Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Will Disney's New Little Mermaid Be Part Of Your World, Or Is She #NotMyAriel?

Art by Denver Balbaboco (click name for portfolio link)
IG: denvertakespics (see IG & image details at this link)
Halle Bailey is to be Disney's newest princess as Ariel in the upcoming Disney live-action "The Little Mermaid"
"It was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role," said (Director Rob) Marshall. 
Exactly what Disney's live-action Little Mermaid needs to be - right?

Surprisingly Mer-ky Waters Stirred By Announcement
Artist: Alice X. Zhang
Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid
(complete with red hair)
The announcement that black actress Halle Bailey (star of Grown·ish, half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle) is set to star as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid has certainly polarized social media. While multitudes celebrated Disney supporting diversity in their live-action casting of a classic and beloved film, the #NotMyAriel hashtag took off in almost the same moment. In the too-long list of complaints, they appear to center around the change in look and image of a figure people have loved - and identified with - since they were kids. But that's kind of the point. People have seen themselves in Ariel for almost two generations, with the emphasis on "selves". When the disgruntled began to cite culture*, history, and even science (!) it became clear that these objections were actually outing a privileged and endemically racist viewpoint. For those watching, it should be noted that the #NotMyAriel reaction is not coming from kids. Kids across the board are responding with excitement. The disgruntled demographic is embarrassingly specific: 30yrs+ white women.

The "original Ariel", Jodi Benson, raised her voice on the matter too:

“I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters," (Benson) replied. "What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart, and their spirit, is what really counts."  
Benson talked about how channeling Ariel's inner spirit is how she herself has been able to step into the role over the years, despite getting older: 

"And the outside package — cause let’s face it, I’m really, really old — and so when I’m singing "Part of Your World," if you were to judge me on the way that I look on the outside, it might change the way that you interpret the song. But if you close your eyes, you can still hear the spirit of Ariel. “We need to be storytellers," she concluded. "And no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter our race, our nation, the color of our skin, our dialect, whether I’m tall or thin, whether I’m overweight or underweight, or my hair is whatever color, we really need to tell the story.” (Source: combookmovie.com)

If it really comes down to "a certain look" that about puts it in a 
n̶u̶t̶shell and then to bed. (See what we did there? OK, sorry - moving on...) Unfortunately, if you look beyond the surface, it's easy to see that is only part of the issue here.

Doing our best to get all sides of the story, our Fairy Tale News Hounds spent a long time reading through multiple responses to the news on various social media outlets and were very glad to find that there are many white voices being raised in support of sharing - and representing - the magic they felt as five-year-olds with children of every color, especially those with dark skin.

One response in particular melted our hearts.
This is it:
 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That was a bit of a roller-coaster read, so we will now have a brief
--Intermission--
with some beautiful baby black mermaids
These lovely little merkids are by illustrator Raissa Figueroa, aka @Rizzyfig on Instagram. She created a series on this little afro-haired mermaid for Mermay one year and so many people fell in love with this little character that she's kept on drawing her and boosted her whole illustration career as a result.
You can purchase a print of these beautiful baby mers on Etsy HERE.
You can also follow her on Twitter and get in-process or glimpses of new sketches HERE.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Intermission Over ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Don't Worry: Classic Ariel Will Not Die - Ever
The level of distress on social media about the live-action casting is downright odd for another reason. Having a new black Ariel, does NOT remove, erase, eclipse, or in any way 'undo' the fact that red-haired, white-skinned Ariel exists. She will always exist. For thirty years this very Western image has represented the Little Mermaid story (thanks to Disney's worldwide influence). If you judged from the outrage evident in response to casting a live-action black actress and singer in the role, you would think these distressed Ariel fans think "their" Ariel would no longer exist, but that will never be. Both characters are Disney. Both are/will be lucrative properties for the Disney marketing department and they're not about to let a proven cash cow of 30 solid years disappear. When assured that the classic Ariel won't disappear, all that's left is that those who are attached to "their" Ariel just want all the new shiny for themselves. Put that way, the negative responses begin to look... well... spoiled. Eep.
Annie Leibovitz photography fro Disney Dream Portraits, featuring Julianne Moore as Ariel
Classic Ariel "In The Flesh"
Parody poster of Mera (artist unknown)
Amber Heard as The Little Mermaid, all grown up

