Sept. 9, 2022. This date may seem ordinary and mundane, but something was released on that day that ignited a spark within the internet. That something was the teaser trailer for “The Little Mermaid”, starring Halle Bailey. Unfortunately, the spark that was ignited was not a pleasant one.
People on the internet completely slammed or dismissed the teaser trailer, saying that Disney lacks creativity and continues making soulless remakes of films from their Golden Age–which is a completely valid criticism. People on the other side of the criticism were upset that a Black woman was playing Princess Ariel. This resulted in many racist comments and videos, and the dislikes on the original trailer posted to YouTube go well past one million. What’s argued most commonly by the people resorting to racism in response to a children’s movie is that the process of making Ariel into a Black woman is blackwashing and that it’s just as bad as whitewashing. Here’s what I have to say about that.
In case you were unaware, whitewashing is the process in which a nonwhite character, whether real or fictional, is played by or depicted as a white person. Major examples of this include Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Goku from Dragonball Evolution, Aang, Katara, Sokka from The Last Airbender and Othello from Othello. There are so many other cases, some more horrendous than others.
The harm behind whitewashing is both practical and personal. The practical harm behind it is that it takes away work from nonwhite actors and actresses who could fill those roles. Not only that, but it silences people of color and handicaps us from being able to tell our own stories. The personal harm is the damage it does to the psyche. Lacking representation in media, or being only depicted in a certain stereotypical light can lead to feeling pressure to look or act a certain way.
Blackwashing, on the other hand, is turning any character that wasn’t originally Black into a Black character. People often use this term when artists draw certain cartoon characters as Black characters, or when there’s a casting in popular media that has a Black person play an originally nonblack (typically white) character. Some examples of this are Human Torch from “Fantastic Four” (2015), Sir Lancelot from “Once Upon a Time” and Achilles from “Troy: Fall of a City”.
As previously mentioned, many have argued that this is just as bad as whitewashing. What they fail to realize is that when there is a character of color, their race often is an integral part of their character. This is especially true for Black people. Black characters in media are often written to be Black; meaning they’re not written as an equivocal character that just happens to be played by a Black person. Therefore, changing those characters into white characters would completely change them.
For example, a lot of people have been comparing turning Ariel Black to turning Princess Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” white. However, this would practically change Tiana’s entire character. Not only was she based on an actual black woman, but there are implications that because of her race, she is constantly being prevented from buying the building she wants for her restaurants because the two white men who own it keep increasing the price. The people making complaints about the “blackwashing” have also been comparing it to turning T’Challa, also known as the “Black Panther”, into a white man. What they fail to realize is that his identity as an African man living in the uncolonized kingdom of Wakanda is an essential part of his character. That makes it so that if his race was changed, it would alter his character tremendously.
Ariel being Black changes nothing about her character. Her story is still exactly the same because her race isn’t tied into her character at all. She still would have the same journey whether she was Black, white, Asian, Indigenous, or any other race. She’s also a mythical creature, a mermaid. Mermaids, as far as I know, aren’t real; so for white people to act as if they’re being erased in some way because a cartoon mermaid is being played by a white character is unbelievable. People are going so far as to suddenly emerge as DIY marine biologists, saying it’s not scientifically possible for a mermaid to be Black because the sun isn’t able to reach the part of the ocean where mermaids reside. And the redheads complaining about “ginger erasure” are unbelievable too because they’re behaving as if having naturally red hair is a trait that belongs exclusively to white people and no one else.
I don’t necessarily fully support blackwashing per se. Changing the race of white characters isn’t necessarily the most impactful way to have more representation for Black people. I do think that it would be lovely to have our own characters that were Black and embraced African American and African culture. However, for a character such as Ariel to get casted as a Black woman and therefore ignite a slew of hatred is disgusting.
At the end of the day, this vile racism in response to a children’s movie is harrowing and unforgivable. The main culprits of this behavior are grown adults, who I am absolutely positive don’t care about The Little Mermaid or Disney in their day-to-day-life. They were just waiting for any given moment to express their brutal hatred toward black people. Trying to thinly veil this racism with complaints of it not being scientifically accurate or that it’s erasing the presence of redheads is honestly pitiful.
On a more positive note, The Black children who’ve been reacting to the teaser trailer have been overjoyed by Ariel’s blackness. One of them even exclaimed on video, “She looks like me!” Black people have generally been supporting Halle Bailey, and defending her against the backlash she’s been receiving.
Ultimately, Black children and Black adults just want to be able to see themselves in a character. I’m aware that relating to a character goes beyond appearance, but in a world where we are made aware of our Blackness every day and sometimes suffer because of it, it’s refreshing to have that racial relation with them. In the case of The Little Mermaid, Black people get to see themselves depicted as a mythical creature on a screen and it’s a role that doesn’t consistently highlight the plights and prejudices that Black people face. It’s like a form of escapism.
This representation though obtained through “blackwashing” is still an absolutely significant win for the Black community. With only one Black princess throughout Disney’s 98-year-run, it’s nice to finally see another, even if she’s just a different version of an originally white princess. I’m hoping that a trend of having our own original characters and leaving originally written characters alone will arrive in the near future. Maybe we can manage to avoid people trying to scientifically disprove the existence of a Black fantasy character again!