Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ starring Black actress Halle Bailey opens with fanfare, but also caps a history of misogynoir

Waves of positive reaction surround Walt Disney Pictures’ remake of “The Little Mermaid,” being released today. The film is expected to be one of this year’s biggest hits.

But there are hints of darkness in the water too, with the road to box-office success polluted with racist hate related to the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black actress, as the title character of 18-year-old mermaid Ariel. It’s part of a disturbing pattern of Black and Afro-Latina women getting the most toxic backlash in sci-fi/fantasy fandom, for getting cast in movie and TV character roles originally conceived as white women.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's "The Little Mermaid. " Photo credit: Giles Keyte, Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid. ” Photo credit: Giles Keyte, Disney Enterprises, Inc.

The racist backlash goes as far back as when Eartha Kitt was cast as Catwoman in ABC’s 1966 to 1968 TV series “Batman,” which was based on DC Comics characters. Halle Berry also got an overwhelming amount of negativity for being cast as the title character in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 2004 flop “Catwoman,” although the movie was also panned overall by critics and audiences. Singer/actress Brandy got some initial pushback from racists when she was cast as the title character in ABC’s 1997 “Cinderella” TV-movie, which had a multiracial cast, including Whitney Houston as Fairy Godmother. The controversy died down after the film became a hit with audiences.

In more recent years, the racism has been amplified because of social media, where racist comments and menacing threats are on public display. Some of the Black or Afro-Latina actresses who became the targets of this hate include Leslie Grace as the title character in “Batgirl,” a movie made for the streaming service then known as HBO Max, but then the release of “Batgirl” was canceled in 2022. “Batgirl” was one of several movies and TV shows canceled that year by parent company Warner Bros. Discovery for cost-cutting and quality-control reasons, according to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav. Javicia Leslie, who portrayed the title character in The CW’s now-canceled “Batwoman” TV series, dealt with hate when she replaced white actress Ruby Rose, who left the show in 2020. 

Also experiencing racist backlash is Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who portrays Queen Regent Miriel in Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power” series based on novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. People of color are the minority in this multiracial cast, but that still hasn’t stopped Internet trolls from attacking because they think certain characters should only be portrayed by white people. It should be noted that many of these characters are not human in these fantasy books, and therefore can be played by any race. Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays the elf Arondir on the show, told Variety recently that the show has an on-set therapist to help employees deal with racist backlash.

The fandom of sci-fi/fantasy movies and TV shows, also known as “geek culture,” can be open-minded and welcoming overall. But there are certain segments who are quick to get aggressively angry and bully any actor or actress of color who plays a role originally portrayed or conceived as a race that’s different from that of the actor or actress. Interestingly, many of these racists are noticeably silent when white people play roles originally conceived as non-white. Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” (from Paramount Pictures) and Tilda Swinton’s supporting role in 2016’s “Doctor Strange” (from Marvel Studios) were originally Asian characters in comic books. Although there was some controversy over this “whitewashed casting,” it didn’t come close to the animosity that people of color face for race-swapping roles.

The reality of what Black and Afro-Latina actresses face is reflected in this 2021 FandomWire piece listing the race-swapping superhero castings that fans “loved” or “hated” the most.” In the piece, written by Bibhu Prasad Panda, all the Black or Afro-Latina actresses are listed in the “hated” category. Black male actors get mixed evaluations, while all the Asian/Pacific Islander actors are praised for their race-swapping roles.

When asked to comment on these noticeable racial discrepancies in Panda’s piece, FandomWire president Reilly Johnson responded by email to Black News & Views: “All opinions represent those of the author(s), not FandomWire as a whole. Though, I doubt there was any racist intent behind his list/opinion piece.” Black News & Views tried to contact Panda, but he could not be reached through FandomWire or other forums.

“Unfortunately, pop culture is racially charged, and misogynoir is the lowest-hanging fruit,” says Karama Horne, founder of the website and podcast The Blerd Gurl. Horne specializes in covering pop culture from a “Blerd” (Black nerd) perspective. She also is author of the 2022 Marvel book “Black Panther: Protectors of Wakanda: A History and Training Manual of the Dora Milaje from the Marvel Universe.” 

Horne tells Black News & Views why misogynoir is especially rampant on social media: “Our community, especially within genre media, is very vocal. Social media algorithms favor attention. Therefore, if anyone wants to get more eyes on their content or more podcast downloads, targeting Black women is the fastest way to do it because they are banking on the fact that we will show up and argue.”

The big controversy over “The Little Mermaid”

“The Little Mermaid” is a remake of Disney’s 1989 animated film of the same name. It is based on Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale originally published in 1837. Disney’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” takes place in and around the sea waters of a Caribbean island, which is why there is a multiracial cast. South African-British actress Noma Dumezweni, who is Black, plays Queen Selina, the adoptive mother of white Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King), who is Ariel’s love interest in the movie. Daveed Diggs, another Black person in the movie’s principal cast, has the animation voice role of Ariel’s guardian crab Sebastian.

