It’s 1989 and I’m in preschool. Short Korean girl, two black braids, big bangs, a loose tooth. I’ve got a Little Mermaid T-shirt and a Little Mermaid backpack and a Little Mermaid sleeping bag. I love this movie. And, I love Ariel! White-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed, half-fish, half-girl, Ariel.
It’s 2022 and by now you’ve probably seen the trailer for the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, revealing a Black Ariel played by Halle Bailey. And by now you’ve probably also seen the backlash: millions of dislikes on YouTube, a trending #NotMyAriel hashtag, even someone using AI to “fix” Ariel’s race in the trailer. Folks are mad! I’m not mad. We watched the same original movie, but it’s clear that we don’t agree about what makes Ariel, Ariel.
Let’s recap. Ariel, who is a mermaid, comes from a culture under the sea, a world invisible and thus mostly unbelievable to humans. Still, Ariel is curious about and romanticizes the surface world. Though she later falls in love with a human (Prince Eric), she first falls in love with the concept of the human world itself.
What would I give if I could live out of these waters?
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?
Ariel doesn’t just want to be human. She wants what she believes becomes available to you when you live and belong in the human world. It is a place where one has freedom, joy, pleasure, etc.
I wanna be where the people are
I wanna see, wanna see ’em dancin’
Up where they walk, up where they run
Up where they stay all day in the sun
“That world,” however, is seen as dangerous for mermaids. In fact, in a fit of controlling rage, Ariel’s father destroys Ariel’s entire collection of human-world objects. The collection, of course, did not make Ariel human nor did it transport her to humans, but it represented the idea that Ariel could engage with the idea of humans at all. A father who wants the best for his child, he tries to protect Ariel not just from humans, but from this version of herself—the one that holds an unrealistic fantasy that he believes could harm her.
But Ariel is “headstrong and lovesick” and she is willing to literally, physically change who she is in order to go to the human world. After signing a contract with a power-hungry sea witch, Ariel is transformed from mermaid to human, but with a cost: she sacrifices her voice. She can’t engage in conversation, nor can she share important logistics, like that she needs Prince Eric to kiss her with true love before sunset on the third day. She can’t tell him when his assumptions are wrong, and even her own name is stuck in her throat. Worst of all, Ariel’s voice—her singing in particular—is the most cherished, precious part of her identity where she comes from. She is not fully herself without it. Even Prince Eric, who wants to find her and love her, cannot recognize her—despite her sitting (speechless) right in front of him.
The Little Mermaid is a love story—but not just a love story between Ariel and Eric. It is also a love story between Ariel and herself, that is, how does she stay in a relationship with her true self, while also pursuing the fantasy of belonging? It is a story of a girl who deserves dancing and freedom and the sun, and deserves them without giving up her essence—the most beautiful, necessary parts of her. It’s a love story for us, the characters in the worlds around her: how do we love her for her; who she is, wherever she is?
The haters are mad that today’s Ariel is Black. White supremacy is part of the real world we live in. Many folks are “Walking around on those, what do you call ’em? Oh, feet” and they don’t have to be curious about what is below the surface. White supremacy tells us a myth about where people belong. In the movie, Ariel doesn’t belong on land; in this country, a Black mermaid doesn’t belong in pop culture. The criticisms are all meant to put Black Ariel back in her place. With this casting, white supremacy is threatened, fragility ensues, and anger erupts.
Just like in the story, it is seen to be too dangerous to allow this level of freedom, and so we must destroy even the mere thought of it. In the 1989 Disney original, Ariel wants to swim up and away, and so she does. Sebastian the crab laments, “Somebody’s got to nail that girl’s fins to the floor.” In 2022, Halle Bailey sings “Out of the sea, wish I could be…” and YouTube has to disable the dislike counter.
Whether we were born here or shipwrecked here, so many of us are still trying to get our land legs. I myself came to America when I was four months old. Like Ariel, I washed up on someone else’s beach and I too have a fantasy about what life could be like in this world. And, as Ariel learned, everything comes at a cost. What do I, and so many people of color in this country, give up to be “Where the people are? What would we pay to spend a day warm on the sand?”
Every day we sign a contract, and the contract is to not fully be ourselves in exchange for the illusion that we are like everyone else. The clock ticks. We touch our throats, speechless. Where and with whom are the worlds we are a part of? Don’t even the most foreign of us deserve to have a voice, to say our names, to sing, and be seen, and be loved?
What would I give to live where you are?
What would I pay to stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you smiling at me?
The Little Mermaid is not a perfect story because, in the fiction of my fantasies, I wouldn’t have to lose so much (friends, family, culture, half my body, etc) to be free and to be happy. So I too have my criticisms and I’m down to hash those out. But I am still that four-year-old Asian American Little Mermaid fan and, even though there is no TikTok blind-reaction of me watching the 2023 trailer, I am right here with the children with tears in my eyes. We see Ariel swirling through the depths of her sea, looking into the shimmer of the surface, singing with the voice of a sunrise—and she looks different, because of course she is.
The casting is *chefs kiss* perfect. Not simply because Ariel can be different (because it’s a work of fiction and mermaids aren’t real) or because she should be different (because representation matters), but because isn’t this what The Little Mermaid has always been about?
Being different. And, wanderin’ free, wishing we could be,
Part of that world.
Ariel *can* and *should* be different because The Little Mermaid is, at its core, about *being* different.
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