I cannot stop watching these videos.
In each, the camera focuses on the face of an adorable little Black girl, watching the screen in front of her. As the familiar strains of Alan Menken’s aching score swirl up, each girl stares intently until a beautiful, wistful face stares up at them as she begins to sing, “Wish I could be ... part of that world.”
It’s Ariel, “The Little Mermaid,” still a young, optimistic redhead yearning to leave her watery kingdom and explore life on land, strolling along on the, what’s the word again? Street.
There is one notable difference, of course. As one of the delighted viewers in one video exclaims, “She’s brown like me!”
Recently, Disney released the first trailer of their live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” starring singer and actor Halle Bailey as the titular singing sea creature. Some believe the casting of Bailey, who is Black, is “woke” or political, or claim that it has ruined their childhoods.
Meh. I’m much more interested in those videos of the little Black girls shocked into bliss by seeing someone who looks like them being part of something so iconic.
Being part of that world.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, maybe it’s because you’ve always seen yourself represented in media, because princesses and heroes and wizards looked like you. I haven’t. Progress has been slow — little girls younger than me got to see the beaming R&B singer Brandy as Cinderella. Those even younger grew up with Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess. But she spent the majority of “The Princess And The Frog” as a green amphibian. We can do better. We are doing better.
Wanting to be represented in media is not political. It’s wanting what everyone else wants. It only seems like a plot if you only think of nonwhite people as plot points, as people who exist as side characters in your life without real motivations. And that’s really a terrible thing to believe about other humans.
Ask Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff what it meant to them to see Venus and Serena Williams before them on those tennis courts, where people like them were told they didn’t belong. Ask me what it meant as a tiny girl in Baltimore to see a brown-skinned lady named Oprah broadcasting from a studio about 15 minutes from my house and thinking that I could be a journalist, too. Even after a professor told me to my face years later that my dreams were out of reach because I was a Black woman, I knew that wasn’t true. It wasn’t going to be easy, and there were going to be willful barriers. But I had a template now.
If I’m being honest, I admit I’ve always had concerns about the character Ariel as a role model because she was willing to give up her family, fins and literal voice for a stranger. That’s not cool, and I’ve been salty about it since 1991. I’ve seen people bring up that valid point, or say that it’s time for more original media featuring characters of color from the get-go. Absolutely.
But right now, I’m OK with seeing what that trailer, featuring a loved and desired princess with a brown face, means to those little girls. We don’t have to harsh this joy, this recognition. There’s another day for that. For now, just let the joy flow, please.
Having a Black princess doesn’t mean deleting the animated version, or purging the gorgeous vocals of the original Ariel, Jodi Benson, from the internet any more than they erased Paige O’Hara’s soaring wishes for adventure as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” when Emma Watson played the live-action version in 2017. Your memories are all there. There are just more of them now. The only difference is that this Ariel doesn’t look like you think she should. You’ll be fine.
A lot of people who like Disney’s old school period didn’t mind Black characters, as long as they were nasty stereotypes, like a black bird whose name is literally Jim Crow taunting a poor sad orphaned elephant. But when we aspire to be more than that, or even have a human face and not appear as a frog for more than a quarter of the movie, there’s a problem.
There are also the trolls and naysayers who think that a Black Ariel is reverse discrimination against gingers, or that it’s some sort of betrayal of Danish culture. Surprise! The original story was written by Hans Christian Andersen in response to the man he longed for marrying a woman. Also, in the original story, Ariel’s 14 years old, her human feet cut her like knives at every step and the prince she pines for rejects her to marry someone else. And when her sisters, whose favorite pastime is luring sailors to their deaths, say she can return to mermaid form if she murders the prince in his sleep, she chooses to dissolve into sea foam.
I think being Black and not sea foam is an upgrade.
Also ridiculous are those tying themselves into knots trying to prove that mermaids can’t be Black because they live too deep underwater to have sunlight-producing melanin. That claim has been refuted by no less an authority than a marine biologist at the National Museum of Natural History.
And you know what makes the argument even stupider? Mermaids aren’t real.
But you know what is real? Those little girls able to imagine themselves as dreamy sea creatures.
This is for them.