For generations, it’s Disney that has taught us about the world. For decades, however, Disney considered only white characters worthy of being included in their stories. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the company began introducing non-white princesses, including Pocahontas, Mulan, Aladdin‘s jasmine and The Hunchback of Notre Dameis Esmeralda. And only in 2009, Disney introduced a black princess to the canon in the form of Tiana The Princess and the Frog.
After a childhood of cramming awkwardly into Belle—of Beauty and the Beast — and Snow White costumes at princess parties, I was thrilled to finally see a character that specifically represented girls like me — despite the fact that I was well into my teens by this point and past my hardcore Disney-loving days . Countless black girls will soon have someone to point to as their hero: Halle Bailey’s Ariel in next year’s live-action remake The little mermaid.
Over the weekend, fans got their first taste of Bailey’s Ariel – mermaid tail, purple bikini top and auburn dreadlocks to boot. We also heard her sing some of the character’s signature songs, “Part of Your World,” and got a glimpse of the underwater realm Ariel is so desperate to escape from. It was a joy for most. Bailey – one half of singing sister duo Chloe x Halle – looked radiant as the wistful mermaid, while her sweet singing introduced a fresh take on the much-loved character. But unfortunately, the trailer also prompted a revival of the racist remarks that surfaced when Bailey was first cast for the role. Coupled with the idea that the live-action version of Ariel should mirror her appearance in the original film — pale white skin, straight red hair — trolls declared that Bailey was #NotMyAriel. Many claimed her casting was an example — surprise, surprise — of an “awakened” culture gone insane.
Immediately, many others dismissed the claims. They end up arguing about who can and can’t play a human-fish hybrid. In a film that features a singing crab with a Jamaican accent. And a purple squid woman who steals votes. Discussing whether it matters that the main character is now played by someone Black is very silly in many ways. It’s all supposed to be fictional fun, right? But in an effort to brush away the ridiculousness of the reactions, it’s easy to ignore just how meaningful it is for black girls to see versions of themselves on screen.
A viral thread of videos made as a result The little mermaidThe release of the trailer has shown dozens of children – and mostly black girls – reacting with joy upon seeing Bailey. “I think she’s brown,” says one girl in one clip. It’s hard not to be touched by the happiness it brings her.
Any child psychologist will tell you that the messages a young person receives shape their self-esteem. For many black children, years of watching black people being marginalized in pop culture reinforces the idea that they are not “part of the world.” It’s a wrong lesson that can take years to unlearn.
It has long been proven that children perceive race and attach different meanings to different skin colors. In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark used puppets to conduct studies of children’s racial consciousness. For example, two different dolls were placed in front of black children, and the Clarks found that the children tended to attribute positive qualities to the white doll. Other negative characteristics were attributed to the black doll. Although originally intended to show the harm of separate schooling, the experiment has been repeated several times in the 75 years since. It is a prime example of how early children are influenced by their environment.
Frankly, it is heartbreaking to see how early and how deep this sense of negative bias exists in black children. So there’s no telling how far-reaching this sense of inferiority can be – well into adolescence and adulthood – and how much of it has to do with what they are taught about people who look like them. Having a medium that actively demonstrates that whiteness doesn’t have to be the standard for our imaginations is a step towards making black children feel as important in their favorite stories as their white peers.
When it hits theaters next year The little mermaid will surely have families of all backgrounds on the pitches, ready to enjoy. A film will not change a system that whiteness has long regarded as the standard to uphold. For black children, however, it’s an opportunity to feel included in a part of Disney’s imagination and magic. Halle Bailey’s Ariel doesn’t take Jodi Benson’s voiceover in the animated version, and it’s not just positive for black kids, either. Shouldn’t every child be able to father heroes of all stripes?
It has been many years since my last princess party and I don’t expect to be able to attend one anytime soon. But for the black girls who want it, I’m glad Ariel doesn’t feel as remote as she used to.