Earlier this week, Facebook let me in on the best news:
Halle Bailey was cast as The Little Mermaid. I’m pretty pumped up about it for a few reasons.
Let me be clear, I don’t usually get overly excited about who Disney casts in their live-action films. It’s just that Disney has done me pretty well over the last twenty-four years. I pretty much trust their decision-making skills at this point.
But this one is extra-special. You see, Ariel is MY GIRL. Much more so than any of the other princesses. She basically lived on my childhood TV screen. I dressed up as her every chance I could. I probably cried when I met her at Disney for the first time as a child and definitely cried when I met her again as a teenager. I used to force everyone to play pretend with me as if they were the prince and I was Ariel. Yeah, I was for sure a weird kid.
So of course, I am excited that we are getting the live-action version! But more than that, I am not only excited that Disney completely altered the race of my favorite princess. I’m thrilled.
Let’s get one thing straight: I am white.
Because of that, I grew up in a world where nearly every princess on my screen was also white. With the exception of Pocahontas, Jasmine, and Mulan, I could see myself quite literally reflected off my TV screen. And even though there were nonwhite princesses out there that I loved, I never saw one who was black. She didn’t even exist in my imagination. She was not an option based on what I was given.
Let me clarify something else: I just gave birth to a little biracial girl. She is half African-American, half-white, and balding like a little old man. She has lit up my life like nothing besides Jesus and her daddy.
I can’t wait for the day that we bond over Disney princesses. I really can’t wait for her to look onto the screen and see pieces of herself in Ariel. Just like I already got the chance to.
At the same time, I can’t help but be thankful that she is not aware of what is going on in the media about Halle’s casting. People who believe they have the best of intentions are irritated. Irritated that “their” Ariel is no longer white.
They claim reverse racism.
They claim that it is killing nostalgia.
They claim it isn’t realistic.
They claim that it is a political statement.
To the first claim: It goes something like this: “if someone had cast Tiana as a white woman, everyone would be claiming racism. So how is this any different?” It’s different because of the volume. There are eleven official Disney princesses. One is black. In the already white-washed world where I grew up, I wish I’d had a black princess to look to. I wish the little life-lessons that come from these stories could have come from someone who looks like my best friend, Taylor. Someone who looks like my sister-in-law. Someone who looks different than me. And if I wish that for myself, I can only imagine what it must be like for them.
To the second claim of nostalgia: look, I get it.
There is something about the nostalgia of these original princesses. They each have storied histories. They have stood the test of time. They are stories we read to our children, they have been on Broadway, and they sit on our dusty VCR shelves in family homes, never to be gotten rid of.
Yes, Disney could create a new character. Heck, they did with Tiana. But they could also let someone else have a turn with the already beloved characters. We can enjoy our nostalgia and also be generous with it.
To the third claim: “It’s not realistic.” I’m sorry. I’m rolling my eyes a little on this one. Hey guys, Ariel is a mermaid. A fictional creature. She may have been created out of white culture, but technically she herself has no true and real culture. She can be whatever we want her to be!
And to the last: When we draw attention to someone’s skin tone and claim politics, we are the ones making it political. This is a children’s story. It is a movie that little ones will look at with bright eyes. Black or white or Latina or anything, they will sing the songs and dance along without a care in the world of politics.
Giving a child representation should not be a political move. It should be the standard.
All claims aside, we have to be honest about what dissatisfaction says.
When we kick up a fuss over the race of our favorite Disney princess, we communicate that someone else’s skin tone is not good enough for our princess. That is something I hope my daughter never has to hear. I pray she never wonders that about herself.
I have never had to question whether someone like me had a place in this world. That’s one of the privileges of being white in this world. I see myself everywhere. Businesswomen look like me. Politicians look like me. Teachers, religious leaders, authors, and yes, even princesses look like me. I don’t have to search hard. They are just there.
That is not the case for little black and brown girls. The role models might be there, but what about the ratio? When there are is one black woman for many white women, does that not suggest that the likelihood for success is far less?
I’ll admit that my reasons for being excited about the new little mermaid are selfish. I want my little girl to be able to relate to the same princess I love so dearly. I want her to sing “part of this world” so loudly that our neighbors hear. I want her to love it because I did.
But I can’t help but wonder what her thoughts will be when she searches “Hallie Bailey cast as the little mermaid” and sees how upset everyone was. I’m so thankful that she isn’t conscious enough yet to see the eye rolls.
My friends, how selfish can we be? That we would value our nostalgia over a little girl getting to create her own nostalgia?
We already have a white, redhead little mermaid! She has existed on our TV screens for decades. So can we not embrace her as black? Can we do so without belittling in the process?
Let’s enjoy nostalgia! If we want to see the movie we grew up with, we can buy the DVD. We can go to Disney world and visit her even. And we should also flood the theatres when the live-action version comes out. We should sing along to the songs we know and love. We should enjoy the story we are all too familiar with. And instead of growing bitter, we should turn to our children, black and white alike, and celebrate that twinkle in their eye. They are going to love Ariel. The little white redheaded girls are going to ooh and ahh over the pretty mermaid. They are going to love her even though they don’t look like her.
And the little girls with brown eyes and ebony skin will do the same. But they will see a 19-year-old version of themselves portraying her. They will get the opportunity that the rest of us get so much more often.
Why can’t we just be happy about that?
I love me some red-haired Ariel. She and I have done a lot of life together. I’m glad she isn’t going anywhere. But more than that, I’m thrilled that my little girl gets to identify with Ariel too. I’m thrilled that she will grow up in a world where people are intentional to make sure she is represented. One where it’s just a little easier for her to see some of herself on a screen.
Please, share in that joy with me.
And then one day when you ask my Eden Celeste who her favorite princess is, and she proudly proclaims “Ariel”, you can share in that joy with her, too.