Singer Halle Bailey's casting as Ariel in the planned live-action remake of Disney's The Little Mermaid has inspired some nasty online backlash. It seemed inevitable that, as The Walt Disney Company continued its trend of remaking beloved animated titles in live-action, there would be a new version of The Little Mermaid. The 1989 film is widely credited with rejuvenating the company's waning animation studio and kick-starting the Disney Renaissance. As one of the company's most profitable and beloved titles, both critically and commercially, it was always going to be a top choice for a glossy remake.
In May 2016, Disney announced said remake was to be directed by Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins Returns), with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda collaborating with the original film's composer Alan Menken to write new songs. The past month has seen the film's cast being built up of unexpected choices, from Melissa McCarthy as Ursula the sea witch to Awkwafina as a gender-swapped Scuttle. But the biggest news was, of course, the casting of Ariel.
Last week, it was revealed that the title role would be played by Halle Bailey. The 19 year-old singer is best known as one half of the duo Chloe X Halle. The sisters have toured with Beyoncé, been nominated for two Grammy Awards, and acted as series regulars in the Freeform sitcom Grown-ish. The casting of Bailey wasn’t one many fans had predicted, but it was one that delighted many. However it didn’t take long for the usual arguments to be made against her casting, with the lion’s share of points being directed at her race and lack of red hair.
Why Halle Bailey's Little Mermaid Casting Has Been Controversial (For Some)
It is depressingly unavoidable how the vast majority of anger directed towards Bailey and Disney is rooted in racism, plain and simple. The main excuse being used to just the often virulent fury on this matter is her lack of red hair. That point overlooks how the kind of red hair Ariel has in The Little Mermaid is a shade completely unnatural to people with red hair. It’s a cartoon red, deliberately so to match the movie’s technicolor palate. While it is possible to dye your hair that shade, it’s very difficult to maintain and would never look as if it had grown from your own scalp. The chances are that any actress playing that role would be wearing a wig, and that natural red hair would hardly be a mandatory requirement for anyone auditioning to play Ariel.
It’s tough to overlook the racism of this backlash, although it certainly should not be overlooked. This is a role that has been white since Disney first made the movie and has remained so through the various sequels, prequels, stage adaptations, and theme park tie-ins made by the company. However, that’s not to say that the role simply had to stay white. It’s a fantasy story, after all, but even simply in terms of its brand power for Disney, there is no reason why a new generation of kids can’t have an Ariel who looks different from the cartoon.
As Hollywood has slowly embraced a more inclusive approach to making films, both on and off the camera (although overall numbers remain depressingly low), the financial benefits of diversity in these projects has been immense. In 2019 alone, the live-action remake of Aladdin - a movie with a majority cast of actors of Arab and Middle Eastern descent - has made over $900 million worldwide so far, and is currently the third highest grossing movie of the year.
There Are A Lot Of Trolls In The Little Mermaid
Another key aspect of this backlash is how much of it has been driven by bot accounts rather than real individuals. One of the most popular tweets from the backlash claimed to be from a white woman throwing her DVD of The Little Mermaid in the trash because of her fury at Bailey's casting. It was quickly revealed to be the work of a bot, using various images stolen from Pinterest and Instagram. The main image of "her" throwing the DVD away was clearly an image of a man's hand, but by the time the tweet was exposed and the account suspended, the damage had been done.
This viral tweet complaining about the Little Mermaid casting being racist has a profile pic stolen from an Instagram model. The “half black best friend” pic is taken from god knows where, but shows up in a bunch of Pinterest BFF roundups pic.twitter.com/aYMwKf1XNl— Brandon Wall (@Walldo) July 4, 2019
As is typical of social media, trolls and people with pre-existing political agendas latched onto Bailey’s casting as a means to stir the pot and encourage further hostility. It helped to soak up so much of the excitement from the news, allowing once more for the narrative to be defined by hate. Instead of focusing on the genuinely great news of Bailey’s inclusion in a major project that holds decades of importance to Disney, racism defined the story, and it allowed once more for nasty right-wing hate campaigns to pretend there was a real backlash at play here rather than simple bigotry.
Why Halle Bailey Is a Great Choice for Ariel
Bailey is an immensely popular figure with Disney’s key demographic, who has proven herself to be a great vocal talent, and also has acting experience. Casting her is just good business. She has the perfect youthful warmth that Ariel needs, as well as that spark of inquisitiveness. As evidenced by her work under Chloe x Halle, she certainly has the vocal range required to sing those Alan Menken songs (something that other actresses in these live-action remakes, such as Emma Watson, sorely lacked). Bailey has an enthusiastic and young fanbase, and such things are most certainly taken into consideration in casting projects of this size. In many ways, she’s the full package.
It’s also encouraging to see Disney diversifying one of its biggest brands and doing something new with a property that’s such an indelible part of their brand. It will mean a lot to so many young black girls to see one of the most iconic Disney princesses be played by a black actress, and that’s not something that should be dismissed or written off as no big deal. Opportunities like this for black actresses, even in 2019, are dishearteningly rare, and it should be the responsibility of studios like Disney to lead the way in diverse storytelling. Films like Aladdin, Black Panther, and Crazy Rich Asians, which all made massive amounts of money and garnered dedicated fan-bases, should not be the exception in Hollywood: They should be the rule.
Hopefully the backlash against Halle Bailey and The Little Mermaid will calm down, and it’s highly unlikely a project of this scale and built-in fan-base will be anything other than a major hit (it’s rarely a good idea to bet against Disney). This should be a moment to focus on the positives, but it’s also important to understand how advancements in pop culture and the entertainment industry are so easily weaponized by concerted hate movements, and what we can do to call that out when it occurs.