But let's play devils' advocate for a minute and talk about representing the original classic, that is, Ariel with white skin and red hair. What look-alikes do "Ariel purists" have? See below for an "off-the-top-of-our-heads" list (not conclusive by a long shot):

  • Disneyland & Disney World/s live Ariel character performers (for 30 years)
  • The Little Mermaid musical - the title role in the big Disney version/s and the school-approved versions
  • Every Disney Little Mermaid Halloween/roleplay/cosplay costume ever
  • All the Ariel dolls
  • Not to mention her image on hundreds of products
  • The Annie Leibovitz poster photo of Julianne More as Ariel for Disney Dream Portraits (and Queen Latifah as Ursula)
  • Once Upon A Time's live-action Ariel  - a repeat role in the series (played by JoAnna Garcia Swisher) - note that this version is on film and includes many iconic scenes from the classic movie as they fit the story being told
  • Mera from DC's Aquaman 2018
Wait! Mera isn't even Disney and isn't Ariel! Why is she included?? Here's the reality: even though the character is not owned by Disney, the new live-action Mera looked exactly like (quote) "Ariel on crack", all grown-up and ready to fight and rule by her own merits. In fact, if Disney had decided to use a "spitting image human" of the animated Ariel she would look an awful lot like Mera (although younger and more naive), with the disadvantage that Disney's Ariel would look rather wimpy next to her. Mera is totally badass and a now a feminist icon in her own right. A live-action Ariel who looked similar would always be compared to her. We suspect Disney marketing folks are quite aware of this, just as they were very aware of needing to distance the new mermaid, aka Ariel, being created at Disney Feature Animation from Darryl Hannah's blonde mermaid sensation in the 1984 hit-movie Splash. A Splash sequel )(Splash, Too) was also in the works when The Little Mermaid was pitched and the to-be-animated-classic was "temporarily nixed" as a result: "Too many mermaids!" said the then-CEO, though that decision was later reversed. Eventually, the reasons for giving Ariel red hair, rather than blonde, were a) not like Darryl Hannah and b) because red is a complementary color - that is, opposite - of green (the mermaid tail). Yes, folks - that is the main reason Ariel became a red-head instead of the expected blonde. Red was not chosen for ginger-representation. It was for marketing.

Why did we bother with this list? There are many already-awesome options to choose from, should folks need a human-looking version of the classic Ariel to still feel 'represented'. Truly, there is such an abundance - why is it the 'purists' feel they are 'owed' (not our term!) the new live-action movie too?

Disney's Black Mermaid Trial Run
ABC OUAT special episode promo poster
 Tiffany Boone as young Ursula
with mer-tail (pre-tentacles)
(OUAT ep 4:11)
This seems like a good time to remind folks that Disney already had a successful trial run with a black Ariel-like mermaid**. The very popular Disney-owned and based series Once Upon A Time, was known for looking into classic characters and exploring their backstories, always with a twist on the trope. Villains weren't exempt from the treatment and often the black and white villains ended up eliciting sympathy from the viewers regarding their own difficult pasts and bad decisions (making it very possible for many of them to be redeemed). With Ariel having made an appearance in a couple of episodes, it wasn't unexpected that Ursula would appear too and that fans would learn how she came to be the villain she was known to be. In an inspired twist, it turned out Ursula's story was actually a Little Mermaid tale. 

 Tiffany Boone as young Ursula
on land (
OUAT ep 4:11)
The exploration was short and kept within a single episode, which meant it didn't get as much media coverage as a story with a multi-episode arc. As a result, it's a great pity the episode "Poor Unfortunate Soul" didn't get more attention. In the OUAT "twist" Ursula was originally a beautiful young, black mermaid. She's seen with tail and fins, on land with two human legs and eventually transforms into having those classic and villainous tentacles. Fans loved it all. While it should be noted that OUAT included a red-headed, white-skinned Ariel (and her Prince Eric) in their character line-up throughout the series (and in the same episode!) to be on the safe side, Ursula's own mermaid story of a girl finding her feet and her voice was beautifully written, poignant, unexpected and immensely satisfying in its exploration of multiple issues and their resolution. While OUAT was inconsistent on many fronts throughout the series and draws a lot of criticism, it did have many moments where it struck a chord, was truly revisionist and a perfect exploration of the fairy tale in its pop culture era. Ursula's backstory as the "original" Little Mermaid was one of those.

