By Maria Gabriela Bolivar Gomez
When you think of princesses and fairytales, Disney movies come to mind almost instantly. Through the decades, the mass media company has delighted children and adults with beautiful, animated adaptations of old fairytales with catchy songs; rekindling nostalgia from the first time we saw a big beast as sweet and beautiful, when we swooned as seven little men rushed to help a total stranger no matter how grumpy some of them were, and when we felt an adrenaline rush as a rebel woman saved China.
The live-action film “The Little Mermaid” is swimming to a big screen near you on May 23. As exciting as it sounds, the movie is also drawing some criticism.
The controversy arose July of 2019 when it was announced that Halle Bailey, the African-American singer-songwriter from beloved sister duo Chole x Halle, would play Ariel. Critics have said since the original animated Ariel had white skin and bright, red hair, some argue Disney should have stuck with that “aesthetic.”
This departure isn’t a Disney first, though. It was the 1997 TV adaptation of “Cinderella” with Whitney Houston that was the first time a Disney princess was represented by an African-American actress. The legendary singer-songwriter Brandy Norwood played Cinderella and she too met some controversy.
In the last decade, Disney started to adapt wholesome, animated childhood memories into joyful live-action movies for theaters. The first princess to appear in flesh and bone on the big screen was Aurora, portrayed by Elle Fanning alongside Angelina Jolie, in the 2014 film “Maleficent” and “Cinderella” with Lily James in 2015.
With the release of the trailer last September, controversy sparked again online. Disney’s fan base has divided into two groups: those who disagree with the selection of Bailey because of differences between her and the cartoon, and those who identify with her, happy people of color are getting more representation.
On Disney adaptations of the past, Barry students didn’t hold back.
“I have words about the “Mulan” live action because they left out Li Shang. Excuse me! He is the second main character you can’t do that,” said junior psychology major Maria Montalvo. “I was so upset.”
Mia Tubbs, a senior Spanish major, also said the 2020 live-action “Mulan” was a disappointment and hated it.
Senior criminology student Vanessa Gudiño likes live-action adaptations.
“It’s nice because they are personifying it. They are bringing more life to it. However, they missed a lot of key details. But overall, I think the storyline is fitting.”
When it came to the controversy surrounding the upcoming release, the students are thrilled to see Bailey as Ariel this summer.
“I think people have to remember the folktale of mermaids came from them having dreads and all these nice locks and them having dark skin, but Disney kind of took that and whitewashed it. So, I just think the whole controversy is stupid,” said Gudiño.
Montalvo agreed that representation of all communities is most important.
“Did you see how those little girls felt when “Moana” came out, or when they saw [“The Little Mermaid” trailer]? They were saying ‘Aw, she looks like me!’ Every little girl needs that feeling,” she said.
To those on the opposing side arguing since Ariel is black, they should also change the race of “The Princess and the Frog” character, Tiana, when the time comes, Tubbs said there’s no argument.
“Her being a white mermaid did nothing for the plot. So, being a black mermaid or Latina mermaid wouldn’t make a difference. But Tiana being black, that’s the “thing” because she is surrounded by [Creole speakers] and her family is struggling. Not saying all Black people struggle, but that was a part of the movie. She was being discriminated against. She couldn’t even get her money for her restaurant. As well as Charlotte having more money and her mom working for [Charlotte’s] family—all of that would have had a different perspective if [Tiana] were white,” she said.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel seen. As we continue to progress as a society, on-screen representations are following suit.