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Why We Can Imagine Fish Singing, But Not Black Mermaids – Mother Jones

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Halle Bailey at the premiere of The Little MermaidMatt Winkelmeyer / Getty

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when disney announced that singer and actress Halle Bailey was cast to play Ariel in the upcoming live-action adaptation of the little Mermaid, I was unusually happy. With her divine voice and magnetic onscreen presence, even I, as a vocal Disney live-action hater, had to admit that Bailey as Ariel was a match made in heaven. As one of the four-time Grammy-nominated duo, Chloe x Halle, she was the perfect choice to play a character whose voice is paramount to the story. Plus, as a Black woman, I was thrilled that young Black girls would have another Disney princess to dream about.

“Ariel’s innocence is so important because too often black girls are seen as cowards or vicious or criminal — or disregarded as someone.”

But not everyone shared my sentiments. The announcement kicked off a predictable parade of racist uproar. Right-wing commentators, including Matt Walsh tried to “scientifically”, Explain why a mermaid, a fictional sea creature, cannot be black. Others condemned the casting decision ,wander woke up“From Disney. Racist illustration depicting Bailey with fried chickens operated,A Twitter user also edited trailer footage of the film to make Bailey appear white.

We’ve also seen reactions like star wars, Harry PoteR, And Lots of Marvel movies. Whenever an actor of color plays a character widely seen as white, some fans go completely berserk. But why?

Why can we imagine a world of singing fish, but not a black mermaid? pic.twitter.com/ciVOdIJlMT

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) May 26, 2023

my colleague Sam van Piekeren and I talked ebony elizabeth thomas anal award winning author of Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, To uncover hidden racism in fictional spaces and how culture can resist racist gatekeeping.

How did you come to dissect nerdy content as a career?

I call myself a professional fangirl. I can say that some of this is from my academic training. But what I saw started when I was a kid in 1980s Detroit desperately seeking and craving magic and science fiction. I kept finding myself, between the pages and on the screen. Unfortunately, magic didn’t pay much attention to me: I was a little black girl in Reagan-era Detroit.

What was your reaction to the casting of Halle Bailey?

I became very happy. I was thrilled. I got to see all the reactions of little black girls watching Halle play Ariel. It was wonderful to see them react viscerally to her being at the center of the narrative.

oh my god those little girls faces lit up made me feel like being a kid and seeing princess tiana for the first time. How has that representation evolved since you were a girl?

We existed and in those stories from the ’80s, but we were usually on the dude’s side. This generation is going to be able to see themselves at the center of a story—and it’s Disney! One criticism of Disney is that it’s all about happily ever after — but the idea of ​​a young black woman playing a mermaid when the stereotype is that we can’t swim? Halle Bailey is showing us that we belong at sea.

Yes, we can imagine talking animals, handsome princes in seaside palaces, and even half-fish people, but people still have a hard time with her being black.

Most English-language children’s literature has been majority white for many years. If you haven’t been reading West African and Caribbean folklore, you may not be aware of other mermaid traditions. There are traditions of mermaids in folklore around the world, but we only get to read or watch stories based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tales the little Mermaid, It’s like wait, a black girl can’t be in Ariel the little Mermaid? And it’s because we have a defined place in the collective imagination. So not only do you have a black character—or a character of color, or an LGBTQ character—as the protagonist or the protagonist; On top of that, you have something that doesn’t happen in the real world. And readers and viewers can’t take it. it’s too much.

many people try to portray little Mermaid-And mermaids in general—like straight, white tales. But this cannot match the intentions of the creators, right?

There is speculation that Hans Christian Andersen was gay. And That the little Mermaid There was actually a story about the fact that he was living in a time when you couldn’t be openly gay. and so encoded the little Mermaid Not a cis-heterosexual story. It is also a story about what it meant to live as a gay man in past decades and centuries. Again, none of that was provided to us as children, because the script our culture needed us to believe is that boys can never show fear, or sadness, or emotion.

And here’s a mermaid who does those things very openly.

I’ve seen little girls say we need Tender black girls. and you see that with ariel the little Mermaid, He is innocent. She’s also trying to navigate beyond romance, which is the hallmark of a lot of Disney. But beyond that, it’s about moving into a new environment.

That innocence is so important, especially for young black kids to watch.

