‘Wouldn’t you say I’m the girl who has everything,” warbles Ariel in the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid. And sure, she’s got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, but she’s crying out for a remake. Ariel may be rebellious and strong-willed, but her story, for all its catchy songs, is essentially a morality tale about the corrupting influence of a world outside her father’s control and the virtues of a woman’s silence.
Thirty years on, and a Disney live-action remake is happening. And so is a backlash of sorts, after Halle Bailey, an African-American singer, was cast in the main role. The problem is, naysayers insist, Ariel is meant to be ginger.
Let’s grab a dinglehopper and pick this one apart. Some are doubtless using Ariel’s hair colour as code for her skin colour. Their feelings are that Ariel isn’t just meant to have red hair, she’s meant to be the sort of person who tends to have naturally red hair – a white person. This is racism. There was a similar backlash from so-called fans when a black woman was cast to play Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Though it was a play where people use wands to cast spells, certain people couldn’t manage to see Hermione, written in the books as having brown eyes and frizzy hair, as anything but a white woman.
While it’s fair to say Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid probably wasn’t black in his original story, the narrative features the mermaid killing herself in order to achieve moral purity, so tweaking his version has always been necessary. Disney’s creators used Italian-American Alyssa Milano’s face as a template for Ariel, bunged on some blue eyes, and turned her hair red simply because, the story goes, blonde hair would be too similar to Daryl Hannah’s in 1984’s Splash, and red complements a green tail. On that basis, well, black goes with anything.
Others are of the mindset that Ariel was a wonderful role model for young ginger girls, and this casting is a loss for them. I certainly felt an affinity with Ariel when I was younger, and it felt good growing up to know that, no matter how frequently my gingerness was mocked, I had a Spice Girl and a Disney character on my side.
Now I’m grown up and the teasing has slowed. I still carry emotional scars from years of boys calling me names such as “ginger mooey” and “tango bollocks”, and of being frequently asked about the colour of my pubes. I don’t doubt that young ginger women continue to be sexualised in the same way. But more representation for ginger women isn’t going to fix that. Look at the legion ginger women we have in the public eye, from Angela Rayner and Lily Cole to Julianne Moore and Karen Gillan. Also, to further confound the racists, mixed-race model Adwoa Aboah has auburn hair that grows into what she calls “a ginger afro”.
Ginger women don’t lack representation. We might, in the UK, face a bit of stick, born perhaps of an anti-Celtic sentiment, and the sort of nasty sexualisation all women sadly face. But this is the worst of what happens to us as a result of our hair colour. Black women, however, face hate crime and the sharp end of structural inequality. They’re regularly sidelined in education, refused jobs, paid less and disenfranchised by various state institutions because of their race. They’re frequently stereotyped as angry or sassy and nothing in between. Giving young black women a role model in the new Ariel won’t fix those problems, but it certainly won’t hurt to give them what I had growing up: the extra confidence boost of seeing a bit of themselves on screen. And it’ll be good for the rest of us, too.
On the day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, the pair received a death threat. White powder has been sent to her, alongside a racist note, in an incident police treated as a racist hate crime. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was loathed by the press, sure, but she never faced such threats because of her flaming red hair.
Bailey now faces a similar sort of hatred the Duchess of Sussex gets, simply because she’s been cast in a role that has traditionally been thought to belong to a white woman. And it is galling. If some unfortunate souls can’t get their head round the fact that a black woman can play a character who breathes underwater, has clam shells for a bra, a crab for a mentor and a flounder for a pal, then I pity them. And if Disney fans should get cross about anything, it’s that nobody thought of casting Lizzo as Ursula the Sea Witch. – Guardian
Sophie Wilkinson is a freelance journalist