Dreams Come True: Disney Remakes Represent
BY KÉRA MATTHEWS '24
On July 3, 2019, the live-action Little Mermaid officially introduced its Princess Ariel. However, one little thing was different about this beloved character's casting: Halle Bailey, the singer-songwriter who impressed director Rob Marshall with her ethereal and captivating vocals, is a Black woman. This announcement sparked the still ongoing discourse over the validity of this choice, with some claiming that the casting was inaccurate to the film's history, while others claimed that nothing could change the story's heart.
Three years later, Halle Bailey’s role as Princess Ariel still incites debate, with dissenters arguing that casting an actor with a different appearance from the original character (or, another way to say that they’re wary of casting a different race) would erode the legacy of the original film. Is the inclusion of people of color (POC) in fan-favorite Disney movies with only white characters too much of a change? The answer? No, it isn’t. If an old Disney project lacks a significant cultural backstory, then adapting one with more representation is just as authentic, since it creates a positive legacy of diversity for a newer generation. Disney adapting more characters of color to represent a more diverse Hollywood can still coexist with the story in its original form, which is what makes fictional stories so beautiful.
Diversity casting is complicated because it can sometimes come off as inauthentic. Over the past decade, movies and TV shows have incorporated more people of color in media, but they’re often either stereotyped or brushed aside in favor of the main storyline, serving only as token characters. However, making an effort toward inclusivity is better than purposefully shutting out minority groups, which otherwise would have enforced the idea that actors of color lack the talent needed to take on major roles. Marshall chose Halle Bailey because of her exceptional talent, and nothing more, stating that “Everything she has was what [they] were looking for.” His unbiased judgment is what we, as a society, should strive for. Black people have been fighting for their voices to be heard for decades, and it’s time that we listened. Moreover, even if his goal had been only to diversify the adaptation, purposeful diversity isn’t inherently a bad thing. This approach broadens the opportunities for everyone passionate about acting, rather than limiting the experience to only White people. With this approach, kids who watch these family films will learn that this world is for everyone, regardless of their identity. Although kids aren’t actively aware of the diversity or lack thereof in what they watch, they’re subconsciously absorbing the message that white characters and actors are more talented than those who are people of color, when at this age, it’s crucial to show them that anyone can succeed in any industry. The teaser trailer alone has already succeeded at instilling that idea in young Black girls; one girl on the social media platform Tiktok, after watching, exclaimed, "Mama, she's Black! Mama, they made a black Ariel!" Parents that want to deprive their kids of an inclusive story are shielding them from people of other identities, and some parents are inadvertently limiting their childrens’ perspectives on the world because of their prejudice. Having diverse stories also allows children of color to see themselves in their favorite films while sharing a storyline with parents who grew up with it as well, and the family can share the love in not one, but two wonderful stories.
On top of the overarching themes that need to emerge in new media, we must distinguish between cultural and non-cultural movies. In an article about this discourse, Editor-in-Chief Luke Brennan remarked that some people “make…strawman argument[s] like ‘what if they remade The Princess & The Frog and cast Tiana as White?’” The Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans in the 1920s, a historically Black setting. Because that fact is such a central part of the story, replacing the cast with anyone who isn’t Black would be unrealistic and harmful. The same policy goes for Disney movies like Encanto, Mulan, Coco, and more. This racist thinking is harmful, as white people are not the focus of those cultures that Disney built their stories around, and these movies have created a legacy for POCs’ real lives. On top of that, the fact that most Disney films with POC are connected to a cultural aspect further proves Disney’s built-in racist legacy. POC exist everywhere, and while it’s valuable to have cultural movies, it’s equally important to have them as main characters with no cultural reason behind it. If Ariel, a fictional character who is a mermaid, is so hard to picture as Black, then we’re putting people of color in a box where they are only allowed to portray cultural roles.
The fictional stories that Disney tells, while beautiful, have room to evolve into those that reach as many people as possible. They teach life lessons to families around the world, but one unspoken one is missing: people of color are meant to be on screen. Including people of color in Disney’s narratives won’t change the other elements of storytelling that they excel at, and they should normalize inclusivity in their legacy and grow along with our brighter future.