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The white nostalgia fueling the ‘Little Mermaid’ backlash

The uproar over a black Ariel shows how important representation in children’s entertainment is

Singer-actress Halle Bailey has been selected to play Ariel in Disney's live-action version on "The Little Mermaid." (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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On July 4, as Americans celebrated Independence Day with barbecue, fireworks and armored vehicles rolling through the streets of Washington, #NotMyAriel began trending on Twitter. The hashtag took off in response to the announcement that Disney had hired Halle Bailey, an African American actress and R&B singer, to star as Ariel in the upcoming live-action remake of the 1989 feature-length cartoon “The Little Mermaid.”

Outraged by Bailey’s casting as Ariel, many (white) Disney fans took to Twitter to express their disappointment and to threaten to boycott the film. As these critics saw it, by replacing a beloved redheaded, white cartoon character with a black live-action Ariel, Disney had tainted loyal fans’ childhood memories. Disney, they claimed, had disrespected the cartoon character and the Scandinavian origins of the folk tale. Ariel was a blue-eyed, red-haired, pasty-skinned mermaid with a green tail. Period.

The #NotMyAriel backlash is part of the wave of white nostalgia that Donald Trump used to win the presidency by appealing to white, working-class Americans who feel marginalized by the country’s growing diversity. In Trump’s America, it’s possible to return to a “simpler” past characterized by upward economic mobility and straight, white male cultural and political dominance.

That bygone era of exclusively white children’s characters was not so long ago. Take 1989. The top-grossing children’s films were “The Little Mermaid,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” none of which featured a nonwhite character (except purple-skinned Ursula, the sea witch). Diverse characters simply didn’t appear in children’s everyday media worlds or in their Disney princess fantasies. Today, these die-hard Disney fans want Hollywood to continue whitewashing the film industry — as well as their childhoods.

But cultural traditions and folklore have always adapted to changing social values and demographics, because representation matters for children. What children see on the screen or read in books shapes what they imagine to be possible. So the question the #NotMyAriel crowd should be asking themselves is: Whose childhood memories and viewing experiences matter most? Their own or those of today’s children?

It has been proved that underrepresentation, especially combined with discrimination, takes a toll on children of color. Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated implicit bias and feelings of racial and gender inferiority begin early in childhood. In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted psychological experiments known as the Doll Test to assess the impact of discrimination and segregation on African American children’s racial perceptions. When presented with dolls of varying skin tones, the majority of children preferred the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks’ findings played an important role in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which resulted in the desegregation of U.S. schools.

Although American society has changed dramatically since the landmark Doll Test, more recent studies indicate that children as a whole are still biased toward whiteness, and white children to a greater extent than African American children. White characters continue to dominate children’s books, television programs and films. Without exposure to a diverse array of TV and movie characters, children are at risk of imbibing damaging racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, or of never seeing characters that look and sound like themselves or their family members.

The #NotMyAriel backlash has also inspired commentary on the emergence of diverse characters and narratives more generally, including LGBTQ characters. If we live in a society in which whiteness is the longed-for default, so is heterosexuality. “This whole ‘diversity’ things with blacks and gays needs to stop,” one critic tweeted in response to Disney’s “Little Mermaid” announcement. “We know they exist, and we respect the hell out of them, but if we want to make them into characters, make them into new ones and respect what’s already been created.”

But writers of folk tales have long reinvented characters and story lines to adapt to social changes. Consider the trajectory of the Little Mermaid story. Originally published in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid,” as novelist Amber Sparks notes in the Paris Review, was a tragic, existential folk tale centered on a mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul. Andersen described the sixth and youngest daughter of the Sea King as “the prettiest of them all; her skin was as clear and delicate as a rose-leaf, and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea.” Yet her beauty held only superficial, fleeting value: As a soulless nonhuman, she was destined to dissolve into sea foam after death. In an ill-fated attempt to gain a soul, the little mermaid pursues the love of a human prince but ultimately fails and kills herself in resignation.

The Disney cartoon adaptation of Anderson’s tale is a saccharine romance with none of the darkness of the original folk tale. What it lacks in philosophical depth it makes up for in lighthearted musical numbers that proved incredibly popular in 1989 and well beyond. Still, by revising the ending of the Little Mermaid and transforming it into a happily-ever-after princess tale, did Disney’s retelling fail to respect Andersen’s original story and its main character?

No. Sticking verbatim to a particular version of a centuries-old folk tale misses the point. Folklorists argue fairy tales and other folk tales simultaneously preserve cultural traditions while remaining flexible enough to respond to changing conditions. In other words, the power of folk tales lies in their adaptability over time.

In 1989, the attachment of white children, and girls specifically, to Disney characters such as Ariel derived from their racial identification with white princesses. Disney successfully “colonized children’s imaginations of what a princess is,” to borrow from Rebecca Hains, a media studies professor at Salem State University, teaching them that princesses were always white and that being valued and beautiful meant being white. Now adults, these Disney fans are nostalgic for the white cartoon characters with which they grew up and are willing to deny that same representational experience to a whole different generation of children of color.

Disney executives are no fools. They made a business decision to create films featuring all-white princesses seeking marital bliss with all-white princes for more than 70 years. In 2019, as live-action remakes continue to generate substantial profits for Disney, they see the potential of a different demographic coming of age in a more diverse America. The era of white-only princesses is over, thankfully.

To celebrate Halle Bailey’s starring role as Ariel, perhaps we should start a new hashtag: #NotMyWhiteNostalgia. Maybe it will start trending alongside this weekend’s other surging hashtags: #NotMyJesus and #NotMyUrsula.