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Race and Mermaids
A dark-skinned actress is playing Ariel in "The Little Mermaid" remake. Does it matter?
Disney is slated to release a live action remake of the iconic film, The Little Mermaid next year. The film is already receiving extensive criticism because of its casting decisions - namely, the fact that a black actress named Halle Bailey (not to be confused with Halle Berry - I made that mistake), is playing the iconic role of Ariel.
The criticism is largely pointing out the woke agenda of Hollywood with the counterarguments accusing those unhappy with the casting of being racist. This exact script has played out over and over again over the years no matter the topic. Whether we are talking about kneeling during the National Anthem, CRT in public schools, or casting a dark-skinned actress to play a originally pale-skinned mermaid, the point has been to stand against “wokeism” and its obsession with race but the ad hominem in response is always, “You’re just a racist, white supremacist bigot.” It’s a lazy, low IQ tactic for dismissing an argument without having to actually contend with its merit. It is the favorite go-to tactic of the progressive left. The same tactic was used to disparage those who disliked the new Lord of the Rings series on Amazon. Bow down to the agenda or else you are racist - that’s the message.
Anyone who follows my work knows that I am a staunch advocate for a colorblind, post-racial society. In such a society, skin color matters about as much as hair color or eye color. In that sense, the casting of a dark-skinned actress to play Ariel in the Little Mermaid is fairly inconsequential as long as she is talented and does justice to the character. If I, as an audience member, can suspend my disbelief and be immersed in the world of the story, then she has done her job and that’s all that matters. However, even in a colorblind society, that may still be an issue if you are deliberately altering an iconic character. Because The Little Mermaid is a beloved film with a well-known character whose physical features make her recognizable - pale skin, red hair, her green fin and even her purple top - if you change those things, it makes it difficult to accept the new version as authentically Ariel. A pale-skinned, blonde Ariel would face similar challenges because the audience expects the iconic red hair. An overweight Ariel would be the same. An Ariel with an orange fin and green top would be heresy. It isn’t that you can’t do it - it’s just that the audience has certain expectations and if you ignore those expectations, you risk pulling them out of the story.
Over the summer, I played Donkey in Shrek: The Musical at a summer theatre in Athens, Ohio. Donkey is a character that most people are very familiar with and they expect him to both look and sound like Eddie Murphy’s version. That presented a challenge for me because I didn’t want to copy Eddie Murphy exactly and wanted to make the character my own, but I also knew that I had a narrow window in which to work because of audience expectations. Not that I would want to, but I couldn’t come out and make Donkey stiff and rigid. I couldn’t give him a British accent. I couldn’t do things that would seem out of character for the Donkey that people know and love. I had to approximate the cadence and melody of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey voice and had to incorporate familiar mannerisms. In other words, I had to bring familiarity to the role so that the audience was not pulled out of it. I could have made Donkey completely different from the movie version, but I doubt it would have worked very well. That fact does not mean that the audience was racist.
Imagine your own favorite movie and an iconic character from that movie and then imagine a remake being done where someone just completely changes it for no real reason. Can you imagine a remake of Star Wars with an entirely different costume and voice for Darth Vader? It would be understandably difficult to accept this new version. It would feel like a blasphemous knockoff of the original - a counterfeit. It would be difficult to immerse yourself in the story. Unless the new change is really, really good, the audience is probably going to be distracted by it and not very forgiving. This, again, says nothing about skin color.
So then, it is understandable why changing the look of Ariel would be met with opposition. It says nothing about race or skin color but an audience who has certain expectations for an iconic character is not going to respond very well to someone changing it. So, the question then becomes, why change it? Why change the iconic character into something else? What is the motive? It is possible that Miss Bailey is truly incredible and no one else even came close to being a comparable choice for casting. That may be the case. I have heard her sing and she does have a beautiful voice. I am not sure about her acting skills. That remains to be seen. But given Hollywood’s obsession with race and its quest for “racial equity,” the change in skin color seems intentional and the people criticizing the change are acutely aware of that. Additionally, not only does this create problems for the film and for telling the story, itself, but it creates much deeper problems in our culture. These are the things that people are pushing back against.
Consider, when a black person is hired for a job or given a promotion or admitted to a university on the basis of their skin color, it is no less racist and bigoted than if they were denied a job, denied a promotion, or denied admission on the basis of skin color. It is exactly the same. What you have done is you have announced to the world that this person is inferior based on their race and that they require extra help to do the things that white people can do on their own. This was the same issue with Ketanji Brown-Jackson being appointed to the Supreme Court on the basis that she was both black and a woman (a word she apparently could not define, but I digress). The logic is straight-forward. If a person is truly the best person for the position, then there is no need to apply any arbitrary racial filters as they would get the job anyway. Applying racial filters inherently proclaims that this person was not the best person for the job - they were the best person for the job only after the racial filters excluded all of the better options. It is an insult. The person is forever haunted by the question of whether they got their position because of merit or because of race. And what does it say about Hollywood if it believes that the only way to create iconic dark-skinned characters is to give special preference to dark-skinned actors and actresses and supplant already established iconic light-skinned characters?
Another issue we see along with this conversation is black children supposedly celebrating having a black mermaid. To me, this is a tragic commentary on the state of our culture. These children have been led to believe by their parents and by society at large that their skin color is their identity, so much so that they have an emotional need for skin color representation in the media (nevermind the silliness of the representation claim as a black child already can’t turn on the television without immediately seeing someone who “looks like them”). What we, as a society, have done to our children is made their skin color central to their worldview. It has become the lens through which they view everything. How can you possibly hope to rid the world of racism while simultaneously encouraging children to make race the most important aspect of who they are? How can you possibly hope to see people deemphasize the importance of race in how they treat others while you, yourself, overemphasize race and place such substantial value on skin color? It is talking out of both sides of your mouth. You are doing the very thing you claim to want to dismantle.
I do believe whole-heartedly that we need to move toward a post-racial society where skin color does not matter and we are not concerned with the skin color of an actor or actress anymore than we are concerned with their hair or eye color. In order to do that, we have to stop caring about race altogether, we have to stop encouraging our children to embrace some kind of racial identity and stop encouraging them to place value in their skin color, and we have to stop driving these arbitrary wedges between each other. This determination to infuse the racial identity of non-white people any and everywhere is tiresome and destructive. I have long said that racial identity obsession inherently drives enmity. When race is given such substantial value and treated as the most important factor of a person’s identity, there can be no other outcome but enmity toward the racial identity outgroup. Racial identity obsession quite literally drives racism. The Little Mermaid and its casting ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that we dismantle this toxic obsession with skin color and we begin to recognize our common humanity. Maybe Hollywood can make a film about that.