Being Halle really subverts our traditional notions of innocence. Too often, black children are not seen as innocent. And we’ve seen that play out in disaster over and over again through videos of the Black Death—either at the hands of the state or a misguided neighbor.

And it’s really because there’s a centuries-old history of not viewing black children as children, because you shouldn’t enslave children, you shouldn’t put them in prison, and you definitely shouldn’t execute them. Our children are not seen as children because of this. and it’s a powerful thing to see [a person] You’ve been carefully taught not to see yourself as a child—or to see your children or yourself as human at all—play this character in the middle of the story; Main character and love interest.

Ariel’s innocence is very important because often black girls are seen as cowards or vicious or criminals – or as someone to be disregarded. This story doesn’t let you do that: She’s going to sing “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl.” We’re all going to hear classic songs that are associated with a young black woman with dreadlocks or natural hair. And it is powerful, especially given the narratives surrounding Black people swimming and other natural spaces.

How does this change things?

If we can give advice to each generation to read and watch stories about themselves and each other and enjoy the stories, I believe our future can be much better. And there are people in this society who see this and want to do anything in their power to prevent this from happening.

From banning books in school libraries to discriminatory curriculum bans in education, it’s happening across the country!

It’s not about corruption, which many right-wingers think – that the child is a blank slate that needs to be wiped clean. It’s really a matter of looking for clues about what the world outside of your family and immediate environment might be like. The point is not that all of a sudden you say, “Oh wow! I’ll watch it and become someone I didn’t want to be!” It’s the exact opposite. You’re reaffirming You, You exist without the story, but the story does something to lift your head a little bit.

And books are a powerful way for children to socialize. I did not say persuade Kids, because that’s what some people think, but kids to socialize. just because a child sees shiny as Halle Bailey the little Mermaid or reads julian is a mermaid It doesn’t mean they’re suddenly going to be a little black girl or suddenly become gay or trans. That’s how identity doesn’t work. You cannot induce someone to assume an identity that they are not.

But what people fear when they see non-traditional casting or characters from marginalized groups in these stories – they feel disturbed. They are just stories known to work in a particular way, outside of odd outliers. You can be anything in a story today! What is the world coming to?

And some people have a very strong reaction. We have seen massive review bombardment of films, and viral social-media campaigns against them, even before they come out.

Audiences have a variety of reactions to stories where characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and other marginalized characters are liberated. They either ignore the story and don’t really give it an audience, complain they’re confused by it, or it’s not interesting. It takes practice to relate to people who are not like you. And some of us have practiced doing this throughout our lives. Others have not.

According to your book, the audience in these stories has a particular distaste for Black girls and Black women.

This is a big problem. People will say, I don’t like him or he is not likable. The most extreme reaction we see is a violent reaction where fans want to erase characters – something we typically see in speculative fandom: science fiction, fantasy, and comic fandom. And while there is a general dislike in these fandoms for female characters, they actually react to Black women and Black girl characters.

There’s also the argument that we should just be creating new characters for black women and not changing old roles. any thoughts on that?

Every culture has traditional stories, and in the United States, our modern culture has traditional stories from Disney, Marvel, DC Comics, etc. it’s a critique of Shondaland and bridgerton, People say, “Why do you want black people in these historically white roles?” What you’re doing here is engaging the audience, so if they’re used to seeing a black mermaid, maybe they’ll read another story. Or maybe there will be more optimizations.

Why is it important that we understand these stories as more than just migrations?

Fiction in the guise of fairy tales, folktales, and fables are some of the very first stories we hear. From childhood we learn the shape and texture of fictional stories, And really you can’t understand much about popular culture today without thinking about speculative fiction and fantastic stories, because they are central to the culture. And this country was founded on a fantasy! The American Dream is a great story that doesn’t tell us what happened. That’s a fairy tale. That’s the fantasy you’ve got.

Stories are really what make us wise, they make us wise. Because not only do they connect us to the past, but they are also a door to the future. And when you share a story with a young person, you get a chance to share a story with someone who will be alive in the 22nd century. This is how we build an inclusive future that we will never see again. This is how we imagine the existence of tomorrow. These are the stakes.

It’s easy to get lost in the racist chatter. How do we stay positive?

like we give to negative people the little Mermaid Lots of attention, I would urge us to also pay attention to the children and families who are so excited about the premiere. I’m really excited for all that’s to come.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.