Earlier this month Disney released a trailer for their upcoming film “The Little Mermaid”.
Of course it caused a certain amount of uproar on some of the less savoury parts of the internet (such as Youtube) based on the claim that Disney somehow ruined it by being “too woke”. As noted in a recent edition of The Present Age’s newsletter, given the lack of dialogue or really anything other than swimming in the sea action, this basically means that people don’t like the fact that a Black actress, Halle Bailey, was cast in the role of Ariel.
This isn’t surprising, not least because the same rants and raves happened upon the announcement of the casting 3 years ago, and the world doesn’t seem to have improved much in that respect since then. I guess the people in question just forgot they’d already made that particular angry attempt to cancel Disney.
Perhaps one of the more glaring confirmations of what is going on here was when a Twitter user shared the results of “using AI” to convert a still from the trailer from featuring the original Halle Bailey to a fake white person, commenting that it was possible to “fix” the entire movie like than in 24 hours. It is apparently, to quote the poster in question, “over for wokecels.”
Trying to abstract the topic away from what is hard to read as anything other than simple racism, I think Adam Serwer, in his Atlantic article “Fear of a Black Hobbit” is right in saying:
The demand to keep politics out of art is too often a demand for art to conform to conservative politics.
To what extent does truly apolitical art exist? I don’t mean “can you make a film that isn’t about politics?” - of course you can. But it’s hard for me to imagine many films that aren’t touched by society and politics one way or another.
If what is really meant is “I want films that resemble the ones that used to be made in my society 30 years ago” then those films will naturally have been influenced the society and politics at the time. Nothing is born into a cultural vacuum. Even if one can find a story that can’t be interpreted “politically” then there’s still the considerations of who created the art, under what circumstances, why they chose that particular story, what their intent was with it and why they, as opposed to someone else, were the one to tell it.
If one wants a specific example of this then we can look at the various ways that Jesus has been portrayed over time. All sorts of skin colours have been used. Many detailed and vigorous debates have been had as to which is the ‘correct’ one. And this is for an actual person for whom the consensus is that they likely did exist as a historical figure - so there is an actual true answer to know in theory.
On which note, the backlash to the The Little Mermaid’s casting is a particularly wild and confusing phenomenon if taken at the surface level. For one, I’m sorry if this traumatises anyone, but mermaids are mythical beings. We’re not misrepresenting some fact of nature. How we choose to portray these folkloric beings is up to us.
Secondly, the colour of Ariel’s skin is totally irrelevant to the story. It’s more about whether she has a fish tail or not.
Where skin colour is a pivotal aspect to the story of course it often makes sense to preserve that in whichever way the story requires. Likewise if you’re trying to recreate an actual historical event as accurately as possible. Switching the races of the actors in BlackkKlansman would be pretty nonsensical given its topic and basis in real life. The story of a fictional creature living in a fictional world where their salient experience is dependent on whether they have a fish tail or human legs does not have this limiting factor.
In reality, even a writer who wants to tell stories about race has many degrees of freedom. Science fiction for example contains many stories about social prejudice and discrimination paralleling racism but set in an entirely different looking and behaving world populated with distant aliens. Experimenting with other identities can work similarly - Naomi Alderman’s famous book “The Power” explores a future where women become a physical threat to men, as opposed to the current world where the opposite is usually true.
Next up, well, Black mermaids are nothing new even within the canon of Disney-specific Little Mermaid productions. Disney has had them for three decades. You’ve somewhat missed the boat on umm…“proving” they don’t exist.
Introducing Gabriella, from 1992’s Disney’s Little Mermaid TV series:
Unlike most Disney mermaids, Gabriella was actually based on a real person, albeit not one with a tail. Her design was inspired by 2 year-old Gabriella Bommino who unfortunately died of leukaemia so young, but was already a Little Mermaid superfan.
I don’t if this choice caused any consternation in 1992 to be honest. I hope not. But Twitter and YouTube weren’t a thing back then so perhaps it was more containable if it existed at all.
Moving on: is there really a danger of ruining the purity (?) of the Little Mermaid by “introducing politics”? As noted above, so many - perhaps all - stories are already touched or contextualised by politics and society. But it seems to me that the Little Mermaid is particularly easy to interpret using political and social metaphors. Many people have done so, years before last week’s trailer came out.
Whilst some may now find aspects of Disney’s original 1989 film interpretation of The Little Mermaid problematic, the Smithsonian Magazine wrote in some detail about the political subversion embedded within it at the time.
The last thing Americans would expect from Disney was a critique of patriarchy, but sure enough, Ashman’s The Little Mermaid is a gutsy film about gender and identity—a far cry from the staid Disney catalog.
Lenika Cruz writing in the Atlantic saw it as a “stepping stone” for Disney from a set of animations with few female leads (and those that did feature were often asleep for most of the film - think Snow White or Sleeping Beauty) to the more rounded, well-developed female cartoon stars of recent years.
More fundamentally, there has been many an interpretation of the original story, for example as an allegory for growing up, as a commentary on identity or a metaphor for gender relations. After all, poor repressed Ariel believes the only way she can be happy is to marry a rich man, so feels compelled to change her appearance, giving up her treasured voice in an effort to do so. I haven’t got access to the essay, but Wikipedia describes Susan White’s interpretation of the story as the “difficult liminal passage of the girl into the order of speech and social symbolism (power, politics, and agency) which is symbolically understood as masculine”.
This is even more salient when we remember that the Disney movie in many ways does not actually reflect the original story. If Disney is to be held at fault for changing the original then perhaps it’d make a little more sense to be cross at them for entirely changing the ending and, to some people, the whole point of the story 33 years ago. For the “anti-wokers”, surely casting a person that doesn’t look exactly like your mental image of Ariel is nothing compared making up a whole new soppy ending, perhaps fearing that the snowflake audience can’t cope with the original.
For people, like me as of 2 days ago, who don’t know the original story, brace yourself - it’s not pretty.
First we discover that, unlike the story’s humans, mermaids are mere creatures; they don’t have souls. Human souls go to heaven for eternity when they die. Mermaids simply turn into foam and cease to exist. As well as questing for the love of the handsome prince, what Ariel is battling for is to complete herself with a soul.
The witch still gives Ariel the magic turn-tail-into-legs potion in exchange for her voice. But in the original, drinking it is physically agonising. Walking on her resulting legs feels like walking on sharp knives from that point on.
The conditionality is also more severe. If Ariel can’t make the prince love her then the day after he marries someone else, Ariel will die. In that case she will also never have become a full human, so will die soulless, vanishing from existence entirely.
Unfortunately the prince marries someone else.
But all is not lost; Ariel’s sisters negotiate with the witch, swapping their lovely hair for a knife they give to Ariel. Ariel must use this knife to murder the prince. Only when his blood drips on her feet the witch will let her return to her original mermaid life. Grim.
Despite the personal consequences, she can’t bring herself to do this so commits suicide, throwing herself into the sea and dissolving into foam as expected. But at the last minute she’s kind of saved: rather than vanishing into nothingness forever she’s been turned into a spirit - a “daughter of the air”. There’s still a glimmer of hope for her to get into heaven, but for now she’s stuck in purgatory for 300 years, and must try and prove herself worthy by doing good deeds for mankind.