Just last week we learned that Halle Bailey, one-half of the R&B duo Chloe X Halle and supporting star on Grown-ish, has been cast in the title role of Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Many rightfully praised the studio for casting a young black woman as the lead, but it didn’t take long for racism to rear its ugly head. And then—deep sigh—“#NotMyAriel” started trending on Twitter, with people complaining about Disney changing the skin color of a beloved fictional fish-person. Jodi Benson, who voiced the character in Disney’s original animated movie, addressed the casting backlash during an appearance at Florida Supercon; if the people complaining about a black Ariel won’t listen to reason, maybe they’ll listen to the original Ariel whom they claim to love so very much that it has driven them to make racist comments online.
According to USA Today, Benson defended Bailey’s casting, saying, “I think the most important thing is to tell the story. We have, as a family, raised our children and for ourselves that we don’t see anything that’s different on the outside. I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters. What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart and their spirit is what really counts.” In other words, it’s what’s on the inside—not the outside—that counts. It’s upsetting, to say the least, that an actress who voiced a fictional animated character has to basically tell people not to be racist as if they’re children who don’t know any better. Disney’s casting of Bailey is a celebratory moment and another marker of progress for the studio, which admittedly still has a long way to go in terms of representation. The whole thing is reminiscent of several years ago, when the mere suggestion that a black actor could play Spider-Man elicited similar racist backlash on social media. You’d think Disney fans, of all people, would be a little more progressive than this, given their affection for the family-friendly studio’s output. Then again, the negative response to Bailey’s casting illustrates exactly why Disney needed to cast her in the first place.