Unpacking All Of "The Little Mermaid" Backlash

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid in the works. But the wave of controversy surrounding the upcoming Disney flick is as troubling as it is predictable.

The film, set to be released in May of 2023, stars Halle Bailey as the titular “Little Mermaid” known as Ariel. Halle is a Grammy-nominated singer and actress known for being one half of the musical duo Chloe x Halle. She also happens to be black. That last sentence should be unnecessary, and yet, unfortunately, it’s not.

Yes, really. It’s 2022 and people are genuinely upset because the actress set to portray a fictional character (who also happens to be based on a fictional creature) is not white. The backlash isn’t entirely new. There was a fair amount of negative commentary back in 2019 when the casting was initially announced. But recently, it’s gone off the deep end.

Last week, Disney dropped the teaser trailer and, within days, it received upwards of 1.5 million dislikes causing YouTube to disable to dislike counter. Even more disturbing, someone decided it was a good idea to literally whitewash the video. They used artificial intelligence to digitally change Ariel in the trailer, giving Halle lighter skin and a brighter shade of red hair.

In a since deleted tweet, the person said that his friend “fixed The Little Mermaid, and turned the woke actor into a ginger white girl”. He then went on to clarify that his original tweet was “for educational purposes” and that it shouldn’t be “misinterpreted” as racist. Now that his account has been suspended, I suppose we’ll never know why he thought altering someone’s appearance to make them look like a different race could be seen as anything other than racist. 

But he was far from the only person making a fuss about the new mermaid on social media. There’s a “Make Ariel White Again” Facebook group along with a dedicated Twitter hashtag. Supporters of this #NotMyAriel movement are claiming to be upset based on a misguided sense of injustice.

On Twitter, political commentator and right-wing extremist Matt Walsh had this to say: “Hollywood changes traditionally white characters into black while claiming that the reverse would be “black erasure.” What this tells us is that, by their own admission, they are engaged in white erasure. It’s just that we aren’t supposed to notice or complain.”

It’s an argument that many in the #NotMyAriel crowd are using. The notion that Halle’s casting is an example of race swapping and that it’s somehow a huge disservice to real mermaids everywhere to change the appearance of the original character.

I’m being facetious, but barely. As one Twitter user commented, “As a redhead myself, one of just 2-3% of a global population we have a right to demand a real redhead plays a character that was iconic for us.” Another agreed saying that redheads are part of “a minority” and, therefore, want to be “represented” on-screen. Seeing as Halle’s Ariel does have red hair, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s not the color of her hair they’re upset about.

Now, if these mythical sea creatures did exist and were comprised solely of fair-skinned, red-haired beings, then sure. It would be a gross misrepresentation not to portray Ariel as such. But, aside from the fact that mermaids aren’t real, it’s not even a valid point.

In the original story by Hans Christian Andersen, the little mermaid is described as “the most beautiful of them all. Her skin was as soft and tender as a rose petal, and her eyes were as blue as the deep sea, but like all the others she had no feet. Her body ended in a fish tail.”

While there are references to her whiteness throughout the fairy tale, she’s never depicted as a red-head. Disney originally intended the character to be blonde, but the 1984 film Splash already had a blonde mermaid. The only reason they ended up choosing red hair was to distinguish Ariel from Splash actress Daryl Hannah.

Given that Hans Christen Andersen lived in Denmark in the 1800s, it makes sense that the character would be white. It would also stand to reason that he imagined her with light blonde hair, so this idea that Ariel should be a “ginger” to pay homage to the origin story is downright absurd. If we stuck to the source material, The Little Mermaid would have been a decidedly different tale entirely. Andersen, who originally wrote the story as a metaphor about his own unrequited love of another man, didn’t give the character a happy ending. Instead, the prince marries another woman and Ariel ends up committing suicide. And, yet, I don’t see anyone complaining about Disney changing that.

The reality is, no matter how you dress it up, The Little Mermaid backlash is undeniably rooted in racism. If people were so concerned about accuracy, they would be pushing for a Danish actress to portray Ariel. Or, better yet, a Danish actress who was born with a tail and the ability to breathe underwater.  

Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.

Katie Mannion
Katie Mannion
Katie Mannion is a proud millennial whose childhood dream was to be a singer. When she discovered she was tone-deaf, she landed on writing. She lives in St. Louis and frequently writes about health, relationships, and pop culture. Her interest in true crime and celebrity gossip may make her seem basic, but she's also a cool mom, despite what her son says.