Princess Jasmine, Mulan, and now, Ariel, everyone seems to have a strong opinion on who they should be. But really, is our childhood nostalgia of the Disney films of our time enough to make it an absolute for the remakes being produced today?
Breaking news that Disney had cast Grammy-nominated singer, actor, and Beyoncé protégé, Halle Bailey, as Ariel in the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid remake was supposed to be ground-breaking as it was life-changing—and it still is. Pleasantly surprising, inspired, and progressive, it didn’t take long for backward-thinking Neanderthals and bottom-of-the-sea trolls to have their close-minded way by letting the whole world (under the sea included) know how upset they were and that Halle was not their Ariel. (There is no way I am perpetuating that hashtag anymore than it already has.) If there is anything to be said before fully making a dive into the deep end, it is that Ariel has barely even flipped her tail and the entire human world is already a mess, getting all too caught up with out everything, her skin color.
Though not unforeseen, the atrocious display of mostly online backlash of the announcement illustrates how unbecoming a chunk of the world has devolved into, seemingly devaluing the potential of the actor and the story to grow and parlay into a generation, by book-ending it with just her race and red hair—or initially lack thereof. By now, everyone has most likely have had their say, whether it be good, bad, or just fit for a poor, unfortunate soul, where the common denominator running through the current is a cautionary precedent that says: This is my childhood, don’t ruin it.
In Subversive Literature class in college, I learned that nothing is what is seems, especially when it comes to the written or passed on verbal work of fiction. What we have taken as gospel truth for so long, as it has been ingrained in childhood is so far removed from its genesis that if you actually trace things to where it began, you will be more than shell-shocked how deep, dark, and disturbing these fairytales are. Everything from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, even to Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll, has been proven to be subversive—charging a seemingly innocent narrative with adult-capable introspection and realizations that will render you off balanced when the rug has been finally pulled from underneath.
If we were to follow this predated and persistent paradigm, where a quality of challenging rather than subscribing to a status quo of adult values and threshed out, tired typicals, then this whole stirred up casting is moot and academic, because if we really want to qualify it to nostalgia, as in tale as old as time, then the Little Mermaid you grew up with is already a sanitized misrepresentation of the Danish fairytale. While the youngest, beyond-the-surface-obsessed sea princess was written as someone with skin “as clear and delicate as a rose petal, her eyes as blue as the deepest sea,” there was no explicit mention of tone, shade or hue, no musical numbers, and no happy ending. “Pride must suffer pain,” her grandmother would sharply remind to no fail as she had to endure a torture of oysters on her tail, persevere through a knife-like sensation when she transforms into a human, and in the end, she doesn’t get the prince she longed for, saved, and fought for, causing her anguish and grief that she dissolves into sea foam.”
Doesn’t sound too pristine now is it? That was precisely the whole deal of Disney back then—to sterilize these beloved albeit unpleasant fairytales to make it more palatable and entertaining to an escapist public. While it did its part in instilling lessons to learn in the grander scheme of things, it did hold a lot of problematic details that was a pain to dissect in detail. Everything from the unrealistic depiction of women as damsels in distress with impossibly cinched waists to the overarching lording of patriarchy proved to be counter-intuitive to progress.
Fast forward to a very cognizant and socially aware contemporary and we now have the perfect opportunity to right the wrongs so to speak. We saw this as a success with the retelling of Aladdin where Jasmine was more fleshed out with intentions and a point-of-view that gives cadence to the discourse of femininity today. And this is what the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid perhaps wants to do—depict a more realistic and more inclusive. Meaning, the casting of Halle Bailey will become permission enough for anyone to realize that they too can become a mermaid if they so much as imagine themselves to be one. Not that one needs a blatant go-ahead, it just helps that it gets a platform like that for the message to be cut across: Race (or any other label for that matter) shouldn’t factor in as an end all and be all for anything anymore. You can be Ariel, just as Halle will be when she swims to the theaters in due time.
It is such a shame that we live in such a progressive world where thoughts, opinions, and propriety coalesce with the archaic, long-held truths that have held us back for so long—and that it still being allowed to take form in the guise of preference and nostalgia. Moving beyond the fairytale is imperative, and it entails a true open mind that is welcoming of changes in the truest sense—no ifs and buts. We’ve complained about pigeonholing these princesses for so long that expecting them to be the characters straight out of our youth is primitive, if we’re being completely unhinged about it. Come on, didn’t we want more? Now, we’re actually getting it and the first thing we do is whine about who we think Ariel is. What we also fail to understand that it is a re-imagination, not an exact replica of the animated classic. Otherwise, just watch the film online.
The spines of these stories have barely been cracked open and we already have anticipated a judgment. Even the first reveal of the live-action version of Mulan wasn’t spared, where fans of the animated classic have deplored it for lack of music, fanfare, and Mushu. Yes, you grew up with these stories, but it doesn’t mean that you have to deprive an entire generation of experiencing for the first time, just as you have done before. Imagine, young girls (and boys) will have an opportunity to see themselves as these fantastical, larger-than-life characters, and it can inform the way they see themselves and the way others do, too. A princess who wants to be sultan? Yes. A black mermaid? Yes. A bold, courageous daughter who wants to honor her family beyond the codes of tradition? Yes.
Aren’t these reasons enough for us to at the very least give these stories a chance to entertain and educate an audience besides ourselves? Think about it. Let Jasmine stand her ground to rightfully and deservedly ascend to the throne of Agrabah. Let Mulan defy what is expected of her and fight her way through a war regardless of her gender. Let Ariel sing her way to a life beyond the surface of the sea. Nostalgia, while it is valid, isn’t absolute—and it shouldn’t be a qualifier for any movie extension, Disney or otherwise.
There will be more mermaid films to be made after this, and maybe then can you have your half-white, half-fish fantasy with voluminous, undisturbed-by-sea-salt red hair, in the same way any other youth of color have imagined themselves as these enchanting mythical figures. Again, just as you have with your towel and bed sheets fashioned as hair and what do you call them, oh, fins.
If there is anything we have learned from Jasmine, Mulan, and Ariel, is that sometimes defying or outright breaking the rules can lead to good, or well, you know, a whole new world. We wouldn’t want to let them down by keeping them strictly in the paragons of old-time literature, right? It is high time we put truth to their songs and make everyone a part of their world.