Ursula and Uncomfortable Truths
"Mary Belle and the Mermaid" illustration by Leo & Diane

from Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton

(Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner)

With Melissa McCarthy now confirmed for the role of Ursula, we're already holding our breath for that moment when the white lady takes away the black girl's voice... yikes! 

But perhaps that's what Disney and Director Rob Marshall are planning to acknowledge and explore. Although women as a whole have had it tough for the majority of written history, when it comes to inequality it must be acknowledged that white women are not completely blameless. It would seem it's a hard conversation to have but that makes it worth having all the more. The negative reaction to the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel by a rather large (and vocal) demographic has been surprising, and uncovered a hidden white-privilege mindset among long-time (mostly female) fans - women who believe themselves to be progressive, inclusive and 'woke'.

That the negative response to Disney's casting of Halle Bailey was - and is - so very emotional and feels personal to those objecting is a clue to just how endemic white privilege is and that's a scary thing, especially seeing it come from intelligent people you know and love, and, let's be honest, in some cases ourselves. To be clear, there is no doubt many of these women are much more progressive than their predecessors but that doesn't mean there isn't still (a lot of) work to do. That this is happening at all should make it clear that this issue needs to be addressed, and attitudes - and assumptions - reassessed. Now. While we will admit we were hoping a wonderful drag queen (with all the singing and acting chops) would be cast in the villain's role to nod to the character's original inspiration (Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Devine), putting a powerful white woman in the antagonist role opposite a lovely young black heroine is going to resonate... 

Uncomfortable? Yes. 
Worth the trouble and ruffled feathers (er scales)? Absolutely.

Congratulations Halle!
We are so here for this movie!
Disney's live-action feature film, The Little Mermaid, is scheduled to go into production in 2020.

*A Short Reference List on Mermaids & Mermaid Tales From Around the World
Every country with a coast has their version of mermaid tales but many of those mermaids look a little different than the popular images we've gotten used to. Here are some resources for you to find some different mermaid tales

BOOKS:

A Treasury of Mermaids: Mermaid Tales from Around the World – a diverse cultural collection of tales by folklorist Shirley Climo

Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World (Surlalune Fairy Tale series) by Heidi Anne Heiner

Mermaid Tales From Around the World by Mary Pope Osborne

The Annotated African American Folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates, Maria Tatar, includes a mermaid tale with annotations



ONLINE RESOURCES:

** Other Disney "Trial-Runs" On OUAT:

  • black Rapunzel (huge hit! though they also had a white version as well)
  • female Jack (of the famous beanstalk)
  • lesbian Mulan (& Dorothy - a nice nod to the LGBTQ community and their famed love of the MGM movie)
  • a maternal Maleficent (which the Disney live-action movie also used)
  • a Latina Cinderella
The whole season 8 of OUAT had the Latina Cinderella (Jacinda) as the main character, with the premise of the eighth season being that there are multiple versions of the same fairy tale across universes - a valiant effort for inclusivity though a little late in the show's popularity to make a huge difference. Still, it showed that some people were considering the same stories with a different look, and that's a huge step toward inclusivity and diversity.
For further reading, you may enjoy
Mermaids, of course, don’t belong to one region. The earliest fish-women emerged in southwestern Asia’s ancient Mesopotamia, said Sarah Peverley, a cultural historian at the University of Liverpool in England.
“But almost every culture has a version of a mermaid,” she said. “They come in all shapes, sizes and skin color.”
When the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen published “The Little Mermaid” in 1837, people across Africa were already swapping tales about Mami
Wata. (Washington Post)

6 comments:

  1. A very strong read here. Always glad to see someone else who wants "fairy tales" to be "fair". The comic book fan in me wants to say though, Mera doesn't look like Ariel. Ariel looks like Mera. The Aquaman movie may be from 2018, but Mera first appeared as a redheaded mer-person in comic book pages in 1963.

