Tom Jolliffe looks at the recent furore surrounding the casting of Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid…
As comes with many casting decisions, the recent announcement that Halle Bailey has been cast as Ariel in the Disney reboot of The Little Mermaid has been met with a mixed reaction. For the most part people seem quite happy with it (or I guess just comfortable enough to wait and see how she does).
Sadly there’s a vociferous minority, largely consisting of white folk, who aren’t happy that a young black actress is taking the role. It’s remarkable, for years Ginger folk have been the subject of constant teasing but suddenly there’s a big pro-Ginger army who want Disney to cast a white red headed girl in the lead. If there’s people who feel that strongly that it goes against the image of a cartoon (as if Disney somehow invented the story itself too) they grew up with, then it really is time to grow up. The trouble is, there’s just an entitled undertone that lies beneath it, and it is unfortunately racial.
There’s no small dose of irony here either to say that the shoe is on the other foot. For years, as societies equality margins slowly (very slowly) narrow, many white commentators would sit back at furore surrounding actors like Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone or Tilda Swinton taking roles which in the source material was clearly not white and wonder what the fuss was about. Beyond that, BAME actors have sat and watched white actors scoop the vast majority of the big roles for ‘original’ characters, and monopolise the awards etc. that come with those. The straight white male may stomp his feet at what they consider a shift away from the S.W.M. leading character, but the reality is, that’s still the predominant default.
The most inane part of all this furore over Ariel (okay, the reaction to said furore has amplified the vocal dismay of the small minority) is that this is predominantly from grown adults. Many of whom are well into their 30’s and grew up watching the Disney cartoon on VHS. Never mind casting, I’d have assumed these would be the very people who would have objected to the idea of a remake full-stop, but apparently not. For my part, I’ve no interest in watching any of the Disney live action remakes. I’ll just rewatch the animated films if the mood happens to strike. When the film first came out it was probably classified on the school playground as a girl’s film, so the amount of S.W.M’ who seem dismayed at the idea of a black girl playing Ariel is as amusing as it is depressing. One comment particularly caused me to scoff with laughter, and it was a dad defensively moaning that the film his daughter has been watching and loves on DVD, will not be recognisable in its live action form because the actress won’t be white with red hair. Now how much do we believe his young daughter will actually care about this? Not one bit. Nothing a Happy Meal negotiation won’t fix. It’s just sad that a grown man would step behind a small child and plead offence on their behalf to push his own agenda.
A more amusing aside that has begun MEME-ing its way around is the fact that mums didn’t seem to complain when Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman. As a counter attack, I enjoyed that one. There are some things that would not work with ethnicity re-castings. Biopics. Of course it’s actually been done (John Wayne as Genghis Khan anyone?) or very long established characters. If you look at James Bond as an example, there’s this idea that we’re in a prime era to change his sex or his ethnicity. If they did it I certainly wouldn’t be on a soap box stomping my feet, but for me, part of what makes Bond’s character defined is the fact he’s a misogynist with a dash of arrogance and a pinch of snobbery that someone of S.W.M. privilege could have. You begrudgingly admire and like Bond, because in the end, despite being a dick and enjoying all the cars, women and hotels mere mortals can’t, he saves the world.
What did people want from Disney though? A shot for shot remake in live action rather than cartoon? It’s such an unimaginative and blinkered view. Sadly it shows that significant portions of audience aren’t ready to move away from what they ‘know.’ Where the box office continues to rely on sequels and reboots and remakes, we’re still not seeing enough original material being greenlit. Herein lies a further problem. So much is now well established and it’s thus difficult not to flip up the gender or ethnicity in certain characters without attracting furore. If you start from scratch, creating new characters and worlds you can cast openly (In theory. Studios are still often loathe to do it).
Still, as that vocal minority continue to push the #notmyAriel movement, my response is this: No, it’s not your Ariel. It’s a film predominately aimed at pre-teens, so grow up! I won’t see it, but whilst I’m no fan of Disney as a monopolising entity, pre-occupied with franchise, I will say they’re a big studio who are front runners in diversity. They still don’t do enough, but a key reason they do so well is that they recognise audience representation (and additionally, they’ve accrued properties that have a similar ethos already, like the MCU). So good luck to Halle and the rest of the cast (sidenote: casting Awkwafina is always a stroke of genius).
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/