Once upon a time, in a land not damaged with a global pandemic or overbearing social media platforms, singer Brandy Norwood did the unthinkable for a Black girl: played the live action version of Cinderella in a Disney movie. We haven’t forgotten that in 1997, Brandy cemented a cornerstone in Black girlhood. Seriously, beautiful in her braids and ballgown with Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother? We couldn’t get enough.
Critics were rude, of course. They downplayed Brandy’s acting skills and frowned upon the multi-cultural cast. Because Cinderella was a fairy tale, it didn’t have to justify all the nuances and explain why they wanted this to be a “color blind” experience. It’s a common approach for theatrical casting, yet on television, it was something we hadn’t seen before.
Black women are, more than other women, often seen as fixed representations of racist ideas. Social media acts out these tropes. So, it wasn’t revolutionary for a princess movie to conjure excitement; it was rare, however, for the center of such a classic story to be a Black woman.
The most recent Disney adaptation is The Little Mermaid, starring singer and actor Halle Bailey. While many fans rejoiced over Bailey being casted for the role of Ariel, others were incessantly outraged. People assumed that the live-action remake would include a white woman, as whiteness is viewed as the standard. The criticism that Brandy faced was coming from publications and media outlets in the late ’90s. Today, with social media, everyone has a voice behind the computer screen. Anyone who dislikes Bailey, a Black woman in this role, has the ability to speak freely about it, and they certainly went ahead and did so. They spewed hate and racist insults towards an immensely talented young woman. It was unfortunate to see.
But why all the hate? Surely, people couldn’t possibly be this mad about a fictional character that lives under the sea. Well, they generated the hashtag #notmyariel which only got worse after the first look was released. Even YouTube hid its dislike counter on the official video after it accumulated more than 1 million “dislikes.” The haters kept insisting Ariel shouldn’t be Black.
We’ve all lived long enough on social media to know that there will be backlash whenever a person of color is casted into a traditionally white role. What we didn’t expect were the outrageous arguments they tried to make us believe — Ariel must be white because The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Andersen, is a Danish story; mermaids live under the sea and wouldn’t have dark skin. The most egregious of them all was Ariel being Black is ruining childhoods. If you saw the adorable videos circulating of little Black girls reacting to the trailer, you’d know that no ruining was happening. Anytime I see a video on my timeline of a little Black girl’s reaction, I stop to watch. It is pure joy.
In 2009, Anika Noni Rose became the first Black Disney princess in the animated film, The Princess and the Frog. In 2014, Keke Palmer became the first Black Cinderella on Broadway. Along with Brandy, they opened doors for others to continue to break down barriers. Cynthia Erivo being casted as the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio to Yara Shahidi being selected to play Tinkerbell sparked harsh criticism; again, however, it’s more proof that Black women can and should be represented in Disney live-action remakes.
There has been an ongoing push for Hollywood to produce more diverse stories that offer better representation for people of color, particularly Black women — better as in not just making a white character Black by recycling old material. It’s as if we don’t have our own culture and stories to tell; we have to piggyback on white stories to be seen.
Disney princesses are such pivotal characters within our childhood. I grew up watching Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and all the other princess movies. I had to put my full lips, dark skin, and kinky hair aside because I didn’t see myself in these movies. My friends and I had to melt ourselves into what was there. Young Black girls shouldn’t have to imagine themselves as white. They have the right to see a Disney princess who looks like them, talks like them, and wears red box braids that flow down her back like them. They have the right to see their culture and racial identity valued.
The truth is, it’s not that people are bothered by a Black mermaid. The issue is that The Little Mermaid is now creating Black joy for Black women and children. We are actually being seen and celebrated. It’s not about The Little Mermaid at all. If white children want to see themselves as Ariel, guess what? They still can. The cartoon is not going anywhere. But now Black children can see themselves as Ariel too.
The hope is that The Little Mermaid is both one in a long line of Black Disney princesses as well as having more Black main characters in our stories, both on screen and behind the camera. Film should be a place of opportunity for Black women and girls to just be. We wish we could be a part of that world.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.