In the summer of 2019, Disney cast singer and actress Halle Bailey as the titular role in their explicit cash grab and abandonment of any and all creativity and in pursuit of a cinematic monopoly. Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the tale of a sixteen-year-old girl who gives up her voice in exchange for legs, in order to marry a prince whose personality is “prince,” is much beloved. In the animated film, Ariel is pale with fiery red hair. Halle Bailey is Black. So you know where this is going.
Black Twitter TM erupted in juba and celebration. Halle Bailey’s casting inspired fan art drawn with expediency.
— Alice X. Zhang • C2E2 N-1 (@alicexz) July 4, 2019
— Hayden Williams (@Hayden_Williams) July 4, 2019
It’s a challenge to make an accounting of exactly how many Disney princesses are canon, animated and otherwise. By my count, there are nine white Disney princesses out of fourteen. That does not, of course, include the non-royal protagonists, Alice, Wendy, etc, the only non-white protagonist being Lilo. My count could be off, but it doesn’t really matter.
I was talking to a classmate about how, as a child, I had an affinity for Jasmine and Pocahontas because, in lieu of Black princesses, they were the closest to the brown that I saw in the mirror, and an approximation of Blackness was sufficient to me at ten years old. She told me that she understood how I felt: after all, there weren’t many brunette princesses. I wanted to pluck my eyelashes out one by one.
So when The Princess and the Frog premiered in 2009, we ought to have been grateful that we finally had a Black Disney princess even if she was a frog for most of the film. And that’s no offense to frogs, who by all accounts are quite lovely and cute and sometimes filled with deadly poison, which only makes me like them more.
But why a frog? The argument I most heard, in those still early days of online fandom rage, was that there were no other fairy tales to be done. Disney had done them all. The Frog Prince was all that was left. And yet, within the next three years, Disney released princess movies based on Rapunzel, The Snow Queen, and an original story about a Scottish princess, proving that there is still some imagination sparking within the viscous conglomerate.
All told, The Princess and the Frog is a lovingly drawn, exquisitely acted and other-adjective filled accolades, which it deserves; and it’s very convincing that the creators considered Tiana to be more than just a token. It was also credited with the resurgence of the subsequent films that cataloged girl power and, yes, princesses. It is also forgettable. And mediocre. I won’t condemn mediocrity, because it has its place. As a matter of fact, I’d embrace a mediocre film about a Black princess if there were other, more exceptional films with Black girls to compare it to. But I can’t. That’s the point.
The Princess and the Frog tells the story of Tiana, a waitress in New Orleans in the 1920s. But her dreams are bigger than the bayou; she wants to run her own restaurant and she’s almost there, until she kisses a frog, and becomes a frog herself. In the most common telling of the Frog Prince, the princess’s kiss is what turns the frog back into a prince. I don’t begrudge Disney their fairy tale revision, it’s what they do: take horrifying and necessary lessons from fairy tales and sanitize them until they’re easy to swallow. In the Little Mermaid tale, the mermaid feels pins and needles when she walks around on her newly acquired feet. She does not get the prince in the end. Instead, she dies, and as all mermaids do, she becomes foam in the sea.
In The Princess and the Frog, there’s beignets, jazz, and Dr. John. It is as earnest as it is boring, and I at my big-big age have clung to it like a life vest. The Princess and the Frog is all I have, so while I reserve the right to interrogate it in public, I will defend it with my elbows and my teeth if I have to. I will defend the Black Little Mermaid, on principle. I have time.
Now, I am supposed to tell you why representation matters, but honestly, if you don’t know that by now, there isn’t much I can do to convince you. I can’t teach empathy. I can, however, teach literary history, more specifically, the history of fairy tales.
The History of Fairy Tales
Fairy Tales come from all over the world.
That’s it. Quite literally. Anywhere there is an ocean, some poor sailor has blamed his inability to steer his ship on a half-human, half-fish fever dream. The Brothers Grimm did not invent mermaids. And I know that you didn’t know that, because Hans Christen Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid.” And Disney’s film bears only the slightest resemblance to Andersen’s tale, so what exactly are we so angry about? The “purists” can’t seem to agree on what they’re mad about. The Little Mermaid (1989) is not a pure adaptation of the original tale and does not monopolize the mythology.
I am not even upset about the gratuitous racism surrounding Halle Bailey’s casting, as it’s something I’ve come to expect. Critics of her casting as Ariel have cleverly shrouded their grievances in calls for “accuracy.” Ariel is supposed to have red hair. Red hair is integral to the story. Red hair that must grow out of the actresses’ scalp. It is for the sake of authenticity that prompted the outrage. There are calls of reverse racism, which does not exist. Honestly, I’m more upset that I have to defend Disney at all.
Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child? HBO’s multicultural effort delighted me as a child. They even did an episode on the Frog Prince, set in Africa. The princess’s name is Ebony, which is a little on the nose, but we appreciate the effort. They had a Chinese Little Red Riding Hood and a Mexican Hansel and Gretel, and it all should make sense because whiteness is not the default, even though we’ve been taught, say through Disney movies, that it is.
Transforming white stories into diversity vehicles is a limited solution to decolonizing a homogenized film industry. How much more effective if they had cast Halle Bailey as one of the Mami Wata? Or an up and coming Japanese actress could have portrayed a Ningyo, because it is dangerous to tell a single story. The Little Mermaid is a single story. The second Black Disney princess in its 83-year existence. And people are losing their minds. Then again, equality, to the privileged, feels like discrimination.
Featured photo credit: Laura James.