In the new ‘Little Mermaid,’ black girls and moms see themselves

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Precious Avery remembers how rare it was to see black characters grow up on television, so she began filming while her 3-year-old son, Emery, absorbed the trailer for the new movie “The Little Mermaid.”

As the turtles swim through the coral reefs, an image of a mermaid appears, then Halle Bailey, a black actress and singer, is revealed to be Ariel. “I think she’s Brown,” Emery said with a smile. “Brown Ariel!”

Emery said he loves Bailey’s long hair and mermaid tail. She reminds him of her swimming lessons and how she practices holding her breath underwater. She knows all the Disney princesses and wants to live in a castle one day.

But his mother sees something bigger. She always made it “feel good” to see black characters on television, said Avery, 33, and now her daughter was having the experience.

Black parents across the country are capturing their daughters responding to the new Disney trailer. Videos of children squealing with joy, dancing, crying, or proclaiming, “She’s a brunette like me.” have gone viralgarnering millions of views and sparking a marketing bonanza for Disney.

Parents say the videos highlight why it’s important for kids to see people who look like them in movies and TV shows. But for some black mothers, the moment was powerful in another way, allowing them to relive a part of their childhood through a new lens.

Bailey is the newest version of the fairytale mermaid, replacing the red-haired cartoon character from the 1989 Disney movie. The original rebellious underwater princess had huge blue eyes and wore a purple bikini made of seashells. Instead of legs, she had a green fish tail. For Bailey, “seeing the reactions of these little babies makes me so emotional,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Thank you all for your unconditional support.”

The live-action film “The Little Mermaid,” due for release in May 2023, won’t be Disney’s first film with a black princess. Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog” made history as Disney’s first black princess in 2009, and the 1997 remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” in which singer Brandy Norwood took on the title role, began streaming on Disney Plus last year.

Parents take to TikTok to share videos of their young daughters’ reactions to Halle Bailey, who will play Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” set for release in May 2023. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Dariana Fleming, 26, remembers how important it was for her to see Cinderella played by a black woman as a child. Inspired by the videos of black girls reacting to the “Little Mermaid” teaser, she decided to make her own. Ella’s daughters Rylie, 2, and McKenzie, 4, smiled as they watched the opening seconds of the trailer. Her smiles turned to gasps and giggles as Bailey appeared on the screen.

Rylie was amazed. McKenzie says that she was impressed that Ariel’s hair had dreadlocks like her father’s. The video documenting her response to the new Black Ariel has been viewed on TikTok more than 2 million times. “For me, I didn’t really have them growing up, so it’s nice to have that representation for her generation to see,” Fleming said.

Ashley Potts, 26, says she doesn’t discuss skin color with her 5-year-old daughter London, but it was clear she was shocked to see an Ariel who looked like her. London already loved “The Little Mermaid” and she has a growing collection of mermaid dolls, including a treasured Disneyland Ariel doll that she received for her birthday.

While watching the trailer, she pointed at the mermaid princess several times while her mother was recording, but once the girl saw Ariel’s face, she fell silent. “It was a natural reaction for her,” Potts said. “I wanted to cry.”

“It’s so surreal that the mermaid I grew up with is going to grow up with my kids in a completely different way,” said Dariyan Bell, a 30-year-old mother of five. In a video Bell posted to her TikTok account, 3-year-old Zavae suddenly stopped playing once she heard Bailey sing “Part of Your World.” With his back to her mother, Zavae is apparently fascinated by the image of Bailey on the screen.

The outpouring of reactions from black girls has been a major marketing boost for the film. But those feelings of delight and wonder were not universal. Bailey’s casting announcement in 2019 was initially met with some backlash. Some critics on Twitter used the hashtags #NotMyAriel and #NotMyMermaid to argue that the person chosen to play Ariel should have been White, as the Danish author of the story and in the original animation.

Many of his fans wore the same Twitter hashtags, along with #MyAriel, to come to Bailey’s defense. They pointed out that mermaids are mythical creatures that have appeared in legends and folktales around the world, including in the African diaspora. The Disney Freeform network also supported Bailey in social networks with “An open letter to poor and unfortunate souls”.

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Bailey isn’t the only actor of color who has been harassed for playing characters originally cast by white actors or in predominantly white film franchises. John Boyega faced so much racist abuse from fans when he was cast as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 2015 that he told SiriusXM that he wasn’t interested in returning to the “Star Wars” franchise. Leslie Jones and Kelly Marie Tran received similar hate for their roles in the “Ghostbusters” reboot and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” respectively.

Although Disney has included more diverse characters, such as Princess Tiana, in recent years, changes had been long overdue, said Kaila Story, an associate professor in the departments of pan-African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. .

Historically, shows with white actors have been presented as appropriate for all audiences, Story said, while movies with black actors and filmmakers were only aimed at black people. However, showing more characters of color on television and in movies better reflects how the world is viewed, she said.

What distinguishes Ariel in the new “Little Mermaid” from some of Disney’s other non-white leads, like Pocahontas, is that “the crux of her story won’t have to be her simultaneously discovering her racial identity.” told the story.

For Devyn Coulson, 33, sharing Disney movies with her 3-year-old daughter Khloe has always been a full-circle moment and a chance to relive her childhood. “She makes me feel like I can glimpse how my mom felt when she found so much joy in Disney movies,” she says.

But Khloe’s reaction to the new trailer for “The Little Mermaid” was special. In the video, Khloe stares at him on the screen, his eyes appearing to fill with tears. “You’re crying?” Coulson asked Khloe, who immediately denied it. “Oh sweet girl,” her mom cooed.

Adelia Chaiyakul, 31, said she also felt like she was going back to her own childhood after watching the “Little Mermaid” video with her 9-year-old daughter, Ava, who told her mother she was famous at school. after his reaction video. , in which she smiles and covers her mouth in shock at the sight of the new Ariel, went viral on TikTok.

Chaiyakul said that because she didn’t see herself reflected in the characters growing up, she simply had to imagine. But in the comments on the viral TikTok video, she realized how reaction videos like her daughter’s made many white women understand how much they took seeing themselves in white princesses and other characters for granted.

This dynamic will change with the next generation, Chaiyakul said. “I decided in my mind that I was a princess,” he said. “She really gets to see that she is a princess.”


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