The conflicting responses to Halle Bailey’s casting in “The Little Mermaid” highlight the importance of representation as a tool for fighting white supremacy.
On September 9, 2022, Disney released the trailer for the much anticipated live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” on YouTube. The trailer received mixed reactions—from little girls in awe at the beautiful mermaid, played by Halle Bailey, a Black singer and actress; to people upset that Ariel, the main character, would be played by a Black actress.
In fact, within 48 hours of the trailer being released on YouTube, it received 1.5 million dislikes. In response to this unprecedented reaction, YouTube disabled the dislike button on the trailer and deleted many of the negative and racialized comments.
Over the past few years, there has been a surge of Hollywood remakes through increasingly diverse lenses of gender, racial and ethnicity. For example, “Ghostbusters” was rebooted in 2016 with an all-female cast. This movie also received backlash from “fans” who did not support the cast change; however, Leslie Jones, a Black female comedian and actress, received the most vitriol attacks for her role in the film. Also, consider the 2021 reboot of “iCarly”—a popular Nickelodeon sitcom that had fans upset when it was announced that Laci Mosley, a Black actress, would be joining the cast as the best friend and roommate to Carly, the main character.
Given this reality of racial angst and misogynoir in the response to cult classic reboots, it’s important to recognize the collective online spaces that celebrate these reboots and diverse castings amidst the backlash. Misogynoir, coined by Moya Bailey in her book “Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance,” pinpoints where sexism and racism meet, and was created to explore the unique discrimination—anti-Black racism and sexism—Black women face in media and popular culture. In the case of “The Little Mermaid,” the mere idea of a Black actress playing the role of the main character for the live-action film spawned the trending hashtags #NotMyAriel and #StopRaceSwapping.
For these “fans,” their discontent stemmed from the casting of a Black actress for a role that their minds should be played by a white actress, since the original animated film featured a white Ariel. This article will highlight a few things. First, the absurd idea that mermaids could not be Black. Second, the collective online spaces that emerge to support racial representation and the actress, Halle Bailey. And lastly, the importance of these kinds of collective online spaces in countering racial angst and white supremacy.
Black mermaids are not new
So after all the Africans y’all threw in the ocean y’all surprised a mermaid is Black@Durkioooolilsis (Tweet)
Black mermaids, as a concept, are not new—in fact, Black mermaids are quite popular and important in both African religion, history and folklore. Water deities are often referred to in African based religions—including the Orishas, Ochún and Yemayá in Afro-Cuban Santeria, and Mami Wata in Vodun. Furthermore, African folklore often refers to Mami Wata, a water deity who is regarded with great respect in West, Central and South Africa, as well as in the African diaspora. Mami Wata is often associated with the sinking of slave ships, saving the enslaved Africans who jumped overboard and guiding the souls of Africans who died at sea to their ancestors.
Dark skinned and fair skinned mermaids, with long wooly hair are also referred to in Indo-European folklore. Stith Thompson, a well-known folklorist and author of the “Motif-Index of Folk Literature,” often refers to the dark-skinned mermaids in his book, a resource extensively used in folklore studies and analysis.
Interestingly, in refuting the vehement racism from “fans” upset a Black actress would be playing the lead character, many TikTok creators referenced Mami Wata in their posts and criticized Disney’s portrayal of mermaids as white-washing and disregarding the history and folklore of mermaids—highlighting the fact that according to religion and folklore, mermaids have historically not only been racialized as white.
Black Twitter responds
While Hans Christian Andersen’s story adaptation may have led to the Hollywood production of a white mermaid, Black Twitter countered the notion that all mermaids are white. Black Twitter, a subculture of the social media platform Twitter, is a space where Black Twitter users engage in the creation of hashtags, jokes, and memes, and has historically also served as a space for people to voice anger and frustrations with White supremacy and systemic racism. Users took to Twitter to challenge hate with comedy, creating the trending hashtag #MyArielIsBlack.
In response to the racist backlash and to counter the trolling against Halle Bailey for her role as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Black Twitter users asked the question: what would happen if we recast other classic movies with Black actors? Users recast “Titanic” with actors Angela Basset and Laurence Fishburne, using a photo from the film “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” a 1993 biographical film about the life of Tina Turner. Others recast the popular movie, “Fatal Attraction” with Chrisean Rock and BlueFace, two internet celebrities who have had a very public and tumultuous relationship.
