It’s hardly news when a cultural shift is met with skepticism and downright opposition. Changes in the norm throughout history, whether in media or beyond, have often been scorned to the point of surrender. This has led to some of the best and most progressive ideas to rot in cynicism. There is some hope, however, because while in the past progressivism has been fighting an uphill battle, it is finally winning. The latest evidence comes from Halle Bailey’s role as the first black actress to play the historically beloved Little Mermaid, and she is just the latest of what media has insisted is yet to come.
Bailey is one of Hollywood’s younger figures at the moment, exercising her acting talent in Grown-ish and her singing abilities as half of the duo of Chloe x Halle. If both a talented singer and actress sounds like the perfect fit for The Little Mermaid, that’s because she is. What is fueling the opposition to her casting is not her abilities, but her skin color. If that sounds like a problem we hope we’d only have in the past, you’d be right to hope but wrong to assume. Due to Disney’s cartoon rendition of the character (which is loosely based on a much older and grislier fairy tale), many consumers have attributed white skin and red hair to the mermaid’s appearance. With Bailey having dark skin and hair, many of these consumers are concerningly upset.
The controversy over Bailey as The Little Mermaid is the latest progressive move by media, specifically Disney, that has drawn immense controversy. Earlier this year, Pixar’s prequel to Toy Story about Buzz Lightyear called Lightyear, featured a short kiss shared between two married women. Just recently, official plans to change the theme of Disneyland Park’s Splash Mountain ride from Song of the South (a cartoon called out for being riddled with racist stereotypes) to The Princess and the Frog (the brand’s first film featuring a black princess) was announced. The move in Lightyear was met with so much criticism that it is widely believed that its box office numbers suffered from review bombing. The retheme of Splash Mountain has Disney “fans” on social media writing off future plans to visit the park when the change happens.
While there is often more attention given to the negativity and opposition around these inclusive shifts in children’s media culture, it is important to note the earlier point that these changes are indeed continuing to happen. This is because, despite endless barriers, progressivism is still winning. More than the negative reviews of Bailey’s casting were positive ones, with many fans taking to social media to describe their children’s reactions to the teaser trailer of the film. Bailey singing a snippet of “Part of Your World,” the character’s iconic song, led to video after video of children of all ages and ethnicities expressing appreciation and interest. Many children of color exclaimed “She looks just like me!” with their parents beginning the hashtag #representationmatters.
Any cultural shift, especially in the realm of children and their entertainment, is going to be met with incredibly harsh opposition. However, the loudest voices are often the fewest, and every hateful comment that receives attention is simply drawing viewers away from the many positive ones that also exist. Bailey’s performance will more than likely leave the audience in awe, Lightyear was still a film loved by children all around the globe, and The Princess and the Frog will improve the Splash Mountain experience in ways riders never thought possible. While a shift will always have its barriers, it is a shift, nonetheless. If we stay on this path, a future where each and every child can feel like media truly speaks to them is in every way possible.