Halle Bailey's casting as the Little Mermaid drove internet racists nuts. Or did it?
Racist backlash to Disney's Little Mermaid casting wasn’t all it seemed
Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle – recently cast by Disney as Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Disney has announced that Halle Bailey is to play Ariel in Rob Marshall’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Most of the world didn’t notice. Among those who did pay attention, a significant portion – this writer included – were shocked and impressed that Disney had cast an actor in her early 50s as one of their signature princesses.
Oh, hang on. It’s not Halle Berry – It’s Halle Bailey. Well, that makes sense.
One half of the duo Chloe X Halle, the 19-year-old singer signed to Beyoncé’s record label in 2015.
Rob Marshall blared: “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance – plus a glorious singing voice – all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role.”
So, that’s all fine then.
The casting of an African-American actor as a character hitherto represented as white – insofar as a mermaid has a racial identity – confirmed Disney’s commendable lurch towards diversity.
The upcoming quasi-live action version of The Lion King places actors of African descent in most of the voice roles. Last year’s Black Panther, featuring a largely black cast, was the highest grossing film in the US. Most cinemagoers are supremely relaxed about these changes. They have demonstrated as much with their pocket books.
Anger makes headlines. The response to the Mermaid news tells us much about how online discourse now functions. There were certainly some thinly veiled racist objections to the casting. A glance at the comments beneath Variety’s story reveals the usual unconvincing qualifications (I’m not racist, but the character just doesn’t look like this) and irrelevant research (Hans Christian Anderson’s original description of the character).
Elsewhere on Twitter, other racists seemed to be suggesting that “science” confirmed Ariel had to be white. “My opinion on why mermaids are white is that they live so deep underwater that sunlight hardly reaches them, thus the lack of melanin,” some idiot seemed to write. There’s a singing crab in the film. There’s a seahorse that acts as court herald. Science isn’t an issue here, darling.
The word “seem” in the above paragraph is significant. By far the most common response online was a non-specific, self-congratulatory rage at all the people who were objecting to the casting.
There were a few particular targets. Much early fury came the way of a Twitter user called “Rebeccs”. “Us white girls, who grew up with The Little Mermaid, deserved a true-to-color Ariel,” she wrote. “Disney, you made a huge mistake by hiring Halle Bailey. This is going in the TRASH.”
A picture of a hand holding a DVD of The Little Mermaid in (I guess) a disappointed manner accompanied the tweet. Rebeccs rapidly became the most hated person on Twitter.
“’Us white girls’ Honey, the only trash around here is you!” someone raged. “lmao bitch just don’t watch it,” someone else yelled.
The tweet turned out to be a classic troll. The user’s photo was a fake. The image of the doomed DVD was taken from a YouTube channel. The strategy was to draw the wrath of those eager to be outraged and it worked. The account has since been deleted.
Elsewhere on the medium, #NotMyAriel was trending. How could such a thing happen? How could an implicitly racist hashtag be picking up so much attention? Is this what we’ve come to?
The answer is that (early on, anyway) the vast majority of posters on #NotMyAriel were objecting to its supposed argument. Because I had nothing better to do, on Thursday evening, I counted the responses and got to 50 dissenters without finding a single person objecting to the casting.
“The people tweeting #NotMyAriel were raised by the people who said ‘Not my drinking fountain’ and ‘Not my school,’” author John Pavlovitz wrote.
Well, John. The problem is that most people “tweeting #NotMyAriel” seem to be decent liberals like yourself. We all like a bit of that non-specific, self-congratulatory rage.
Within 24 hours, #NotMyAriel, largely a creation of those supporting the casting, really was under siege from racist disruptors. A few looked to be from genuine nut-jobs. Most looked like the creation of “tweetbots”. Such are the weird journeys available to the online fulminator.
Meanwhile, in the real world, calm prevailed. Good luck to Halle Berry. Let’s hope they cast Morgan Freeman as the male lead.
Have I got this wrong again?