In 1997, millions of Black girls watched in awe as actress and singer Brandy Norwood was transformed into the iconic princess, Cinderella, in the television movie version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical. Delivering outstanding vocals, Norwood (and a diverse cast that included Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Filipino-American actor Paolo Montalbán as Prince Christopher) gave millions of kids (and adults) the chance to see themselves reflected in a fairy tale for the first time.
Now, more than 20 years later, and 10 years after adding its first and only Black princess to its roster, Disney is about to do it again.
Disney announced on Wednesday that they had cast 19-year-old singer and actor Halle Bailey as Ariel in their forthcoming live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” The animated feature, released in 1989, is still one of Disney's most beloved films and features a rebellious mermaid who is desperate to escape her constrained life under the sea to live above water with humans.
In the live-action “Little Mermaid,” Bailey will join rapper/actress Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay. The “Crazy Rich Asians” actress is slated to voice Scuttle the seagull, a role voiced by a male actor in the past, and Tremblay will voice Flounder, Ariel's pet fish and bestie. Melissa McCarthy is reportedly in talks to portray the villainous Ursula the Sea Witch in the movie.
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It's shocking to say, but Bailey portraying Ariel is groundbreaking for Disney, which has been clutching on to 2009's “The Princess and the Frog” as its sole representation of Blackness in its official Princess Line. This marks the first time the studio has chosen a woman of color in a part that has been traditionally portrayed by a white woman.
In addition to having a brown-skinned Black woman as the face of Ariel, Bailey's casting shatters stereotypes about Black hair, the myths about Black people and swimming — a product of segregated swimming pools — as well as narratives about the desirability of Black women as love interests.
Bailey usually wears her hair in locs, rather than naturally curly or straightened to look more like white hair, also opening the dialogue for a discussion about Black hair. Locs or dreadlocks have a history stretching back to ancient Egyptian times. The locs — or rope-like strands of hair — are formed when afro-textured hair is coiled or matted together. Celebrities such as Bob Marley, Whoopi Goldberg and Ava DuVernay have made the style more mainstream. However, even today, locs are still seen as unprofessional in school settings and in the workplace; California this week became the first state to ban rules that discriminate against Black people who chose to wear their hair in its natural state or in styles that compliment our hair textures, like locs.
Back in 2015, the long-running E! series “Fashion Police” was forced to revamp after host Giuliana Rancic rudely commented on Zendaya's Oscars red carpet hair which was styled in locs; Rancic stated that her hair looked like it, "smells like patchouli oil or weed." Her comments, of course, aren't uncommon for Black people who wear their hair natural or in traditional styles to hear; the fact that, in 2019, states have to pass laws allowing us to work with our natural hair is evidence enough. Bailey's hair, and how they choose to utilize her style while playing Ariel, will bring this discussion further into the mainstream.
Her casting also brings an end to Disney's "Same Face Syndrome," a term coined in 2015 by Tumblr user Every Flavored Beaned in a post calling out the studio for using the same face for all of its female characters for the past decade. Princesses like Anna from “Frozen” and Rapunzel from “Tangled” all have round cheeks, giant round eyes, and tiny button noses, a glorification of European features and an impossible standard. (Back in 1989, the animated Ariel's face shape and features were reportedly based on a teenaged Alyssa Milano, albeit exaggeratedly.) Bailey, with her high cheekbones, brown skin and bright brown eyes, shatters this mold entirely.
Of course, in the midst of all of the joy and delight surrounding Bailey's casting, the racist trolls are out in full force. They even have a hashtag, #NotMyAriel, where they gleefully showcase their bigotry. To try and suggest that a mythical creature has an assigned race is beyond preposterous, but it's also to be expected by those who have grown up with a constant parade of lily-white faces in their films and on their television screens that they’ve been able to look toward for validation.
When the animated film "The Little Mermaid" first debuted, it elevated Disney back to Hollywood's A-list after a slew of lackluster Disney flicks in the 70s. "[It's] a movie that's so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney work of the past," Roger Ebert said in his review. Now, in Disney's new era of live-action films like “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast,” there was much talk and anticipation when the studio announced in 2016, that they would be taking us under the sea into Ariel's world — but no one could have anticipated Bailey's casting.
For years, though, there were rumors that “Euphoria” actress Zendaya, a mixed raced Black woman who has advocated for darker-skinned faces in film and on TV, would slide into Ariel's fin. (Zendaya, for her part, was thrilled when Hailey's casting as announced;, she retweeted Variety's announcement saying, "Yeeeeessss!! Here for thiiiissss!! @chloexhalle.")
But, though Hollywood has touted the words “diversity” and “inclusion” — after writer April Reign coined #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 — colorism still runs rampant. Profoundly talented, actresses like Yara Shahidi, Amandla Stenberg, and Alexandra Shipp have been cast in roles in films like “The Hate U Give,” “The Sun Is Also A Star” and “Dark Phoenix,” but those were roles that had originally been written for women with much darker skin. The door is widening in Hollywood for women of color, but darker skinned women are being shoved to the side in favor of those with more European features and pale complexions.
Disney casting Bailey comes at a time when Hollywood is attempting to move forward in fits and starts at best, while the country as a whole — with it's conservative government and overwhelming laws that continue to disenfranchise Black and brown bodies — seems to be sliding back into a more repressive era. Bailey earning the role is a bold and refreshing statement that will hopefully set a precedent for the entertainment industry as a whole as we press forward into the 21st century.
And, thankfully the excitement around her casting has outweighed the racist criticism of it. More than anything, Halle Bailey's dream role shows just how far we've come as a society, and how far we must go. It's going to be a magical experience to see her bring a flesh-and-blood Ariel to the screen for Black women who grew up with the red-headed animated Ariel, and for young girls today across different cultures and races. Bailey's casting means that there is an opportunity for every story to be told, and for every walk of life to be represented in Hollywood. Let's just hope that in another 20 years we are no longer calling news like this revolutionary.