer.

Sterling Shanks went viral on TikTok after sharing a video of his daughters, Ke’Iona, Lai’Anna, and Ea’Iona – aged between 2 and 7 – watching Bailey in their pyjamas. The girls’ reaction has brought many, including their father, to tears.

It’s the first time many young Black girls are seeing a Disney princess who looks like them. In Disney’s 100-year history, there has only ever been one Black princess – Tiana in ‘The Princess and The Frog’. Bailey will be the first Black actress to play a Disney princess in a live-action film.

‘I just know from conversations we’ve had with them that in their own way they wish they had representation in the things they watch and do’ Shanks told the New York Times.

After watching the trailer, Shanks added that ‘Lai’Anna said, ‘Did you notice she has braids like we do sometimes?’’.

Despite mindless backlash from whingey adults on the internet, it seems Bailey has achieved the goals she had for the role of Ariel.

‘I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they’re special, and that they should be a princess in every single way’, Bailey told Variety in August.

The joyful response from young children is telling. It cuts through the racist criticism of that tirelessly follows Black actresses around. And it’s a reminder that such racism is boring, irrelevant, and reserved for jaded adults with little to fill their time.

If a move for children has already captured the hearts of thousands of children with a short teaser, it’s certainly doing what it set out to do. And to bring a classic story to a new generation, with a Black woman at the helm, is certainly something to celebrate.


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