Thirty years ago, I met a plucky, inquisitive redhead and decided she was my soulmate. She loved collecting weird things and bucking the status quo, and longed to see a world outside of what she knew. She even had a crush on a cute boy, and couldn’t talk to him. It felt like this girl was me.
At the time, it didn’t matter that Ariel the mermaid and I looked nothing alike.
For me, identifying with princesses and heroines who didn’t look like me was the norm. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, black female main characters were few and far between. I had no choice but to accept it as my lot in life as a minority in America. It wasn’t until I became the mom of a little black girl myself that Disney introduced a black princess, and she spent the majority of the movie as a frog.
Enter Halle Bailey. I had been watching her star rise as one-half of the singing duo Chloe x Halle since her early teen years, and, more recently, witnessing her foray into acting on the TV show “Grown-ish“. When Disney announced that she would be portraying Ariel in the live-action remake of my favorite princess movie, I was psyched. Bailey has the voice of an angel. She also has skin and hair that look like mine. As excited as this made me, I knew those facts alone would lead to backlash.
And boy, did the backlash come.
There were Facebook groups created in opposition to Bailey’s casting, #NotMyAriel hashtags and Twitter handles, and threats of boycotts. Arguments abounded on the ethnic origin of a fantasy creature from a fairy tale written in 1837. Animated-Ariel purists interrogated black women about how they would feel if a white woman portrayed Princess Tiana. Lost on the naysayers was the fact that Princess Tiana was literally the only black princess they could point to in a sea of Auroras, Cinderellas, Belles, Annas, Elsas, Rapunzels, and Snow Whites.
I wish I could say I was disheartened by all of the backlash, but the truth is that I just found it ironic and amusing. So many people didn’t “see color” until the Danish ancestry of a mythical fish-girl was at stake. While there was a considerable positive reaction, the negative response only served to underscore the inherent value of Bailey’s casting: that representation matters. Conversations around this movie amplified the fact that black people actually exist all over the world (and could even exist under the sea). For too long, the lineup of Disney princesses ignored this reality.
I can’t think of a better way to honor Ariel’s spirit of bucking the status quo.
Most importantly, Bailey playing Ariel accentuates for black children that their royalty is unlimited. When my daughter learned that Ariel was going to be played by a black girl with locs, she wanted to know how soon she could go see the movie. Unlike me, she won’t have to just accept that most of the princesses and heroines she loves are not going to look like her. She can see herself reflected on the silver screen in a variety of roles, and I’m thrilled for her because of it. I can’t think of a better way to honor Ariel’s spirit of bucking the status quo. As a new generation becomes acquainted with a classic story re-imagined, I look forward to passing the torch of my Ariel fandom to her.
And to all of the people with their ready lists of redheads who “deserved” this role: don’t worry, I’m sure the casting call for Merida will be coming any day now.