The list goes on with other movies including “Forrest Gump,” “Batman” and “The Nanny.” Black Twitter’s response is ingenious—because the recast roles would only make sense to people who have been keeping up with popular culture and Black Twitter trends, the response is an inside joke for people within the Black Twitter universe.
While Black Twitter users were, in essence, trolling those who were upset about the casting of Bailey as “The Little Mermaid,” this shift to counter hatred with humor allowed users to change the narrative, and acknowledge the absurdity of anger over a Black mermaid character.
“She’s like me!”
People don’t understand that when you’re Black there’s this whole other community. It’s so important for us to see ourselves.Halle Bailey
TikTok users responded to the hatred in their own way—by uplifting the community of people for whom Bailey’s casting as “The Little Mermaid” has the most meaning. In response to the backlash, TikTok users posted videos of young Black girls and other girls of color reacting to watching “The Little Mermaid” trailer for the first time, many of which went massively viral. The videos revealed the surprise and awe on these beautiful little faces when they first realized the mermaid on film is Black like them. In one video, a little girl squeals and exclaims, “She’s like me.”
Above all else, these videos demonstrate that representation matters. It is important for young Black girls to see themselves represented in the shows they watch, and scholars have argued representation can often shape identity and self-esteem. In addition, representation often determines how other people think about a particular group—and media representations of Black women and girls shape dominant and popular narratives around beauty, body image and Blackness.
In an interview, Bailey mentioned she was not surprised by the racist backlash, but she was overwhelmed and beyond grateful when family and friends sent the TikTok videos of young Black girls watching the trailer. Bailey also mentioned the use of her own natural hair in the live-action show and the significance of displaying natural Black hair, specifically locs, on such a platform, noting that mermaid hair would be locs anyway.
In an interview, Bailey mentioned she was not surprised by the racist backlash, but she was overwhelmed and beyond grateful when family and friends sent the TikTok videos of young Black girls watching the trailer.
These TikTok videos demonstrate the humanizing side of support, and how this representation can potentially influence future generations. This kind of representation can shape the imaginations of the next generation of script writers, movie producers, costume designers, and Hollywood executives, as well as what people of marginalized groups can do and achieve in their lifetime.
What’s more, this representation and backlash provided a teachable moment for folks to share and learn about religions and deities outside of their own. Ultimately, Black Twitter and TikTok creators were able to establish a space capable of redefining and providing alternatives to the dominant narratives of white supremacy and anti-Blackness through their viral social media posts and trending hashtags.
Challenging White Imaginations
Black Twitter and TikTok are important for a number of reasons. They decenter the values of the dominant white culture that centers white supremacy and deems anything outside of the dominant white culture as inferior. They embrace Black joy and the practice of trying to find self-love. They also allow users to associate with people who share similar experiences and understandings and can offer advice and support when experiencing discrimination. Most important of all, users dealing with discrimination can imagine themselves as part of a larger cohesive virtual community that has the possibility of coming together to support those under attack, even if they do not see this support in their everyday life.
In a society where everyone wants to forget race, and act as if racial discrimination does not exist, digital spaces of support become the space where marginalized groups can have conversations that center their bodies and lived experiences.
This is particularly important in a society where racism and colorblindness simultaneously exist. The problem with this rhetoric is that it actively overlooks historical and present-day systemic discrimination. Consequently, colorblindness maintains white privilege and leaves white supremacy unexamined. In a society where everyone wants to forget race and act as if racial discrimination does not exist, digital spaces of support become the space where marginalized groups can have conversations that center their bodies and lived experiences.
To be clear, I am not arguing that this Disney film starring a Black actress will solve the issues around the lack of diversity and representation in films and media, absolving Disney of the racist and sexist tropes that dominate their scripts. Rather, I am arguing that these social media platforms have picked up some of the slack, demonstrating what support can look like for actors and actresses who work in a predominantly white industry.
The live-action film is set to air in May 2023, and Black Twitter and Tiktokkers are already making plans for supporting the film. They represent the possibilities of an inclusive imagination, even if the white supremacist imagination cannot envision it.