LET BLACK GIRLS HAVE THIS — REACTIONS TO DISNEY’S “THE LITTLE MERMAID”
The Lord of the Rings.
The list goes on, but the last seven years has seen a long-overdue effort to cast Black actors in leading roles of popular franchises. We first met Finn (played by John Boyega) in 2015’s reboot of Star Wars, and the groundbreaking cast and crew of Black Panther in 2018. And in 2022 alone, Black fans were met with the announcement of the first Black Doctor Who (played by the Sex Education’s fan-favorite Ncuti Gatwa) and a diverse casting of The Lord of the Rings (which was originally so white, that even Youtube channel Honest Trailers joked that, “Even when they die, they come back whiter.” Brilliant.)
Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind year. And while the stars of these franchises have faced backlash from online trolls — who are convinced that fictional worlds that include aliens and dwarves would never have people of more than one skin tone — I admit that I’ve felt a begrudging sense of curiosity. Begrudging, because I always looked at these castings as pitying; Hollywood hand-outs just so that they could point to their one Black character and say, “How can we be racist? Our main lead is Black.” Yet, since I’m part of the audience for these franchises, I’m consistently curious as to how they will support their Black stars (with some studios doing better than others).
Growing up, I know some part of me had come to accept that I wouldn’t see too many Black characters in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy stories I consumed. And for most of my young adult life, I was convinced that I didn’t care either way. I just wanted a good story, that was all. I learned how to daydream while I read, planting myself in the stories I wished I could have been part of. My focus was so singular, that as excited as I was for Disney’s Princess and the Frog (and it’s one of my favorite Disney films, so don’t come for me) it felt too little too late (*cue JoJo*). Now, nearing 29-years-old, I didn’t think the castings of Black leads in films or shows would affect me much. Was I excited? Absolutely. But I felt a sort of detachment, one that I didn’t realize existed until Disney released it’s live-action teaser for The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey.
On Twitter, user @normanination4 did the work of compiling many of the reactions from TikTok of parents showing their Black daughters the new teaser. I thought it would be cute, and watched the first video with little regard for my emotional state.
And oh boy, I was in for a ride.
I watched video after video, fighting against the urge to cry (because gross, emotions) and finally just giving up entirely. Perhaps it was because I was too young to understand the impact or maybe, as a Black woman, I had become accustomed to depending on myself and the Black women in my life (*cough* and the internet *cough*) for validation and assurance. In a world in which our looks, demeanor, attire, etc. are constantly under scrutiny, constantly ridiculed, and constantly demeaned, I have found the strength and confidence to embrace my own Black womanhood by zeroing in on other women who looked like me. Thick lips, wide nose, and all.
But watching videos of young girls, some of whom were already familiar with the animated version of The Little Mermaid, sing-along and get excited for a Black mermaid…I felt like a small part of me needed to truly feel this sudden surge of vulnerability and hope for the first time.
Growing up, it was easy to be embarrassed by my looks, hyperaware of my presence in any room, conscious of whether or not my hair was “acceptable.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how much of my own life I personally scrutinized and nitpicked, relaxed and straightened, to make others around me comfortable. To hope that I wouldn’t be thought less than because of how I chose to carry myself.
Now, for the first time, a Disney princess will have dreads. DREADS!
I watched these reaction videos with a sense of joy and sadness. How I wished a younger me had something like this to hold on to. To look at the screen and see my features or hair type normalized and beautiful so that I wouldn’t carry such shame that I’ve only recently begun to face head-on. But — to use a phrase I think everyone is sick of hearing at this point but bear with me please — the tears that I cried while watching those TikToks felt like it was healing some part of my inner child. The younger Ashley, who might not have realized the messages she was inhaling at the time, but would feel their effects all the same as she got older.
When I watched The Little Mermaid teaser for myself, I was excited, but my emotions, like always, were detached from the overall experience. But seeing those little girls exclaim in surprise that Ariel was Black, that Ariel had dreads, made me realize that these castings, whether intentional or not, are not about me. I have the fortune of slowly coming into my own as a Black woman in America thanks to those in my family and on the internet (again, please don’t judge) who leap forward, perhaps nervous, but bold and proud all the same. And I can only hope that it’s not much longer before I’m able to do the same without second-guessing myself.
These casting choices are for the young girls, who, in another world, could have grown up like me: self-conscious, ashamed, and perhaps even envious (we don’t even have time to unpack that here). And this isn’t to say they might not feel these things as they get older; but the foundations being planted today will go a long way in allowing Black girls to simply exist as they are. And I can’t think of a group who deserves that more.