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I’ll start with this stipulation: Mermaids, like fairies and hobbits, are not real. They are imaginary creatures conjured up by storytellers and artists. Therefore, they can be whatever color, gender or shape that we want.
That’s why the outrage in some (small) circles about Disney casting singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in a remake of “The Little Mermaid” movie is ludicrous. Bailey is Black and to some folks that is an outrage.
Critics of the new mermaid have used a variety of arguments for why this casting is wrong. Mermaids, because they live deep in the ocean, can’t be B lac k. Mermaids, historically, have been white. Young girls grew up with a white, red-headed (and animated) Ariel, so she should always be portrayed this way, apparently.
These arguments are ridiculous, and racist.
First off, this might be a shocker: “The Little Mermaid,” written by Hans Christian Andersen in the 1830s, is an allegory prompted by unrequited gay love, and it has a sad ending. So much for historical accuracy.
Speaking of history, Black mermaids have “existed” for centuries. Called Mami Wata, a Black sea goddess with a tail has been a staple for art and folklore in Africa.
Now, to those who want Ariel to be white because that’s their image of the Disney character, there’s a lot to unpack here. This is an issue of representation. Far be it for me to speak on behalf of people of color, but imagine if you grew up not seeing yourself in movies, in books, in elected office. Imagine if the images of power, success and glamor that you most often saw were of white people.
For decades, leading men and women in Hollywood were white. Superheroes were white. Cartoon characters were white. When people of color were included, they were often portrayed as stupid foils or dangerous criminals.
This wasn’t an accident.
These simplistic caricatures didn’t just perpetuate white images of superiority, they had horrifying consequences for people of color.
Consider the doll test, which was first done by psychologists in New York City in the 1930s to show the impact of segregation on Black children and later used in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In the test, young Black children are shown dolls that are Black and white. They are asked which doll is “nice” and “pretty.” They most often point to the white doll. When asked which doll is “bad” or “ugly” they point to the Black doll. When asked to show which doll is most like them, they again point to the Black doll. It is heartbreaking.
Contrast that with images parents have shared online of their Black children reacting with surprise and cheers when they see the new Ariel in a trailer for “The Little Mermaid.” “She’s Black? Yeah!” one young girl exclaims. “She’s Black like us,” says another as her siblings cheer.
Those intent on maintaining the status quo – or more likely trying to recreate a “better” world they believe existed several decades ago – may call the increasing diversity of music, movies, books, elected office, board rooms, colleges being “woke.” Whatever. It just makes sense that our culture, our leadership, our worldview reflects all the people who live here. It’s embarrassing and frustrating that it has taken us so long to get here – and that there are people still trying to push us backwards.
Whatever you think of Barack and Michelle Obama or Kamala Harris politically, having them in the White House and representing America around the world sends a powerful message about this country. That America, despite its history of inequality and oppression, is a country that moves — often too slowly — toward inclusion and meritocracy. Literally, you can be descended from slaves, immigrants or our Founding Fathers and be successful in America. That is what makes America great.
So, if mermaids are Black — or any other color — that is something to celebrate. Or better yet, it should be something that isn’t even worth a second thought.