Disney’s The Little Mermaid Casting ‘Controversy’

On July 3, news broke that Ariel in the new live-action Disney The Little Mermaid had been cast. Actress and singer, Halle Bailey (not to be confused with Halle Berry) is set to play Ariel in the new reboot.

This news caused quite an uproar on twitter, flooding the site with tweets both for and against the casting choice. This uproar has resulted in hashtags such as #NotMyAriel, #myarielisblack, and #ariel2019. Many twitter users were upset over the casting, claiming that the casting was a poor choice because Bailey looks too different from the ‘original’ Ariel.

Criticism

Many of the arguments both for and against the casting seemed to follow the same logic, with many of the same points emerging from different twitter users. Below are a few of the most common of these. I have opted not to embed any tweets into this article partly because of this fact that many different tweets followed the same ideas.

Halle Bailey. Photo: Shutterstock

Some tweets noted that the original Disney film had a distinctively red-headed, pale-skinned Ariel, and so to change the look of the main character would be to deviate from the original Disney Ariel’s appearance. This is despite the fact that the original Disney version included an entirely animated mermaid, whereas the live-action Disney version will in fact be played by a real human being, and so a difference in appearance between the two Ariels is inevitable.

Others noted that the original nineteenth-century tale of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen was written by a Danish author, and hence logically Ariel should be White. However, stated others, no physical description of the mermaid is ever given—apart from the fact that she is a mermaid. Furthermore, the animated Disney version already heavily deviated from the original Hans Christian Andersen story.

Some tweets which gained quite a lot of traction, in the form of comments and quote-tweets, claimed that people were being hypocritically supportive of the casting. These tweets hypothesised that, had Princess Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog (2009), been recast as a White woman in a hypothetical live-action adaptation, there would be an uproar. These tweets went further to suggest that therefore the uproar towards the Ariel casting was equally as valid as this hypothetical Tiana casting uproar. Many of the replies to such comments noted that there is an extensive history of White actors and actresses being cast as original characters and real historical figures in films, despite the original ethnic backgrounds and physical appearances of these characters and people. Furthermore, stated some twitter users, Princess Tiana’s ethnic background is relevant to her narrative in The Princess and the Frog, and thus any change in this aspect of the character would directly impact the story as a whole. Additionally, Tiana’s character was based on a real person, Leah Chase from New Orleans, and thus changing the character would not only negatively impact the story, it would also be entirely illogical as it would change the narrative.

Crestfallen, many twitter users mused that they are upset at the casting because now they will no longer be able to see themselves in Ariel. Others were elated at finally having another character who they and their younger relatives can physically see themselves in.

Thoughts

I feel it noteworthy to mention that I have never seen the original animated Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid. In fact, the only version I have ever engaged with was skimming through the original story several years ago. Really the only reason I haven’t watched the original Disney version yet is because I have never come across it. If I had the movie here now I’d watch it instantly.

I have this to say to anyone who is outraged by the controversy, and who claims that this Ariel is not their Ariel. Firstly, this is a beloved character who belongs to everyone who has fallen in love with this little mermaid character. Also, this new Disney remake of The Little Mermaid does not erase the original animated Disney classic. The animated version will continue to live in the hearts of all those who watched and loved it, and will continue to live in the world. The physical original Disney movie, its merchandise, and the memories created as a result of watching it will not suddenly disappear into the void, ceasing to exist any longer. The old movie and everything resulting from it will remain.

Additionally, it’s not like this actress was cast purely to appease a PC-culture. If Bailey weren’t talented enough as a singer and an actress, then she would never have been cast. This is an actress and singer who has already had acting experience with Disney. I mean, come on, it’s Disney! There’s no way that Disney is going to cast someone for a role if that person isn’t talented enough to play the part, especially not for the role of a Disney Princess.

Furthermore, apart from a difference in skin colour compared to the animated Ariel (and of course apart from the whole lack of a fish tail), I think Bailey actually looks rather similar to the animated Ariel. Of course, the animated Ariel is a cartoon, and so there will never be anyone who looks one hundred percent like her. However, in terms of the facial structure, I think Bailey looks rather similar to cartoon Ariel.

I don’t think that the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid is a bad thing at all. No matter what, there would never be a person who looks entirely like the animated Ariel. Besides, I think it is great to have another person of colour as a Disney princess, for everyone to look up to. The beautiful thing about adaptations (and even more broadly, sequels) is that it actually does not erase the original film. If you are a person who loved the original of anything but disliked the later sequels and adaptations, then that’s okay! You don’t have to watch the newer versions if you do not want to. You still have the original to watch and love.

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