Social media is alive with toxic reactions to Disney’s teaser trailer for its live-action The Little Mermaid to be released in the spring of 2023.
Some are offended by Disney’s creative decision to cast Halle Bailey, a Black actress, in the iconic role of Ariel.
Despite the emotional reactions, Disney’s creative decision reflects a courageous commitment to boldly reimagine its iconic film, embracing a more culturally inclusive approach to storytelling.
If you have raised children, then you likely have seen Disney’s classic version of the Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale about the young mermaid who falls in love with a human prince and intensely desires to be human. It’s an entertaining story of longing, deceit by the antagonist Ursula and the ineffable power of amorous love.
The art of storytelling is old as humankind itself. Ancient civilizations preserved their history, cultural understandings, and identities through oral tradition-stories. Storytelling was never designed to just entertain, but to communicate and disseminate vital cultural beliefs and traditions throughout generations.
Thus, a writer for the Resiliency Initiative asserts:
“This human ability to tell stories is what differentiates us from other animals and led to the success of our species, writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari’s key insight is that language gave us the ability to talk about things that are not real. Storytelling gave Homo sapiens the ability to gossip, relate history, and create belief systems, as well as television dramas and dreams of the future. The transmission of these ideas means we can cooperate on a large scale, sharing concepts and ideals. This can be positive or negative. Think about how people can be convinced to receive vaccines or not. It is through the power of stories connected with each issue.”
Humankind’s rational ability to be creative and to imagine fictitious narratives is a unique gift from God in whose image we are created. The power of rationality and creativity are unique gifts given to humankind who are elem, physical representations of a royal and divine being.
In the original animated film, the mermaid Ariel bears the characteristics of individuals of European descent. Many describe her as white, a problematic human construct in itself.
However, we must not forget the quintessential problem with the human construct of race: it was designed by our European forefathers to elevate whiteness above all in Europe’s imperial dominance of the world.
So, perhaps, the offense taken to a Black Ariel is really a reaction to the fact that whiteness no longer is elevated in the story of the Little Mermaid – rather, an equal beauty is celebrated. Perhaps, toxic reactions to a Black Ariel are reflections of biases regarding ethnicity and its associated value and beauty in the world.
Disney’s creative choice invites other cultures into the grand narrative of humankind, exploring our identities and aspirations.
Casting Halle Bailey as Ariel celebrates that we are, as the Ubuntu assert, inextricably connected to one another in the wondrous web of humanity. It acknowledges the reality, “I am because we are.”
I’m thankful that Disney has reimagined its film to include the beauty of all humanity.
A United Methodist pastor currently pursuing his Doctoral of Ministry degree at Duke University. He also is an accomplished Christian composer, guitarist and singer.