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Disney’s live-action ‘Little Mermaid’ and ethnic favoritism

Walt Disney
The signage at the main gate of The Walt Disney Co. is pictured in Burbank, California, May 7, 2012. |

It has been legitimately questioned whether or not any of Disney’s live-action remakes are justified. Especially in the case of the animation studio’s Renaissance period, attempting to improve on that which is near perfect is near impossible. The financial viability of regurgitating old films seems to have overridden an interest in pursuing original stories.

The newest possible offender is Disney’s live-action remake of its 1989 animated film The Little Mermaid. Will it breathe new life into the classic underwater tale, or will it simply be singing with a stolen set of pipes? We won’t know the answer to that question until the film is released in 2023.

Thus far, the most controversial element of this particular remake lies in the casting of Halle Bailey as the titular character.  As The Federalistnotes, “fans on both sides of the political aisle had pretty much the same reaction: she’s black!” The article goes on to show that progressives have praised the casting choice as “a giant deal” and “an exciting step forward,” whereas conservatives have condemned the move as “Hollywood pandering” and “kinda offensive.”

As a conservative myself, I find this controversy disappointing. It’s one thing to question the artistry of Disney’s live-action remakes, or to have issues with an actor’s singing and/or acting chops; it’s quite another to make a federal case out of an actor’s skin color. The indignation seems based on reasons that are shallow (at best) or malicious (at worst).

But the concerns of my fellow conservatives deserve a more reasoned response than the reductionist accusation of “racist.” As such, I wish to address the two main objections I have seen.

A violation of the source material

One argument is that having a black mermaid is not faithful to the source material — i.e., the 1836 Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. But let us consider some of the main characteristics of this tale:

  • The little mermaid’s hair is “long,” and her skin is “as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf,” but no color is given for either.
  • The mermaid’s desire to be a human involves a longing to live for eternity (as mermaids, we are told, cease to exist after death).
  • Her transformation requires having feet so tender that every step she takes feels like “treading upon sharp knives.”
  • The prince she is in love with ends up marrying another woman (not the sea witch in disguise).
  • When given the opportunity to kill the prince to reverse the spell she is under, the mermaid chooses instead to make her own life forfeit — an act of selflessness that allows her to obtain an immortal soul.

Disney’s animated Little Mermaid, as enjoyable as it was, was decidedly unfaithful to the source material — what with its plot revisions, musical numbers, anthropomorphic animals, and happily-ever-after love story.

The reality is that most Disney princess movies have strayed far from their source materials. That this pattern is suddenly a serious problem with the live-action The Little Mermaid makes the objections against a black Ariel appear disingenuous.

Besides, if anything the live-action Little Mermaid may be more faithful to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, as this new Ariel won’t be defined by needing a man’s love, which lines up with what Andersen wrote about his fairy tale: “I have not ... allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon ... the love of a human being.”

In any case, the “not true to the source material” argument rings hollow for another reason: it aligns with the leftist aversion to “cultural appropriation.” While there is obvious wisdom in treating other cultures with dignity and respect, progressives have gone excessively and laughably overboard in condemning the use of artifacts, customs, and characteristics of cultures other than one’s own. But as even The Atlantic has pointed out, condemning cultural appropriation outright is “naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive.”

So why would conservatives borrow leftist rhetoric — i.e., that we are dishonoring an original Danish tale by appropriating it for a modern, multicultural product — in this particular instance? The argument doesn’t hold water when leftists or conservatives use it.

An agenda-driven move

When I posted my initial thoughts about this controversy on Facebook, my post (and its reshares) received hundreds of comments, including some concerns over a leftist agenda:

  • “Disney should … [s]top being so aggressive pushing their political agenda.”
  • “[T]he transition to black actors is being forced for the purpose of not casting white actors.”
  • “Not only have they gone woke … they’ve gone stupid.”
  • “[T]hey’re ruining things that people have loved for years/ decades.”
  • “Stop with the social justice crap!”
  • “[It’s] the shoving down our throats of race baiting garbage.”

Consider, however, some pertinent facts. In the 85 years since Disney started its princess lineup, the only original black princess to date is Tiana (from The Princess and the Frog, released over a decade ago). And the only live-action reimagining of a Disney princess as a black woman, to my knowledge, is Brandy (a.k.a. Cinderella) in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, released as a TV movie back in 1997. A black Ariel in 2023 won’t even qualify as a trend, let alone one that is “forced” or “aggressive.”

