New shots are being fired in the culture wars after Disney announced that its live-action remake of children’s classic The Little Mermaid will star black actress Halle Bailey in the lead role as Ariel.
Director Rob Marshall said Bailey had been cast after an “extensive search” and possesses the “rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance” needed to play the role.
Naturally, the announcement provoked cries of delight from some quarters and wails of dismay from others. Fans of the decision felt it was a big win for diversity, while critics argued that the remake should stay true to the 1989 original — in which Ariel, most will remember, was in fact a, blue-eyed and red-haired white girl — or mermaid, to be exact.
The real “original” was of course a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, published in 1836 — and in that, Ariel is described as having skin as “clear and delicate as a rose petal” with “eyes as blue as the deepest sea” — so interpret that as you will.
Some couldn’t contain their delight that black girls would “see themselves” in the new Ariel, while others argued that casting Bailey was the “laziest way” to promote diversity and possibly even amounted to “cultural appropriation” given the story’s Danish origins and the fact that Ariel’s grandfather is Poseidon of Greek mythology.
While getting worked up over who plays a fictional mermaid doesn’t seem like the best use of anyone’s time, there does seem to be a hint of hypocrisy about it all, considering that the PC police accused young white girls of “cultural appropriation” merely for dressing up as the Polynesian Moana for Halloween not long ago. If white girls hadn’t loved Moana, they would surely have been accused of racism, so is there really any way to win?
Black Ariel is only the latest in a recent spate of movie remakes in which a white character has been reimagined as black. There was a similar backlash when a black actress was cast for the role of Annie in the 2014 remake of the 1982 classic, despite the character also being a red-haired white girl.
The push for diversity is not just about race, either. There have also been calls for a “gay” James Bond and even a “Jane” Bond. Yet, there are some strong signs that the outrage brigade will never be happy, no matter how Hollywood bows to their every whim and demand.
When Will Smith was cast to play the role of Richard Williams — father to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams — the inclusivity fanatics decided he was not “black enough” to take the role, taking to Twitter to express their agitation.
To be fair, there is at least something to be said for the argument that white actors have played black and brown roles for a long time without anyone paying much attention (white Jesus, anyone?) — so there’s a bit of hypocrisy on both sides.
There is something a bit odd about the liberal celebrations over Bailey’s casting as Ariel, though. Sticklers for political correctness have complained in the past that The Little Mermaid is actually “quite sexist” and “seriously disturbing” and sends the wrong message to young girls — and indeed there are definitely themes and tropes in the original which would not pass muster in 2019, but we could hardly expect anything else from a story written in 1836.