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The Little Mermaid Leads Disney's New Diversity Casting Trend
Disney has recently reimagined several classic characters, but their attempts at creating diversity are actually limiting it.
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If you didn’t know, I’m a huge Disney fan. Yes, the annoying - “Ooh, there’s new merch!”, “Have you been on Cosmic Rewind yet?” “Which character is your favorite?” -Disney fan. In truth my whole family is. We’ve even been known to check wait times for rides on the app from home while seriously contemplating placing a mobile food order and then driving from Las Vegas to Anaheim in time to park the car, enter Disneyland, and grab dinner.
Now, before you close this article while rolling your eyes, hang in with me. Disney is a massive enterprise whose lead and voice carry a lot of weight…including in the area of diversity. But are they headed in the right direction?
In 2019 Disney announced their decision to cast Halle Bailey, a Black female, as Princess Ariel, a traditionally White character. Since then, controversy has swirled. Some praised Disney, declaring their decision as a step towards diversity, inclusion, and representation. Others believed the magic-making giant was falling under social and media pressure.
While the choice initially caught me off guard, I celebrated Disney’s diversity efforts in this Instagram post from September 2022.
So what’s changed?
Two things: I started asking different questions and began noticing Disney’s additional attempts didn’t truly depict racial diversity at all.
There’s no denying Bailey’s talent. Her rendition of Part of Your World is incredible, and her acting is getting positive reviews from those who’ve previewed the film.
(This post is published prior to the public release.)
But what does it really communicate when Disney exchanges classic characters for the sake of representation?
If we’re honest, it says more about the appearance of diversity than actually achieving it.
After the announcement, I started to notice other classic Disney characters were also being reimagined.
Ariel (1989 Jodi Benson / 2023 Halle Bailey)
Tinkerbell (1953 Margaret Kerry / 2023 Yara Shahidi)
The Blue Fairy (1940 Evelyn Venable / 2022 Cynthia Erivo)
Belle (1991 Paige O’Hara / 2022 H.E.R.)
Collective Soul Princess Doll Collection released winter of 2022 (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Tiana)
Each classic character (with the exception of Princess Tiana) is originally White but has been reimagined or cast as Black, which some are calling the Blackwashing of Disney.
Racial diversity is vital. It creates bridges and pathways toward empathy, understanding, and compassion. However, true racial diversity isn’t accomplished by exchanging one racial group or experience for another.
But that’s what Disney is doing. They aren’t reimaging a variety of characters as different racial or ethnic groups, nor should they. They’re only making White characters Black…and that doesn’t promote diversity. It limits it.
1. It gives a false narrative that something was wrong with the original character.
While Disney provided clarity and explanation around their decision to cast Bailey as the aquatic princess, that hasn’t been the case with their additional classic character recasting decisions. There’s been very little comment as to why these characters have all been reimaged as Black characters. If Disney is trying to create a true melting pot of classic characters, shouldn’t various races be represented? Wouldn’t that be a true reflection of diversity, inclusion, and representation?
2. It eliminates the representation of those who look like the original character.
For decades, children and adults alike have seen themselves reflected in classic Disney characters. So when characters are reimagined to look completely different, it erases that connection. They no longer have a character who looks like them. In fact, it takes representation from one group and assigns it to another. Although that may not be the intended result, it is the emotional outcome. And that doesn’t promote unity, diversity, or accurate representation.
This begs the question, would they consider reimaging Princess Tiana, a Black woman from the Lousiana bayou as an Asian? Or could Black Panter be played by a Latino actor or actress?
I have a strong suspicion we all know the answer.
And rightly so.
Accurate cultural representation is important. Who better to tell a story than those who are part of a specific culture with lived experience? It’s equally important to have accurate cultural representation behind the screen - in the writing room, creative meetings, composer’s studio, and producer’s chair - as collaborative voices speaking into the details, telling the best version of the story. Disney has taken these steps with Encanto, Turning Red, Raya and the Last Dragon, and their upcoming feature Wish. Each film features a collaborative team that represents the culture depicted in the film.
3. It reduces Black talent as replacements.
As a society, our history with race and culture in the United States is marred and traumatic. And so is Disney’s. However, they’ve acknowledged their past racism and taken steps to right the wrongs without erasing them.
It’s my hope they continue creating new characters who reflect stories, experiences, and cultures that have yet to be told. That they don’t resort to minimizing Black talent as mere replacements, but rather embrace this opportunity to tell the countless Black stories that history has silenced.
And for the rest of us, the ones who consume Disney magic and entertainment, let us not forget to extend grace. Change is never easy. It’s not easy to implement and it’s not easy to accept. But it IS necessary. And when done well, it will lead to a place where longing to be part of someone else’s world is no longer the dream.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
How do you think Disney or other corporations should embrace diversity while creating accurate representation?
I’m cheering for you!
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A Little Something Extra…
Each week, I like to share a little something extra, something I’ve found fun or helpful. It might be a post, book, podcast, tv show, movie, song, Bible verse…or something else I think you’ll enjoy.
Family Movie Night!
Although AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Heritage Month ends on May 31, that doesn’t mean you have to stop learning & listening. One of the easiest ways to engage is by having a family movie night. All you have to do is…
1. Make an AAPI dinner together or order in. Check Pinterest for some mouth-watering suggestions if you need a recipe. My family loves to order teriyaki beef and chicken katsu from our favorite Hawaiian restaurant.
2. Choose a film. Disney has a wide variety available to stream on Disney+. No kids at home? No problem. There are several films featuring adult casts to choose from. A couple of my personal favorites are Crazy Rich Asians, The Joy Luck Club, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana (yes, adults can watch Disney movies without the kids).
3. Grab the snacks. You can’t have a movie night without popcorn and sour patch kids can you??
What did you choose to watch? I love to hear how your AAPI movie night goes.
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