Black Mermaids, White Fantasies and the Need for a Black Feminist Imagination

Most Disney fans responded favorably to the news that young actor and singer Halle Bailey—half of the R&B sister duo Chloe x Halle and an actor in the Black-ish spinoff series grown-ish—was cast to play Ariel in Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. The announcement, however, also sparked a backlash among racist trolls, bots and Internet mischief-makers who argued that Ariel should not only be played by a white, red-haired actor, but that the prospect of a black mermaid poses an “unrealistic” scenario. (For reference, the role is based on fantasy and an age-old mythical creature.)

Who plays Ariel is about more than a Twitter war. This is about the politics of fantasy and whose storytelling matters. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BzeB8p1BE6l/

In the wake of Disney’s announcement, my social media feed aggregated several posts on tales of mermaids and other water spirits throughout the African continent and its Diaspora. The focus of such posts was not to debate the type of storytelling Disney’s remake would feature but, rather, to argue that black mermaids simply existed, relatively speaking.

While I delighted in the various fan art imagining Halle Bailey in her mermaid role, as well as the mythic (religious to some) narratives surrounding such African-themed water spirits as Mami Wata, La Sirene, Oshun and Yemaya, the posts also reminded me of Toni Morrison.

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction,” she once cautioned. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do… Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

These wise words from one of America’s greatest writers, who is herself the subject of the documentary The Pieces I Am, now in theaters, deserve reiteration. Too many have taken the bait thrown out by a few white supremacists who haven’t bothered, nor are interested, to learn about African-based and Caribbean folklore on mermaids, water spirits and other myths and legends.

This isn’t to say black mermaids as a concept don’t matter. They do. However, what story are we trying to tell? With an obvious cash-grab and outreach to a new multiracial generation that Disney’s remake proffers, what meanings might we make over the prospect of not just a black mermaid, but a dreadlocked one, in a cultural context that still presents most images of beauty and femininity—of which mermaids are often described in fantasy—through fair skin and long, straight hair?  

The nostalgia driving the desire for Disney to remain true to its 1989 animated portrayal of a white, red-haired Ariel is a bit disingenuous in its arguments for authenticity, given the ways that Disney’s film altered the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. For those who decry that, because Andersen was a Danish author the story needs to be a Eurocentric tale, have overlooked the ways that Disney’s animation relocated the story to warmer tropical climates, as Sebastian the crab belted out calypso tunes like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Ariel may have been white, but the Caribbean-flavored music did more than hint at the ways that the black presence had already encroached on and sublimated the European origins of The Little Mermaid.

The Disney tunes were so widely popular that I remember, on my summer trips home to the Caribbean, hearing those same songs being covered by steel bands on beaches and at hotel resorts. (The Caribbean re-appropriated itself—courtesy of Disney!)

The relocated seas were not the only alteration. Andersen’s original story from 1836 was a heartbreaking tale, and some have argued for a queer interpretation. Andersen, who may have been gay, had allegedly fallen in love with another man who belonged to an elite class. The Little Mermaid can be viewed as an allegory for the pain of unrequited love and unbridgeable class differences, since Andersen’s beloved cut ties with him to enter a socially approved heterosexual marriage.

In the original fairy tale, our little mermaid does not get her prince. Instead, she has her tongue cut out by a sea witch in exchange for human legs that bleed each time she walks on them in order to be with a human prince who lives on land. Despite this painful and gory sacrifice, our heroine endures the heartbreak of her prince, whose life she had saved when out at sea, marrying another woman from his own class.

The heroics in the tale concern the little mermaid being offered a chance to return to the sea to her family and to get her tongue back, if she would only pierce a sword through the heart of her beloved. She chooses instead to spare his life, and so she fades away from existence into sea foam. In some versions of the story, the little mermaid gains a soul for her altruistic deed and ascends into heaven as an angel.  

This allegory of unbridgeable differences—between water and land, mermaid and human, gay and straight, rich and poor, black and white—gets a poignant remake in Trinidadian-born author Rosa Guy’s My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl. Guy’s revisionist story appeared four years before Disney’s animation and was adapted a year after the animation film into the Broadway musical Once on This Island. Guy infused Andersen’s tale with a Caribbean sensibility even before Disney’s film—the latter choosing a happy ending in which its heroine, named Ariel, gets her prince.

Offering a postcolonial rift on Andersen’s tale, Guy sets her story on the island of Haiti, where her dark-skinned peasant heroine, Desiree Dieu-Donne, falls in love with a young light-skinned Creole man of an elite class, whose life she saves. The magical elements of Andersen’s tale are replaced with a pantheon of Vodou gods, including Erzulie, love goddess who is also associated with the sea. Desiree, too, meets a tragic end when her lover marries a woman of a similar color and class.

Given the cultures of the Caribbean—not just in the proliferation of water spirits from Vodou, Santeria, and Lucumí but also in the sea-faring adventures of pirates, sailors, merchants and explorers like Christopher Columbus, who once wrote of seeing three mermaids off the coast of Haiti in 1493—the mermaid is a convenient framework for cultural fantasy. Indeed, her very hybridity as half-human, half-fish serves as a crucial nexus between land and sea as well as cultures and races colliding in these transatlantic encounters.