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    1. My apologies if I implied Mera was given red hair after Ariel - she's always been a red-head as far as I know, since before I was born! And if Ariel looks like Mera that had to have been subconscious. Having known and worked with a large number of the orginal crew for the Disney film over the years, Mera was never mentioned, which she would have proudly been if it were conscious, since more than a few are comic geeks. What I meant by the comparison was, the way they styled Mera, posed and costumed her in the movie, though it obviously hearkened to the comic-image, there was definitely a sly-wink to Ariel. I think I even remember that being "winkingly acknowledged" by DC creators in interviews last year, which was smart. I had seen illustrations and parodies floating around by artists drawing parallels between Ariel and comic-book Mera before the movie, but the movie made it easy for anyone to make a connection. The way Mera looked, the way they framed her and did her FX, she looked like what people like me wished Ariel would grow into - her own powerful, sea goddess (of sorts). ;)
      I am curious to see how Disney decides to give Ariel more strength this time around (hopefully not being willing to compromise her essential person for a guy). There are many ways to be strong, of course. Not every undersea-person can be Mera. ;)

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    1. Thank you. It's impossible to cover everything but I hope I hit all the main things. :)

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  3. A fascinating post! I have never heard of OUAT, must check it out.

    There are some idiots out there, so possessive of something that’s not theirs. It’s fiction, for goodness sake! And not theirs. Reminds me of the “Christians” who signed a petition to Netflix to cancel Good Omens, which was on Amazon, telling us that they obviously hadn’t seen the show they were raging against.

    There is already a female Jack, in Charles De Lint’s novel Jack The Giant Killer, an urban fantasy set in modern Canada. I’ve seen a wonderful musical with a black Cinderella.

    And Jim C Hines did his own Little Mermaid take in The Mermaid’s Madness, in which the Little Mermaid killed her prince and went insane... But you’ll know about Jim’s fairy tale novels! 🙂

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    1. I believe the entire series of ABC's OUAT (Once Upon A Time) - all 7 season - is still available on Netflix to stream online, if that's an option for you.

      So sorry if it seemed as if I was omitting other revisionist takes on fairy tale characters. I didn't mean to imply there haven't been others - there have been hundreds, of course, and I've read female Jack stories that pre-dated even De Lint's novel (great series, by the way - one of my favorites - both the short story collection and the fairy tale series novels - Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow changed the landscape of literature with those!)

      What I was focusing on was the Disney company, as a lot of the criticism about Halle Bailey being cast is because the character, Ariel, is 'classic' Disney and some people see Disney's classic characters as sacred. (Oi.) Disney's influence is such that any reworkings of theirs tend to influenced pop culture and society - mainly through their movies, but not only, of course. I should have added a note about Brandy being Disney's black Cinderella and Whitney Houston as their black fairy godmother back in 1997, as that was historical (for Disney as a US/Western pop culture influence). That it was direct-to-TV gave it lesser status at the time, but that doesn't mean it was unimportant. THANK YOU for making sure that was mentioned as well!
      When OUAT appeared on TV, it quickly became popular with Disney fans as it used all the classic images but often slyly changed-up the stories, and therefore the image of those classics (eg Snow White is a self-sufficient hunter and survivalist). It caused quite a stir in pop culture and spawned a lot of fan fiction, fan art and helped boost the revisionist retelling market in novels and kids books. It was quite amazing how much influence it had, and this was partly due to the fact it was a weekly show for approximately 7 years in a prime-time slot. It wasn't just Disney fans watching, and it also often became a multigenerational viewing experience for families, which broached a lot of welcome social conversation about these characters, fairy tales and storytelling.
      Disney's Little Mermaid TV series added a black mermaid character as well (who was also deaf), but that wasn't in a prime time slot - it was in the after-school kids programming and largely ignored by pop culture and adults at the time. That little black mermaid was created to represent the diversity of Disney fans, and was very welcomed by Disney families in general, but Ariel's image of white and red-headed remained untouched, (and sacred) until now.
      I'm thrilled that there are so many other stories and films of different types of revisionist princesses, and different reworkings of The Little Mermaid - especially those inspired by, or directly influenced by Disney's Ariel. We need those and the popularity of those has helped Disney as a big money-minded company to be aware that there is a demand (aka market) for that'product'.
      Now that Disney has cast a black girl as one of their top-billing characters however, that's going to open a lot more eyes to a story that, really has always been perfect for diversity. It's a bold move and, seeing the surprising backlash from the announcement it made people aware of just how UNAWARE (and possibly closed-minded) a large demographic of fans have been, despite fabulous options in eg. the novels you've mentioned and other on-screen adaptations.
      I'm very interested to watch how the production and marketing/response to this the live action LIttle Mermaii goes, but either way, it's a good time to pull out all those other adaptations, make some noise about them and go "hey - these are here and they're awesome too!"
      Thanks for adding to this coversation - really appreciate it.

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