Eleven-year-old Leah Murphy feels empowered by Halle Bailey’s starring role as Ariel in the live-action remake of ‘The Little Mermaid’.
Murphy, of Farmington Hills, Michigan, who aspires to own a hotel chain, says it proves she too can break down barriers in spaces that have historically excluded young black women like her.
“It gives me inspiration,” she said. “It makes me think I can do it, I can do it without anyone stopping me.”
In Disney’s original 1989 animated classic, Ariel’s character is white, with straight red hair. But as Murphy and other young black and brown girls head to the movies this weekend to see “The Little Mermaid,” they’ll find an Ariel that’s just like them.
Animated movies are often a child’s first exposure to media and film. And the portrayal of people of color in the media influences how they think about race as they mature, according to research by the nonprofit Common Sense. Parents who participated in the study said they wanted their children to see themselves reflected in the media.
At the film’s world premiere in Hollywood earlier this month, Bailey, 23, had a message for little girls beaming with awe.
“I just hope they know they are worthy and that we deserve to be in these spaces,” Bailey said, according to Vanity Fair. “I hope they see themselves through me on screen. I’m just grateful to be here.
The film’s trailer made waves earlier this year, sparking a series of debates over whether an actual Ariel should be black or white.
Of the 12 Disney Princesses, seven are white. It wasn’t until 2009 that Disney introduced a dark princess in an original animated film starring Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog.” Singer and actress Brandy played Cinderella in a 1997 remake of the film. Disney’s other racially diverse princesses were Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine.
Some critics argued on Twitter that Ariel was a white character from Danish European folklore and must remain so. Others, including far-right pundit Matt Walsh, have suggested it doesn’t scientifically make sense to have someone with darker skin living deep in the sea.
But what those reviewers failed to mention is that Ariel is a fictional character from a fairy tale. So why does his race really matter?
As the country becomes more and more diverse, it seems only right that Disney should be more inclusive of dark princesses, whether animated or live-action.
The film’s director, Rob Marshall, called critics “small minds” for complaining about casting a black actress like Ariel, Vanity Fair reported.
“Being different is very timely, especially when you see how divided the world has become,” Marshall said, according to Vanity Fair. “I hope this beautiful mermaid story can remind us all that we are one.”
Despite the racist backlash, the excitement in black homes speaks to the historic significance of this moment.
Alexandra Francois, a 14-year-old from Baldwin, New York, said she plans to go see the movie this weekend with her mom.
“I just felt really honored in a way because you don’t see people who look like you on the big screen all the time, especially as a black girl,” said François, a ballet dancer. “It gave me motivation for myself.”
Experts say Bailey’s role is a sign of progress for Disney in its tradition of creating princesses.
Maryann Erigha, associate professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Georgia, said we live in a visual culture, so the images young people see in movies matter. Ariel as a young black woman with a natural hairstyle is something black girls can rally around, Erigha said.
“I believe this is a step forward,” Erigha said. “To play a young black girl in a very important role in a big movie that will be seen around the world…I think it’s a really good step in the right direction.”
Disney’s decision to cast Bailey as Ariel has been hailed by empowerment groups for young black and brown girls.
Takiyah Wallace, founder and executive director of Brown Girls Do Ballet, said the excitement around the film reminded her of why she started her youth ballet group in 2013. Many young black and brown girls don’t care. were never seen as ballerinas, just as many rarely have. thought of themselves as Disney princesses, she said.
Wallace said the remake of “The Little Mermaid” also comes at a pivotal time when diversity and inclusion are under attack in some states where African American studies classes, programs and books are banned.
“That representation is being ripped off,” Wallace said. “So the movie gives our girls the momentum to step out and take on roles that maybe weren’t written as a black dancer, that age, that shape, that height, that hair type.”
Shaela Lawson, executive director of Pretty Brown Girl – a group that works to empower black and brown girls and encourage self-acceptance – said she also hopes the film will inspire young black girls to breaking stereotypes in the spaces they want to be in. Lawson said many young girls will feel an emotional connection to Bailey because they also want to be trailblazers.
“I think it’s time we normalized inclusion,” Lawson said. “Celebrating difference should be part of every storyline, whether it’s a cartoon, an animated film or a TV series. You can’t have this singular idea of who people can to log in.