Three seconds after Disney announced that a black woman would star as Ariel in the upcoming live action production of the animated classic, The Little Mermaid, Twitter was ablaze with the online petition #NotMyAriel. Racists and cartoon purists argued that Ariel should not be played by actor Halle Bailey, who is neither white nor a redhead like the 1989 character.
The folks at Disney were quick to defend their choice of leading lady. They pointed out that the original children’s story was penned in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and that Danes come in many colors, including black. Besides, they argued, The Little Mermaid is a cartoon, not a biopic. They could cast her as pink if they wanted to.
Politics make strange bedfellows, but so do fish, evidently. Even though I applaud Disney’s bold choice, I’m voting with the #NotMyAriel contingent. I have no problem with Bailey playing a mermaid; I just don’t like the idea of her playing Ariel.
I’ve been obsessed with mermaids for several years now. I’m sure it has something to do with spending so much time with my parents, who live in coastal Virginia near Norfolk, home to the largest naval base in the world.
You can’t evade mermaids in Norfolk. As the city’s mascot, they adorn everything from storefronts, to breweries and street signs. There are mermaid sculptures in the public parks. And my favorite Norfolk tourist T-shirt bears a silhouette of a mermaid and says “Be Mer-mazing.”
My childhood concept of mermaids was shaped by the European image of a woman with pale white skin, flowing hair, and shimmering blue-green scales (anybody remember Daryl Hannah in Splash?). But when I did some research, I learned that the idea of a fish-woman was as ubiquitous in the ancient world as the archetype of the earth mother.
For centuries, the Inuit of Alaska worshiped Sedna, the mother of all sea mammals. And in the Caribbean, the mermaid called Lasirn holds a mirror, a window between this world and the underwater world. To become a Vodou priestess, some women say they go with Lasirn into the water world and emerge with new powers.
My favorite mermaid, though, is Mami Wata, who has had followers in more than 20 countries across Africa for centuries. Scholars disagree on whether her name is pidgin English for “Mother Water,” or whether her name originates in ancient Egypt.
But they agree that the deity often holds a snake, the common symbol of African water gods. Mami Wata is as powerful as she is mercurial. She can bring you good luck or crush you mercilessly. Her sexuality is sometimes dangerous, sometimes ecstatic, but always alluring.
This notion of a powerful, half-woman, half-fish sea creature suffered considerably in the hands of European writers. In Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the mythological creature not only lacks a voice, but also a soul. The story is more about her quest for eternal life than it is about winning the love of a handsome prince.
But my least favorite mermaid of all is the Disney version, where we find Ariel living a life of privilege as the daughter of the mighty King Triton. Evidently, that’s not good enough for the brooding teen.
She’s a self-hating wannabe, who will only be happy if she can live above ground married to a handsome prince. She’s internalized her oppression so completely, that she doesn’t seem to realize that she’s already a princess.
Let’s be real. Disney – and fairytales in general – have long filled children’s heads with unhealthy, dated ideals. But in the infinite ocean of fairytale flotsam, The Little Mermaid is the biggest fish tale ever. Ariel not only gives away her voice in exchange for a chance to love a human, she forsakes her heritage in the process.
Here’s what I want to know. Who’s gonna have the nerve to snatch a black woman’s voice in the live action version of the story? And what man will be worth a black Ariel turning her back on her own people? I hope the story takes a surprise turn in its modern iteration, and the black mermaid gets possessed by her ancestral water spirit guide, Mama Wata.
Maybe this time, she will lift her voice, not surrender it. Maybe she will give her human prince an ultimatum: Leave those pesky legs behind and live in my world where I’m already royalty. If you can’t love me on my terms, no worries. There are plenty other fish in the sea.
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother. Her award-winning short film, The Choice, can be seen at descooper.com.