Mermaid latest opportunity for more diversity | Entertainment

On May 26, 2023, a live-action remake of Disney’s beloved animated classic “The Little Mermaid” is heading toward theaters.

The project has been review-bombed on Youtube, with the trailer for the film receiving a staggering 1 million dislike votes. Much of this backlash and controversy stems from the casting of a young woman of color named Halle Bailey as the lead character Ariel. Despite the public squabbling over a fictional mermaid, Hollywood has long had trouble with casting actors from diverse backgrounds.

Beginning with the early 20th century, white performers would paint their faces black and exaggerate their features to perform minstrel shows where they parodied African-American culture in dehumanizing and degrading ways. This is the birth of what’s known today as blackface. These attitudes crept into the entertainment of the era and set a precedent for decades to come. 

Then you have legendary western actor John Wayne. The leading man famously once portrayed Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan in 1956’s “The Conqueror.” The film is seen as an absurdist farce by today’s sensibilities, but at the time it was considered serious cinema. This serves the point that these casting controversies weren’t even questioned in their era; they were accepted without a second thought because of the prevailing attitudes of the majority class.

Then you have modern examples which more closely mirror the contemporaneous controversy. Live-action remakes of beloved anime properties have suffered similar casting conundrums. “Dragonball: Evolution” famously chose American actor Justin Chatwin to play Son Goku, and Netflix’s “Ghost in the Shell” saw the studio cast Scarlett Johansson to play Motoko Kusanagi. The characters in both projects are fictional, so presumably they could be portrayed by anyone the studio wants without offense. This is the argument used to defend Bailey’s casting as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.”

While androids and mermaids are fictional, the people who represent those characters are not. What’s important when it comes to inclusion isn’t that representation is forced upon audiences but instead that representation is presented organically to audiences with rich stories and deep characters. Perhaps much of the backlash is related to racists spewing hate at a mermaid trailer on Youtube, or perhaps much of it stems from the growing cynicism toward the omnipresent trend of remaking beloved classics. Regardless, representation in media is one of the most important aspects of cultivating a cohesive culture, but it’s equally important that representation is achieved in a fluid way.

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