Once upon a time, there lived a young girl with brown skin, curly hair and a very vivid imagination. This girl would imagine the craziest scenarios: a secret dimension where she was a fairy-dragon or an alternative universe where she could read minds! In this young girl’s mind, she could do and be anything.
However, outside of this girl’s imagination, her opportunities did not feel so vast. While there has been significant progress in representation on the screen in recent years, at the time, the young girl was tormented by the thought that she could never be a princess, a superhero or even considered beautiful. Despite Disney being the place where “dreams come true,” it is clear through Eurocentric narratives and animation styles that Black individuals are deprived of the same on-screen opportunities and representation as their white counterparts, which can lead to the gradual degradation of Black children’s self-esteem.
Spoiler alert, the young girl in the story is me. Growing up, I was faced with an ever-present villain in our society: the unrealistic standards of beauty that people of color are pressured to fit into. I would turn on my favorite Disney movie, seeing princesses labeled as beautiful, and I would think, “I look nothing like them, so what does that make me?” I just wanted a fairy godmother to “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” me out of my curly hair and brown skin, because maybe then I could be viewed, by peers and by myself, as beautiful.
Then, on the fateful night of Sept. 9, 2022, me and countless other young Black girls saw a beacon of hope in the abyss: the live action film trailer for Halle Bailey’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Yet, the backlash this trailer was met with shows that Eurocentrism continues to heavily influence how people perceive the media. Eurocentrism refers to the viewpoint where European culture is looked upon favorably against non-Western cultures. Examples of Western beauty ideals include long and straight hair, light skin, large eyes, a small nose, high cheekbones and being thin and tall.
Historically, Disney’s animation styles have accentuated and popularized these Eurocentric features, perpetuating the one-sided narrative as to what the “standard” for beauty is. This can be seen in movies such as “Beauty and the Beast” or “Sleeping Beauty,” where in both instances, the “beauty” is characterized as having light skin and straight hair. According to a 2017 Brigham Young University article, there had been just 11 animated features in which the main character was of another race since the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” as of the time the article was written.
This scarcity of representation and racialization of beauty standards has significant repercussions on the Black psyche as seen with the 1947 “Doll Test” experiment. The “Doll Test” was an experiment given to Black children where they were shown a Black doll and a white doll and had to state which doll “looked bad,” and multiple subjects pointed to the Black doll. This is indicative of the crux of the issue: Children internalize the Eurocentric views that they are exposed to. In limiting the amount of people of color in the position of princesses or in idealistic fairy tale stories with happy endings, the media is instilling into children of color that such a goal is intangible to them. These factors emphasize why representation is important within a medium as highly consumed as television.
Representation is much more than appearance — it is about how stories are told just as much as it is about what stories are told.
Now, I am not diminishing the significant strides within representation on the Disney screen in the past few decades. We now have several powerful female figureheads and leaders who are women of color: Mulan, Moana, Esméralda, Jasmine and Tiana. Yet, representation is much more than appearance — it is about how stories are told just as much as it is about what stories are told.
White leads in Disney films are viewed as commercially successful. Many times, Disney portrays Black characters that are predominantly light skinned or characters who are racially ambiguous in an attempt to appeal to the vast majority of viewers. This can be observed in the social media backlash regarding Princess Tiana’s original appearance in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” resulting in Disney reanimating her character. Before Disney’s reanimation, Princess Tiana had lighter skin, a thin nose and thin lips, all of which are features of a racially ambiguous woman. By giving Princess Tiana Eurocentric features, it seems that the film’s commerciality was more important to Disney than portraying an accurate and unapologetically Black character.
Disney movies are literally fantasy worlds, so why are we seeing people of color portrayed in a way that diminishes their racial identity? In the original “The Princess and the Frog” movie, a film that is supposed to serve as the poster for the “Black Disney princess,” Tiana spends the majority of the movie as a frog — not even a princess. This shows Disney’s fear of whole-heartedly committing to a Black Disney princess and making the film more palpable for their white audience members.
