Halle Bailey is set to play Ariel in the new live-action The Little Mermaid. Bailey is a talented singer and actress and, therefore, the perfect person to play Ariel.

Not everyone agrees. Many on Twitter didn’t like her being cast because she is black. Fans took to social media to complain that the original Ariel had light skin, blue eyes, and red hair. According to many, she was white so Disney’s recent casting decision is an example of “blackwashing”. 

Let me clearly state this for the angry people tweeting #NotMyAriel: blackwashing doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. Be angry about actual things.

I imagine that blackwashing is some supposed counterpart to whitewashing, which, of course, is a phenomenon well researched by media critics and scholars. Whitewashing refers to the act of casting white actors as non-white characters in film and television. Think Jake Gyllenhaal as the protagonist in Prince of Persia (2010) where he was given a tan to portray an “Oriental” character.

Whitewashing is a problem because it has existed from the very beginning of the motion picture in the West. In a world where black and white people were not allowed to freely intermingle and non-white cultures were seen as inherently inferior, films often used white actors with artificially-darkened skins (blackface) to depict black characters.

Blackwashing doesn’t exist. It’s not a thing. Be angry about actual things.

This meant that actors of color were barred from jobs in front of the camera and had no control over how they were portrayed. People of color were depicted in a manner that conformed to racial stereotypes and encouraged their dehumanization.

One of the very first films to use blackface was Birth of Nation (1915) which cemented the portrayal of black men in media as violent and oversexed and has also been linked to horrible outbreaks of violence against the black community at the time of its release.

See what whitewashing does? It can cost people their lives. One of the functions of having white actors play black, brown, or East Asian characters was to have horrible and racist stereotypes of these cultures appear on-screen disguised as comedy. 

But that only happened long ago, right? Wrong. Representation for non-white communities – especially black communities – still pretty much sucks.

The latest Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA published in 2019 looked at diversity in film and television during 2016–17. They found that people of color make up 39.4% of the US population but made up only 2 out of 10 film leads, and 2.2 out of 10 leads for scripted broadcast television. Black Americans occupied 9% of all film roles while white Americans occupied 77%. People of color make up 1.3 out of 10 film directors and 1 out of 10 film writers.

A 2017 analysis by Huffington Post found that, in over 85 years, the only time a black actor has taken home the Best Actor award is when their character could not possibly have been white, due to the historical nature of the story. Perhaps the only exception is Denzel Washington in Training Day.

White, then, remains the default for heroes.

People of color make up 1.3 out of 10 film directors and 1 out of 10 film writers.

Disney hasn’t fared much better. Most Disney princesses are white or white-passing and the merchandise associated with white princesses seems to still get marketed and promoted better.

This matters. Disney is a powerful corporation that shapes childhood imaginations all over the world. A recent study asked nearly 140 girls in five countries – US, India, China, Sweden, Fiji – to “draw a princess”. An analysis of 63 drawings from Fiji, India, and Sweden found that almost all participants drew a light-skinned princess resembling a Disney character.

Not one girl drew a princess in traditional garb from a non-white culture. The study did not ask girls to draw a Disney princess, but simply a princess. For many, the default was a Eurocentric look inspired by Disney. Many girls confessed that they felt too ‘dark’ and ‘ugly’ to be princesses.

That’s heartbreaking and shows the need for greater diversity. Insisting that Disney remain true to the animated race of their mythical characters means that you are actively taking away the few heroic roles people of color can take up in the Disney canon. Instead of demanding white representation in a story about a literal fish girl, we should be asking why Disney has operated for so long on the assumption that white is the default when it comes to telling children’s stories. 

Want to know what whitewashing does? It can cost people their lives.

Anger at whitewashing isn’t simply anger at seeing painted faces. It is anger at the historical marginalization that people of color have faced in Hollywood. It is anger at being misrepresented and used for comedic effect.

Blackwashing doesn’t exist because black people don’t dominate Hollywood and haven’t played white characters to dehumanize them. White people could always freely accept roles in front of and behind the camera and could be fully human and have all their experiences represented.

Now, it’s time to let people of color have the same opportunity.

Oh, and before anyone tries to say that Ariel was definitely white because the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote the original story, remember that the first Ariel (1989) doesn’t remain completely true to Andersen’s gruesome details.

It also gives Ariel a Jamaican talking crab friend for comic relief, so geography mustn’t really be that important to the movie after all.

Or ethnicity.

  • Saira Mahmood is currently a student of English at the University of Karachi. Her first love is reading, though she has been writing to make sense of the world for a long time. Saira is deeply interested in amplifying the uncensored voices and stories of Muslim women — with all the intricacies of gender, faith, mental health, sexuality, and the like preserved.