As a little girl growing up, we'd play a popular game called, "which Disney princess are you?" My white friends LOVED it because they got to envision themselves as almost all of the princesses. They could switch their answer based on which dress or prince they liked better that day and it was innocent and fun. I, as well as other POC, weren't so lucky. I'm Asian, so I had to say Mulan. To be honest, I now have a lot of appreciation for Mulan because of what her character does for representation AS WELL as the fact that she's a badass. But when I was younger, Mulan was actually my least favorite princess. She didn't get the pretty dresses, the nice love story, the graceful dances, the tiara, etc. All of the things I LOVED about the Disney princesses as a kid, she didn't have. Sometimes I'd try saying "Belle", but I was immediately laughed at. Everyone would site my slanted eyes, nose, and hair color for proof that I could never be any other princess. And I wasn't even the worst off. If you were latinx, you didn't even have one that looked like you. If you were white passing, maybe your friends wouldn't notice, but it's still not the same.
So that brings us to today: Halle Bailey as the new Ariel. A lot of people aren't totally on board, and honestly, I DO understand to some degree. Before I get into that though, let me make a couple things clear. I completely disagree with casting based primarily on physical appearance. I've said this before, but artists of color are constantly not cast in roles just because they don't look like the previous people that have played them. This is incredibly problematic because historically, racism made it so that "white" was the default for everything. Therefore, when we continue to cast based on previous appearances (when race has nothing to do with the character), we're perpetuating this racism. Also, I believe in talent over appearance for every role. I understand sometimes casting on general "type" is important. For instance, Ariel has to be bubbly and seem young and innocent. These are important characteristics for the character. However, once you have a group of people that fit this "type", I believe it should be about the talent. Too often we cast based on appearance or the celebrity factor in hopes that it'll bring in more people and therefore more money. But we have seen time and time again that when we TRUST our audiences to be receptive towards real, honest talent, it pays off. Take Hamilton for example. Casting wasn't based on these superficial elements (even Lin wasn't that well known). Yet, it SOARED and continues to soar because they trusted the talent and the audiences. So yes, I'm a big believer in casting based on talent.
Now, back to the topic at hand. Even though I don't like basing decisions on physical appearance, I do understand that Ariel's look is so iconic that it is now engrained in people's heads. It's hard to disassociate the character from the appearance, even for me. So of course it might take more adjusting for some people, but to that I say, just adjust. There is absolutely no reason for you not to or to get upset. Little black girls (and even brown girls) are going to have an Ariel the same color as them. They get to see themselves in this princess for the first time ever, and that matters.
Let's pivot and address some of the concerns making people upset."If they wanted a black princess movie, they should have just done The Princess and the Frog": After many years of not even having a black princess, we do finally have one. That's true. However, having one Disney princess to represent an entire race is absolutely not good enough when you have so many princesses representing different types of white people. People argue it's because we're the minorities in America, but, it doesn't matter. You're still generalizing experiences and stories and assuming that any black person should be able to identify with a black American from New Orleans. Or any east Asian person should be able to identify with Mulan. People then argue it's just because these are minorities. There's simply far less people. However, Disney is INTERNATIONAL. When you look at the world as a whole, we are absolutely not minorities. It is just ridiculous to assume that entire populations of people can be grouped into one character simply because you're only thinking of the populations in America. To make matters worse, the main reason the stark minorities even exist in the West is because of racist bans/immigration policies that were created in the past to make sure we STAYED the minority here. And this applies to other elements of entertainment outside of Disney.
"So Mulan has to be Asian and Tiana has to be black but Ariel doesn't have to be white? That's flawed logic. Ariel IS white with red hair. You would all be upset if this happened to Mulan, Tiana, or Jasmine.": True we absolutely would be upset. Those movies are based on the cultures that these princesses come from. The culture and ethnicity is a huge part of the movies and to have a white Mulan would be yellowface, white washing, and would not be okay (which has happened all the time, by the way). Ariel's race is never specified nor is it even a tiny element of the movie. She was drawn white because whenever a character doesn't have a specific race, white is the default. She's a mermaid. She could be any color.
"It's my favorite movie and as a red headed girl, I loved having a princess I could look up to. To this day I still have such a connection to that movie and it's completely unfair to take that away." Shall we talk about the irony that you had so many white girls to choose from and you found the one within that group that was the closest to you? And it meant SO much to you to this day? Yet most black girls didn't have a single princess and when they did, they might not have identified with Tiana at all. And they might have a little bit of Ariel for ONCE and get a SLIVER of the exact connection you've talked about meaning so much to you, but now you don't want anyone else to have that connection??
Taking it from another angle, she might still have red hair, we have no idea! On top of that, the animated character will always look like you and the character will forever be associated with fair skin and red hair. You aren't losing representation just because a marginalized group is being added to the mix for once. On top of that, you also have a red headed Anna from Frozen, Merida from Brave, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Jesse from Toy Story. These are four other iconic female Disney characters who also look like you. I'll say it again: you should not feel threatened that little black girls get a sliver of Ariel after not getting any for thirty years. No one wants to take Ariel away from you, least of all me. This is about letting other people join in on this experience.
I also believe Halle fits the type and talent categories I mentioned. She can easily play bubbly, sweet, and innocent. She exudes that kind of energy just from short clips of her singing. Also, she has the talent. I haven't seen her act that much, but I know she's on the show Grown-ish and I know she can sing CIRCLES around almost everybody on this Earth. So yes, I am so excited for this new era of Ariel and I hope that it does well so that we can see more of this going forward.
And we need to see more of this going forward because this kickstarts a bigger problem for little kids. Sure needing to be a Disney princess seems silly now, but first of all, these characters mean so much to kids (and adults honestly). Beyond this, when you're little, your parents tell you that you can be anything. To find out that that's not true so quickly and at such a young age really hurts. It also starts teaching little kids that they aren't as good as their friends and don't have the same opportunities, just because of their skin color. What seems so silly can really start to engrain a feeling of inferiority at an age where kids should be reaching for the stars.
Now before I wrap up, I do want to touch on one more thing. We cannot let Halle Bailey and Zendaya be the end of the fight for seeing blackness on screen/in traditionally white roles. Of course, they deserve everything they've gotten because I believe they have the talent to back it up. However, they also have lighter skin and are therefore more tolerable for a lot of people. So, we have to not only fight for more representation on screen, but also fight for darker skinned actors (of every group - Latinx, Asian, Black, etc.) to get the same opportunities as their light skinned counterparts.
The fight for representation keeps going, but I am so excited to see such a huge step in the right direction. Here's to black Ariel!