When Ariel first splashed onto movie theater screens nationwide nearly 30 years ago, the heroine of Disney’s animated film “The Little Mermaid” had a distinctive look. Enormous blue eyes dominated a porcelain-skinned face framed by a luxurious mane of bright red hair. Her only article of clothing was a purple bra top made of seashells, and instead of legs, she sported a light green fish tail.
But in the studio’s new live-action remake of the 1989 movie, the rebellious undersea princess will depart from her classic appearance.
Last week, Disney announced that Halle Bailey, a black actress and R&B singer, will play Ariel in the upcoming film, which is slated to begin production in early 2020. The 19-year-old’s casting marks the first time Disney has selected a woman of color to play a traditionally white princess in one of its live-action adaptations, NBC News reported.
The news was met with a flood of praise from celebrities including Mariah Carey, Halle Berry and Chrissy Teigen, as well as many fans. However, it also prompted protests from some who were upset by the deviation from the animated character’s image, launching hashtags such as #NotMyAriel and #NotMyMermaid.
While the studio has yet to respond to the smattering of backlash over casting Bailey, Freeform, a Disney-owned TV network, issued a scathing statement on Sunday defending the decision. The actress, who is also half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle, stars on the network’s series “Grown-ish."
In an Instagram post titled, “An open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” Freeform wrote that while Hans Christian Andersen, the original author of the fairy tale, was Danish, “Ariel...is a mermaid” and a fictional character.
And even if Ariel is Danish, the network wrote, “Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black,” adding, “Black Danish people, and thus mer-folk, can also genetically (!!!) have red hair.”
The fiery post continued: “So after all this is said and done, and you still cannot get past the idea that choosing the incredible, sensational, highly-talented, gorgeous Halle Bailey is anything other than the INSPIRED casting that it is because she ‘doesn’t look like the cartoon one’, oh boy, do I have some news for you...about you.”
The debate over a black Ariel is the latest example of how attempts to diversify cultural icons can be polarizing. In 2016, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Leslie Jones weathered racist and sexist online attacks after the release of the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser reported, the abuse led to Jones taking a temporary break from Twitter, just days after her movie hit theaters. Last year, Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian American actress to have a leading role in a “Star Wars” movie, deleted all her Instagram posts after facing a relentless online bullying campaign following her appearance in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
“Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories,” Tran wrote in an August 2018 New York Times op-ed.
The decision to cast Bailey as Ariel was the result of an “extensive search,” the film’s director, Rob Marshall, said in a statement to NBC News.
"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,” Marshall said.
The outpouring of congratulations from fellow celebrities and fans was instant.
“My kids and I are so excited for the emancipation of Ariel,” tweeted Carey, the Grammy Award-winning singer.
“[Can’t] wait to surround my future daughter with powerful iconic women like you Halle, I’m so proud of you,” another person tweeted.
The casting also received support from Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in the original animated film. When asked about a woman of color playing Ariel during an event in Florida over the weekend, Benson said Disney wants “to communicate with all of us in the audience so that we can fall in love with the film again.”
“The spirit of a character is what really matters,” she said. “What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts.”
Benson added: “The most important thing for a film is to be able to tell a story. We need to be storytellers, no matter what we look like on the outside.”
Whether Bailey embodies the spirit of the headstrong teenage mermaid, however, appeared to not matter to critics, who instead fixated on the animated character’s physical look.
“You are the worst choice that Disney has ever made,” one person tweeted, using the hashtag #NotMyAriel.
“You will never be Ariel,” another person tweeted.
Though Bailey’s supporters hit back at detractors, calling them “racists,” several people said their dissatisfaction had more to do with what one user described as “wanting an accurate representation of Ariel’s character.”
“Leave the classics ALONE, if everyone wants princesses from different ethnicities and colors etc, make new tales,” the person tweeted.
In a lengthy statement, another person compared “The Little Mermaid” casting to Disney’s approach for this year’s live-action remake of “The Lion King."
“It was a HUGE issue that the lion king had to have an African cast right?” the person wrote. “Well it’s a HUGE issue that Ariel isn’t an accurate ginger.”
In response, several people likened Bailey’s casting to singer Brandy portraying the role of Cinderella in the 1997 TV film that also starred Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother.
Some argued that because Ariel is a fictional character, unlike Pocahontas and Mulan, who have historical roots, her ethnicity isn’t central to the story.
Meanwhile, others mocked the outrage.
“I’m offended by the casting of a woman of colour as Ariel,” a person tweeted. “They should have used an ACTUAL, real mermaid. Sick and tired of this human privilege.”
But amid the heated social media war, at least one person appeared to suggest that the #NotMyAriel camp had a point.
“You’re right, she’s not your Ariel,” the person tweeted. “Because it’s someone else’s turn to see themselves in The Little Mermaid. You’ve had yours.”