This certainly occurred when the mermaid stories from Europe, Africa, and Native America syncretized to give African water goddesses like Mami Wata, Yemaya and Erzulie mermaid forms in iconography. It is not coincidental Afro-Caribbean mermaids tend to be mixed race. These divine figures could probably be traced back to such ancient deities as Tiamat, the primordial water dragon goddess whose body was mutilated by the male god Marduk; his actions marked the origins of patriarchal religion. 

More than any racially cosmetic makeover of Ariel from white to black, the prospect of a patriarchal story most concerns me about the Disney live-action remake. It is empowering to hear filmmaker Rob Marshall explain his casting choice by describing Bailey as possessing “that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence and substance, plus a glorious singing voice.” Such descriptions of a young black woman as innocent and youthful are rarely heard, and such casting is to be commended, especially given how Bailey and her sister Chloe have addressed how their dreadlocks have often cost them acting roles. I personally am excited to see a black mermaid with locs, and to have that image accepted as beautiful in the global context of a Disney movie. 

Nonetheless, what is the deeper story of The Little Mermaid? Will it be faithful to its 1989 story, which unfortunately missed the cautionary tale of Andersen’s story and instead advocated an assimilationist tale in which an obsessive mermaid eschews her family and culture for the “superior” life of her human prince, since all she wants is to be “part of his world?” I haven’t even discussed the more sexist elements of a young woman learning that she doesn’t need a voice to get her prince—she just needs to be mute and cute. 

I must admit that The Little Mermaid is my least favorite of the Disney princesses, not least of which is the emotional catharsis I needed after Andersen’s original tale broke my heart into a million pieces. Disney’s happy ending cheapened the morality tale—and worse, relied on the ultimate vilification of a powerful woman, Ursula the sea witch, whose brief reign as queen of the sea reinforced ideas of women as dangerous and/or incompetent rulers in comparison to Ariel’s more benevolent patriarch, King Triton. 

In the years since the 1989 animation, Disney has made significant improvements in representations of empowered women and girls, from the intellectual and inquisitive Belle in Beauty and the Beast to Chinese woman warrior Mulan to the adventurous Merida in Brave to the sisterly bonds of Elsa and Anna trumping romance in Frozen. And who could forget perhaps the most radically feminist of all, Moana not only venturing out to sea by herself but befriending the ocean and confronting a female villain through healing rather than through conquest and, thereby, restoring an Earth goddess to her former self?

Indeed, Moana could easily be viewed as a powerful feminist revision to the sexist tropes of The Little Mermaid. Must we remain faithful to the 1989 animation when so many better stories have been told in its wake?

Storytelling and representation matter. After all, we received our first black Disney princess in Tiana nine years before an actual woman of African descent married into the British royal family. Even then, some have argued that our first black princess had to work tirelessly and spent most of her on-screen time as a frog—both elements that reinforce our racial subjugation status. Nonetheless, even here, The Princess and the Frog managed to forge a romance based in equality and reciprocity, and Prince Naveen is one of my favorite princes because he actually has a character arc.

While characters of color like Tiana, Moana, Mulan and Pocahontas emerge out of culturally specific stories, I cannot help but wonder how the color-nuetral casting of Ariel might affect the problematic story of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. If filmmakers are paying attention to social media, maybe we will get more cultural specificities of Afro-Caribbean lore beyond calypso tunes like “Under the Sea.” As Tambay Obenson argues: “black fairy tales need representation, too.” 

Perhaps a prologue could be introduced that imagines the mermaids and mermen descending from the African slave-ship captives who were thrown overboard, as Gabrielle Tesfaye does in her stop-motion short “The Water Will Carry Us Home.” Maybe they could be the descendants of Ibo Landing, who chose the sea over an enslaved life on land. Certainly, given the current crisis facing our oceans, Ariel’s “Part of Your World” number couldn’t possibly praise human overconsumption without a major overhaul in its climate-conscious messaging.

This Disney remake needs more than just a “black mermaid.” We need a story with a black feminist imagination.

One of the powerful elements of Beyoncé’s Lemonade is her interjection of African-themed lore in the realm of popular culture and her embodiment of the water spirit Oshun. It is more than ironic that Halle Bailey, one of her protegees featured in an iconic porch scene alongside the pop star; her sister, actors Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg; and the similar musical sister duo, Ibeyi, would find herself set to play a mermaid, a mythical figure in the realm of Oshun. Ibeyi already offered their own song to Oshun, “River.” Hopefully, Bailey’s inclusion in the Disney story can bring these elements to the fore.  

These are the conversations we should be having beyond the debates of racial casting. After all, the casting in recent films such as Fast Color and Ma may have delivered great performances by their lead black actors, but they suffered from either lack of cultural nuance in the former or by unwittingly reinforcing racial stereotypes in the latter.

Let us hope the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid plunges ocean depths of gender-progressive, culturally and environmentally relevant themes in a worthy revival for modern audiences. The shifts it has already taken need not only be skin deep. 

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.