Bailey, who rose to fame as one-half of the sister singing duo Chloe x Halle, was announced as the star of “The Little Mermaid” back in 2019. Before even seeing any footage from the movie, many of the racists on social media said they would boycott the movie because, they claimed, this version of “The Little Mermaid” pushed a “woke” political agenda. There’s also been a racist agenda to get others to not only boycott the movie but also boycott Disney because of Bailey’s leading role. 

During the media tour to promote “The Little Mermaid,” Bailey was open about her thoughts on the attacks. She told The Face magazine: “As a Black person, you just expect it and it’s not really a shock anymore.” She added that her mentor Beyoncé advised her not to get caught up in the negative comments or reacting to the haters.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney's "The Little Mermaid. " Photo credit: Giles Keyte, Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Halle Bailey as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid. ” Photo credit: Giles Keyte, Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Bailey also noted in The Face interview that she did not get the role in “The Little Mermaid” because of her race. However, she acknowledged how important Black representation is for movies where the principal cast members could consist almost entirely of white people. “People don’t understand that when you’re Black there’s this whole other community. It’s so important for us to see ourselves.”

In a 2022 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “The Little Mermaid” remake director Rob Marshall addressed the controversy about Bailey’s casting: “We just were looking for the best actor for the role, period. The end.” Marshall also says there was “no agenda” in race or politics when it came to deciding who would get the role of Ariel.

“The racism against Halle started the moment she was cast,” Horne says. “Despite an incredible performance, she’s still going to be the target of hate because old-school Disney fans are very conservative regarding their characters.”

Movie critics’ reactions have been mostly positive. Even those who don’t like the movie have praised Bailey and her performance. As for Black movie critics, the responses have been mixed.

Critic Wesley Morris of The New York Times wrote: “It reeks of obligation and noble intentions.” Aisha Harris of National Public Radio said in her review: “While Bailey is charming and expressive, her interpretation of Ariel doesn’t fully embrace the edgier, mischievous side of the character that came across so clearly in the 1989 version’s animation and as voiced by Jodi Benson.” Lovia Gyarkye of The Hollywood Reporter had this assessment: “A ho-hum adaptation buoyed by a lovely lead turn.”

Black critics who had more positive opinions include Sherin Nicole of Riotus/Geek Girl Riot, who wrote: “Bailey sparkles in the role with a voice so ethereal it’s difficult to match and her performance is as gentle and as forceful as the seas themselves can be.” Kayla Harrington of The Mary Sue raved: “As soon as I heard the first notes of Halle Bailey’s voice, I could tell this film would be something special. While ‘The Little Mermaid’ is not the first live-action Disney movie ever put on the big screen, it’s definitely the best one yet.” Joshua Mackey from Geeks of Color gave this glowing review: “The jewel of the sea is Bailey. Her angelic vocals are paired perfectly with her curious and determined depiction of Ariel.”

Issues of colorism and leading roles

It should be noted that racist backlash tends to get the most attention when it’s for starring/leading roles, compared to supporting roles. Colorism can also come into play, since racist critics tend to reserve their harshest attacks for darker-skinned actresses.

For example, Zendaya, who identifies as biracial, got some initial backlash for being cast as Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson in Columbia Pictures’ 2017 hit “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which is based on Marvel Comics characters. The backlash faded by the time she played roles in blockbuster sequels to the movie. And when Zendaya was cast as an Indigenous character named Chani in Warner Bros. Pictures’ sci-fi “Dune” reboot movies (based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune”), she didn’t get nearly as much backlash as Bailey did for “The Little Mermaid.” The same can be said for biracial Zazie Beetz, cast in the supporting role of Domino in 20th Century Pictures’ 2018 superhero movie “Deadpool 2,” which is based on Marvel Comics characters.

Horne says, “I think Zendaya has overcome some of the racism for three reasons. First, Marvel has been race-and-gender swapping their characters for longer than parent company Disney has, and the ‘Dune’ remake was always meant to be diverse. Second, she doesn’t let people speak for her and has been very vocal in speaking out against her racist critics. Third, we cannot deny that despite her incredible talent, her lighter complexion and [slender] frame make her more palatable to international audiences.”

As much backlash as exists for diversity in front of the camera, there is also resistance against diversity behind the camera. Horne comments, “Despite the significant push for diversity within science fiction and fantasy in the past few years, we still need more writers, editors, and producers to expand canon and point out inadvertent missteps.”

She adds, “I am excited to see Black creators stepping into these spaces and adding flavor to existing franchises, like Steven Caple Jr., who directed ‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’; Nia DaCosta, [director of the superhero film] ‘The Marvels’; or [screenwriter/executive producer] Akela Cooper [whose credits include the Paramount+ series  ‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ and Universal Pictures’ sci-fi horror hit ‘M3GAN.’]”

Horne believes that people should not underestimate the power and influence of Black women in sci-fi/fantasy genres. 

“Although misogynoir has been directed at Black women from both Black men as well as racists of other backgrounds, there are plenty of Black women like myself who thoroughly enjoy genre entertainment. And there are still plenty of Black men who support us,” Horne says. “Don’t let the podcast and ‘passport bros’ fool you. The Blerd community is thriving and is still largely responsible for the discourse across social media. We might not get the numbers. But we definitely have the influence.”

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