“The Princess and the Frog” also perpetuates the overdone narrative where the Black main character has to overcome their impoverished upbringing in order to achieve any sort of notoriety or riches. This plotline is seen through the juxtaposition of Tiana’s humble home as opposed to her white best friend Lottie’s grandiose house. While I admit, in some ways, this sort of narrative could be seen as an empowering story, it also wrongfully brings racial hierarchies and stereotypes into the fantasy world. Where is the “Tangled” or the “The Little Mermaid” for Black people?
Stories like “The Princess and the Frog” center race as the sole driving force of the film. While this is one type of story, there are so many other stories centering people of color that have not been told. What I want are Disney movies that spread the message that anyone of any race can be a fairy, mermaid or a princess without using their cultural upbringing as a plot point. I want to see a regular Disney princess that just so happens to be Black without that being the focus of the story.
For many Black women, the live action “The Little Mermaid” is a perfect step in that direction and represents the opportunity to see a beloved character and story portrayed by someone who looks like them. For weeks, my TikTok feed was flooded with videos of Black children watching the live action “The Little Mermaid” trailer in awe, exclaiming phrases such as, “She is Black!” or “She looks like me!” This beautiful reaction illustrates how deprived those children have been of such representation prior to this film.
Yet, many people were quick to hate this casting decision, citing science and story integrity as reasons they do not support having a Black “Little Mermaid.” The people making these arguments, under the guise of honoring the original movie, fail to realize the racist undertones of these comments that detract from the progress Disney is attempting to make.
Just because Ariel has been portrayed as a white character in the past does not mean she always has to be. The original movie revolves around a mermaid princess who falls in love with a human. This magical fantasy story could be played by anyone of any race, with no bearing on the integrity of the narrative. With the live action version featuring Bailey, Ariel is still the same Ariel and the story is still the same story: Ariel just so happens to be portrayed by a Black woman. Not only that, but the original movie still exists for anyone to watch as they see fit, it just won’t be the only version. There is absolutely no reason that Ariel’s look cannot be changed to best reflect the diversity of the new generation that we are living in. We should be showing kids that Ariel is a mermaid and a fictional character, so she can be anything — as can they.
Additionally, within this “The Little Mermaid” discourse, critics are so focused on Bailey’s skin color, which does not have any bearing on the story, that they are diminishing the talent, performance and qualifications that earned her the role in the first place. Bailey will bring more to this role than we would have ever seen otherwise.
Critics need to set aside the idea that these beloved Disney characters are limited to white actors just because that is how it has been historically. Although the foundation of Disney is rooted in racism and Eurocentrism, it doesn’t mean it has to continue this way. This live action remake is an invitation to evolve with the rest of society. With the film scheduled to debut on May 26, 2023, everyone needs to keep an open mind and give the film, Bailey and themselves a chance to see an alternate version of this well-known story from a different perspective; if we all do, minds can and will change.
At the end of the day, Disney is branded as the place where “dreams come true,” so why are we not dreaming?
At the end of the day, Disney is branded as the place where “dreams come true,” so why are we not dreaming? Why are we allowing real-life social hierarchies to be reflected on the screen? Animation is a space where anything is possible and anything can happen. If mice can talk and magic carpets can fly, then why can’t there be an African princess? Why can’t a singing mermaid under the sea be Black? We have the power to create the world that we want to see on screen, so let’s do it. Even though society may be hard to change, what we create on TV isn’t, so let’s start there. And just like the young girl in the story, let’s create our own happy ending that is filled with diversity, representation and so much beauty. Because then, we can all live happily ever after.
Zuri Wilson believes that in order to overcome the beast of Eurocentrism in Disney, we need to open our minds to the beauty that comes from portraying people of color in roles previously limited to white actors.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 14 of the Feb. 9, 2023 edition of the Daily Nexus