Racial representation and The Little Mermaid: The struggle for diversity in film

Halle Bailey will play Ariel in Disney's live action rendition of The Little Mermaid. (Walt Disney Studios/YouTube - image credit)
Halle Bailey will play Ariel in Disney's live action rendition of The Little Mermaid. (Walt Disney Studios/YouTube - image credit)

Ariel from The Little Mermaid was one of Kaliyah Desormeaux's most beloved Disney princesses when she was growing up, but as a young Black girl she never felt as if she could dress up as her.

A teaser trailer for Disney's new live action rendition of the film has since changed that, especially for Desormeaux's three-year-old daughter.

The upcoming film starring Halle Bailey as Ariel has made parents and children ecstatic to see themselves represented in the Disney world. On social media, parents have been sharing their children's wholesome reactions to seeing the Black actress as The Little Mermaid.

Though the buzz of the new actress has sparked a lot of positive reaction, many racist and negative comments have also surfaced, such as on the YouTube trailer claiming Disney was ruining a classic film and mermaids couldn't be Black.

Frustration toward racist comments and backlash

Simone Holder, 55, never thought about people of colour in films growing up, she assumed that was how things were.

"I was conditioned [to think that] Disney Princesses are white," said Holder.

With no children of her own, Holder said it was beautiful to see the positive reactions to a Black woman as the main character but the vitriol, while unsurprising, left her disheartened.

"All it emphasizes to me is that everything is white-centric. They'll never get it," she said.

Holder said a lot of the comments came from a place of ignorance and whiteness and the inability for people to break from their ideological way of thinking.

Submitted by Simone Holder
Submitted by Simone Holder

Representation ideals and breaking from linear perspectives 

University of Toronto professor Lauren McLeod Cramer focuses much of her work on the esthetics of blackness and popular culture.

Racism that continues to surround films and shows which integrate diverse characters continues to be a perpetually interesting topic, she said.

According to Cramer, people who express discomfort or lash out about the change in the main character's skin colour feel as if something is being taken away.

This aligns with the phrase "representation matters," which Cramer says typically means "if people who look like me are on screen, I matter."

"If that's how we think about representation … you can imagine how painful the exclusion of people of colour, queer [and diverse people has been] … for basically the entire course of film and television history," said Cramer.

We're finally reaching change within our society, but it's taken so long - Kaliyah Desormeaux

Some people's refusal to accept a Black actress in the role of Ariel illustrates how a white-centric perspective requires deeper understanding on what the film is truly about.

The Little Mermaid, for example, teaches viewers to see the world with a sense of wonder, said Cramer.

"A lot of Black audiences can talk about how they've always viewed films in a way that made space for themselves, even when we aren't on screen," she said.

"It's not as simple as casting a person and then we feel seen. Sometimes, I really don't see myself in [the movie]. Other times I do see myself in characters who don't look anything like me."

Submitted by Kaliyah Desormeaux
Submitted by Kaliyah Desormeaux

Feeling a connection to their childhood

Desormeaux said when she saw the videos of young children reacting to the news, she cried and thought this is something she wished she had in her childhood.

"Now the struggles that I had as a [young girl], my daughter doesn't really have to," she said.

Kayla Straker-Trotman also shares the excitement of being able to see herself in film. She also grew up watching Ariel.

"People are helping kids grow their minds a bit more, and expanding what they see as 'anyone can do anything,'" said Straker-Trotman.

People of colour and diverse folks continue to fight to be seen in film and many said they're not deterred by the hate on social media.

"We're finally reaching change within our society, but it's taken so long," said Desormeaux.

When it came to speaking out about the hate the film was getting, Desormeaux says her daughter changed her perspective, and she chose to share her thoughts.

"Making the changes by speaking out and talking about certain things will create changes that will be normalized for them," said Desormeaux.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.