Dr. Jessica Johnson: The value of a black Ariel

By Dr. Jessica Johnson - Guest Column

The controversy surrounding Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey to play Ariel in the upcoming live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” has sparked a heated Twitter debate on cultural representation and race.

The racial animus that has been hurled at Bailey, who also stars as Sky Forster on the Freeform comedy Grown-ish, is appalling and downright mean on social media, but there have also been candid comments from folks who honestly believe that Ariel should remain white, or to be more specific, be of Danish lineage like the original Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen.

One poster on Twitter argued that it wasn’t about race but accurate portrayal of Ariel. “Leave the classics ALONE, if everyone wants princesses from different ethnicities and colors etc, make new tales,” this person tweeted. With all of its brilliant artists and writers, Disney could have very well gone the route of rewriting this beloved fairy tale, but they did not. And Bailey, who at 19 is an accomplished actress and singer, definitely has the talent for this iconic role.

Many of you may be questioning why cultural representation in mainstream entertainment is so important for minority groups. The answer is simple: Inclusion and visibility. Disney had black female characters in short films as early as the mid-1930s, but they were stereotypical caricatures. In a 2010 scholarly essay for The Journal of African American Studies, Richard M. Breaux provides an extensive background on the Disney character Mammy Two Shoes, who appeared in the 1930s films “Three Orphan Kittens” and “More Kittens.”

Breaux writes, “Audiences never saw Mammy’s face, although her dark brown hands clearly marked her of African descent.” It would take Disney a little over 70 years before bringing an animated black princess to the big screen. This was the 2009 debut of “The Princess and the Frog.”

The weekend that I went to see this movie, the theater was packed with black mothers and their tween daughters wearing tiaras. The girls’ faces were beaming with joy and excitement at seeing Tiana, the princess from the Bayou who looked liked them. With many of these girls now being around the same age as Bailey or a few years older, they are hyped for her portrayal of Ariel, and I know they are eagerly awaiting the new Little Mermaid soundtrack.

Although “The Princess and the Frog” was highly celebrated, Disney still received some harsh criticism regarding its lack of detail in reflecting the racial history and Jim Crow segregation of early 20th century New Orleans.

Another issue that many black cultural critics had with this film was what they referred to as the “racial ambiguity” of Prince Naveen. Prince Naveen was a character of color but he was not black, so some felt this kind of robbed the story of a perfect happily ever after ending for black girls. I’m sure some Disney execs have not forgotten this past critique, and it will be interesting to see if Bailey gets a black prince.

As ridiculous arguments continue to abound regarding Bailey playing Ariel — there was actually a tweet questioning if Bailey could get her hair wet — I am encouraged that Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in the 1989 Disney animated film, has come to Bailey’s defense. Benson pointed out that the “spirit of the character is what really matters.” This is very true for a story like “The Little Mermaid.”

One of the main lessons is the worth of one’s voice, and this has essential meaning for young girls growing up in a society where women still fight against sexism. If you are silenced, as Ariel was momentarily after being coerced by the sea witch Ursula to exchange her voice for a pair of human legs, you have been robbed of the essence of your being. If you have no voice or platform to express yourself, you cannot share your God-given gifts with others.

Bailey is more than capable of relaying this message to a new generation of girls, regardless of race, and I am thrilled that Disney has given her this wonderful opportunity.


By Dr. Jessica Johnson

Guest Column

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com or followe her on Twitter @JjSmojc.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com or followe her on Twitter @JjSmojc.

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