Cultural Impact Is Defining the Success of ‘The Little Mermaid’ (Commentary)

Despite racial and misogynistic attacks, the film’s impact goes beyond the screen


Whenever a person of color appears in a Disney project, like the new live-action iteration of “The Little Mermaid,” the racial vitriol automatically comes with the territory. Even in an age where we watched Meghan Markle become a literal Princess and a member of the royal family with our own two eyes, the heated conversation around race rages onward.

Whether it’s an album cover, film or TikTok dance, the racism, misogyny, and obsessive comments over what Black people can and can not become is exhausting and unnecessary. We live in a multicultural world where stories are no longer seen through a monolithic lens. With Disney features alone this issue has become even more pronounced. Remember when Brandy was Cinderella in 1997? Or when Princess Tiana hit the scene in “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009?

This predictable racism escalated even further when plans to produce a live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” were announced starring singer/actress Halle Bailey. Enraged fans were not silent in expressing their discontent. “Why does Ariel need to be Black? Why is the studio trying to erase my childhood” the arguments went. Let’s be clear, Hans Christian Anderson’s book (from which this all originated) and the 1989 animated film are still widely available and accessible to audiences — no one is erasing anything.

Is this any different than when Shuri was introduced in “Wakanda Forever?” Or Miles Morales’ entrance in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?” Yes and no. Black women always have our presence questioned, undervalued and/or marginalized, especially in the cinematic landscape. Even when Shuri appeared in no less than 10 Marvel comic books, when Letitia Wright was named the Black Panther, many diehards heralded the end of this franchise.

Did anyone have a similar reaction when actress Hailee Steinfeld was announced to take the mantle of Hawkeye or when Natalie Portman showed up as Lady Thor in “Thor: Love and Thunder?” Somehow having a Black female lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to crumble the studio and bring the franchise to its knees.

These white women may have received some social media backlash to their casting, but with Ariel and Shuri the one-two punch of race and gender-based vitriol hits on a level that feels massively unfair.

It may sound trite, but representation truly does matter. The sheer joy on the faces of little girls posted in videos from around the globe hugging and running into the arms of an Ariel that looks like them is tangible proof of the significance of this type of cultural representation.

Seeing the 1989 animated version meant everything to marine scientist/host Danni Washington, inspiring her to enter the world of science. Just like Ariel, that decision came with unforeseen challenges. While Bailey has received criticism over being cast in “The Little Mermaid,” Washington was fighting her own racial battles as a Black woman in the scientific sector.

“Black people in these spaces [weren’t] typically included. Now, there’s a network of scientists around the world with B.W.E.E.M.S (Black Women in Ecology and Marine Science) devoted to pushing the bounds of science and elevating Black Women who continue to drive innovation in ecology, evolution, and marine science despite being historically overlooked and isolated in the field,” she said.

Washington continued, “Having a Black woman onscreen to look up to, whether it’s me in the science space or Halle, representation matters and that’s important to me.”

Entertainment and culture journalist Brooke Obie couldn’t agree more. “While I absolutely roll my eyes at stories that tell girls to do anything for a man, let alone give up their voice – I love that little Black girls are seeing this and getting their imaginations expanded about what’s possible,” she said. “Ariel is curious and passionate and adventurous; she longs for a life beyond what she’s known and craves the freedom to make her own decisions rather than adopting the views of her overbearing father. Having a Black girl express these desires to a global audience matters.”

While “The Little Mermaid” has grossed over $259 million domestic, the film was hit with review-bombing overseas that softened its international performance (its worldwide total currently stands at $472 million). Representation matters, in spite of these kinds of reactions.

This generation of young girls is the same generation who have been privileged enough to see a Black President and a superhero who transcended the big screen into real life with Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Black Panther. Hope and imagination is all the youth of today can cling to in a world swirling with hate and controversy over where, how and why Black people fit into the artistic landscape.

Let this generation have a Black Ariel. Let them be the generation that can foster and break this cycle of racism. Let’s view art with an open mind and not be so quick to judge with selective amnesia. Like John Boyega said when met with backlash over being cast in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “To whom it may concern … Get used to it.”