Analysis: Why racist ‘The Little Mermaid’ arguments don’t hold up



Ever since Disney released the first look for its 2023 live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” the internet has been sodden with wave after wave of racist critics complaining that Ariel, the completely fictional underwater fish woman, shouldn’t be Black. Hashtags like #notmyariel are bouncing around social media, and YouTube hid the dislike counter on the official video after it was bombarded with racist comments and more than 1.5 million “dislikes.” One group of critics went as far as to share a digitally altered version of the teaser that featured a White woman in place of the movie’s star Halle Bailey, who they called a “woke actress.”

By now, we know it’s not unusual to see racist responses whenever a person of color is cast in a role considered “traditionally” White. While there are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike a movie, these critics often hide their discomfort behind other thin arguments, claiming historical or cultural accuracy or, of all things, science.

Here are some real arguments people have levied to protest the casting choice. The facts prove they just don’t hold water.

The original “Little Mermaid” story was written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in 1837. If we’re going to dignify this argument, according to the text, Ariel and the rest of her mermaid kin are from “far out in the ocean” (literally the opening lines of the story) at the “bottom of the sea.” So, not Denmark or anywhere near it.

If critics are truly worried about staying faithful to the original story, we shouldn’t gloss over the original ending where the mermaid is instructed to kill her prince, but throws the knife away in despair and dissolves into sea foam instead. Not to mention, while the 1989 Disney version has a Prince Eric with bright blue peepers, Anderson specifically described the prince as having “coal-black eyes” and “raven hair.” (Also “The Little Mermaid,” who doesn’t even have a name in the original story, isn’t real.)

Could be a mermaid, who knows.

“From a scientific perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have someone with darker skin who lives deep in the ocean.” So says far-right pundit Matt Walsh, who opined about the “Little Mermaid” casting on “The Matt Walsh Show.” He claims he framed the comment as a joke, since he goes on to say that “​​not only should the Little Mermaid be pale, she should, actually, be translucent.” However, the context of his comment is still racially charged, and he still implies pale skin is closer to a “scientific” mermaid than dark skin.

Again, if we’re going to take an academic look at these unnecessary bits of discourse, not all abyssal creatures are pale. Not all underwater creatures are pale. Also, since mermaids also get close enough to the surface to see other humans, if you want to look at it scientifically, mermaids would probably have a specific type of pigmentation that allowed for both a deep sea and shallow water existence. We also know that, centuries ago, seafarers often mistook one particular animal for a mermaid: the manatee, which is not pale. (Also “The Little Mermaid” isn’t real.)

Numerous Twitter scraps have cropped up with people trying to argue European folklore, or even Homerian epics like “The Odyssey,” have some sort of monopoly on the idea of mermaids. In reality, it’s fascinating to see how many different cultures throughout history have arrived at parallel folklorical themes. Humanoid creatures that dwell in the water are part of innumerable mythologies around the world.

East Asian and Oceanic folklore is replete with stories of underwater kingdoms and merpeople both good and evil, from the Magindara in some Philippine regions to the tale of the Indian Princess Suriratna or Hwang-ok that reached South Korea. Middle Eastern folktales compiled in the classic “Arabian Nights” collection, which dates back more than a thousand years, feature several accounts of sea-dwelling human creatures. In parts of continental Africa and among the African diaspora, folklore describing water spirits, oftentimes in the shape of beautiful women, are common. According to Shona mythology in Zimbabwe, the “njuzu” are mermaids who occupy lakes or rivers.

(Also, not all Europeans are White. Also, “The Little Mermaid” isn’t real.)

On message boards and comment sections across the internet, people are debating whether a new, dark-skinned Ariel somehow negates or erases the classic 1989 version.

Disney’s 1989 “The Little Mermaid” is still available to watch, own and share. The animated character of Ariel is part of Disney’s wildly profitable “Disney Princess” franchise and her name and image are valuable and heavily trademarked Disney properties. The red-haired, fair-skinned Ariel is here to stay.

Far from ruining childhoods, many fans think making a different iteration of Ariel will only increase the Disney magic. Just look at the sweet reactions of young Black children and the praise of Disney icons like Jodi Benson, the voice of the original Ariel.

Videos of young Black girls reacting to ‘Little Mermaid’ trailer go viral

More importantly, the remake of one film doesn’t erase the existence of the previous films: 1999’s Mr. Darcy and 2005’s Mr. Darcy live in harmony with every other character from the roughly 300 “Pride and Prejudice” film remakes. Pennywise looks different in every “It” iteration, as does Frankenstein’s monster. The story of “Cinderella,” which predates even the famous Brothers Grimm version, seems to have a different remake out every year. One notable version, 1997’s “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” featured a racially diverse cast that included singer Brandy as the first Black Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother. It aired on TV as part of the “Wonderful World of Disney.”

While Disney has produced a very famous iteration of “The Little Mermaid,” it isn’t the first, only, or universally definitive work. No one owns the concept of mermaids or what they look like. A White, red-haired animated teenager is not the only version of “The Little Mermaid” to exist.

Also – and this is very important – “The Little Mermaid” isn’t real.

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