Consider also that some of the language used above (“aggressive … political agenda,” “[they’ve] gone woke,” “social justice crap,” etc.) echoes the objections conservatives use against Disney for seeking to normalize same-sex relationships. But must we respond to ethnic diversity (regardless of how it is being promoted) in the same way we respond to the promotion of gender diversity? Does a black Ariel deserve the same moral outrage as the lesbian couple in Lightyear? Do we really want to communicate to the world at large — not to mention our minority friends and family members — that being black is morally equivalent to same-sex relations? Such an assertion (whether purposeful or accidental) is itself morally repulsive.

Once again, it’s as if conservatives are borrowing talking points from the liberal playbook. It is the political left that asserts an equivalence between civil rights issues and gender fluidity issues. It is Critical Race Theory which “recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others.” Conservatives are quick to refute these false equivalencies — except, it seems, when it comes to the presence of ethnic minorities in our entertainment.

An inconvenient motivation

In light of their questionable nature, the above objections to a black Ariel give the appearance, if not the reality, of what Scripture refers to as partiality (see James 2:1-13). In this case, we might call it ethnic partiality — i.e., giving undue preferential treatment to one ethnic group over another. This form of partiality, even if not malicious or intentional, is still sinful.

In the Bible, the word “partiality” refers to making a judgment based on a person’s “outward and worldly advantages” (Matthew Henry)—all those “parts or qualities we take notice of in [a] person” (Matthew Poole). That is exactly what is going on here: considering an actress inappropriate for a role based on her qualities that we notice (i.e., her skin color) — qualities that are “outward” and “worldly” (in the sense that judging someone by externals is antithetical to how God judges them). The main complaint about Halle Bailey is her skin color, not her thespian skills.

To be sure, not every objection to this new Ariel is created equal. For example, one might even object to a black Ariel on the grounds that it sends a dangerous message to minorities — i.e., “they’re not good enough to have their own characters, so they have to piggyback off non-minorities.”

But that’s not what this whole controversy is about. We’re not talking about arguments over what’s good for minorities (how a given story might best show honor to them); we are talking about arguments over whether minorities are good enough for a story. The way the argument is being framed is inherently demeaning.

Again, the objections we’ve addressed are the ones that give — at the very least — the appearance of violating the prohibitions in James 2.  We might even word it this way: “If you give positive attention to a European American and say, ‘You star in our film,’ while you say to an African American actor, ‘You don’t belong here,’ or ‘Stay over there as a minor character,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

One cannot object to the color of Halle Bailey’s skin in one breath and then deny that he is judging her by the color of her skin in the next. As James puts it, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality [based on skin color or anything else] you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (vv. 8-9).

Part of our world

There is much we still don’t know about this Little Mermaid remake, but one thing we do know is this: during auditions for the character of Ariel, director Rob Marshall was influenced, not by Halle Bailey’s melanin count, but by the power of her performance, which left him in tears.

And to once again quote from The Federalist:

When Disney initially made the announcement that Bailey would be the new Ariel, they didn’t say, “Ariel will be black!” They said, “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.” ... It was everyone else — leftist and conservative alike — who proclaimed her blackness to be her defining feature.

The article goes on to state in no uncertain terms, “There’s no reason she can’t be black.”

Scripture teaches that all humans are created in the image of God, and are therefore equal in worth and value. There is no room in the Kingdom of God for partiality of any kind, ethnic or otherwise. And in a melting pot like the United States, it could be a legitimate and genuine joy — and already has been — for minority audience members to see an iteration of a prestigious Disney princess that looks like them. Even if only inadvertently, this celebrates the goodness of the ethnic diversity inherent in God’s creation.

There is no inherent contradiction between these two statements:

  1. I’m disappointed that individuals and institutions are treating ethnic diversity as an opportunity for virtue signaling and political posturing.
  2. I’m glad that a diverse culture like ours is getting another story with a minority character that will show love to our minority neighbors all across the country.

We can assert both at the same time. And even if and when our culture promotes diversity for the clandestine purposes of partiality, followers of Christ have no excuse to push back by promoting a different form of partiality.

Cap Stewart is the author of the curriculum Personal Purity Isn’t Enough: The Long-Forgotten Secret to Making Scriptural Entertainment Choices. As a cultural commentator, he has contributed to Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic, 2019), among other print and online publications. He writes at Unpop Culture.

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