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Unconscious Bias and Its Ramifications: Racism in the ‘NotMyAriel’ Campaign.

ByTia Byer

Sep 15, 2019

Following the casting of Halle Bailey in the Disney remake of The Little Mermaid, there was an intense online backlash about the Grown-ish actress’ race. In July 2019 the news sparked outrage and prolific insults on Twitter with hashtag campaigns and petitions with the tagline ‘NotMyAriel’. Trolls took to social media to voice their subconsciously, and openly racist disapproval at having a black actress play the iconic red-headed, and white, Disney princess.

Earlier this year, Disney announced that its live-action remake of the beloved 1989 animated film, which follows in the footsteps of numerous other re-releases such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and most recently Aladdin, will reportedly commence filming in April 2020. Its female lead is the 19-year-old performer and actress Halle Bailey, who first shot to fame as a YouTube sensation and R&B sister-duo, Chloe X Halle.

As Ariel, Bailey will makeover the mermaid’s iconic representation that has become so deeply ingrained in childhood memory and animated film iconography. Bailey called the opportunity a “dream come true” whilst the film’s director defended the casting choice, describing the actress as possessing a “rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role”.
Yet, rather predictably- and sadly so- this casting choice sparked an uproar as the new live-action character, as a black woman, has greatly differed from people’s classic interpretation of what Ariel should look like.

In the 1989 cartoon animation, Ariel is Caucasian with red hair, in other words, the polar opposite of what a stereotypical black woman looks like. Such a reimagining of the Disney character caused immense and indeed offensive outcry online.

Twitter users from all over the world had something to say. And that something, whether conscious or not, was an outpouring of outright racist hatred and hurtful commentary.

Comments were primitive in their racism, but beyond pure hatred lay worrying ignorance. Many people would not call their comments ‘racially charged’, but fail to realise that it isn’t her red hair, or even her blue eyes, that poses an issue, it is her skin colour. The offensive tweets read: “I’m sorry I don’t want to be racist but…they don’t even look alike? At least choose an actress who has some similar attributes…like Sandra bullock! #NotMyAriel” and “Us white girls, who grew up with The Little Mermaid, deserved a true-to-colour Ariel.

Disney, you made a huge mistake by hiring Halle Bailey. This is going in the TRASH.” A group was even created on Facebook entitled  “Christians Against the Little Mermaid (Boycott Halle Bailey)”.  It is interesting to wonder what these same people would think of Adwoa Aboa, a mixed-race model with an auburn afro. Her and a plethora of women around the world transcend these binary ideas about characterization; decisions that bear no weight upon plot or story but are solely superficial. Bailey responded with the following statement in Variety magazine: “I just feel like this role was something bigger than me, and greater.

I feel like I’m dreaming and I’m just grateful and I don’t pay attention to the negativity”. Others also showed their support of the casting decision, claiming that having a black Little Mermaid is a step forward in creating and establishing a diversity driven and inclusive society.

Halle Bailey’s 21 st -century portrayal of an alternative and culturally updated Little Mermaid has highlighted and opened a gateway into conversations about the sad state of affairs in our sometimes biased and bigoted society.

The online abuse faced by the actress is indicative of a nationalistic response to cinema’s diversification of typically sidelined minorities. However, Halle Bailey has still changed cinematic and political history, and long may it continue.

Image: Stephanie, via Flickr

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