In the new ‘Little Mermaid,’ Black girls and moms see themselves

Precious Avery remembers just how rare it was to see Black characters on television growing up, so she started recording as her 3-year-old, Emery, absorbed the trailer for the new “Little Mermaid” film.

As turtles swam through coral reefs, an image of a mermaid appears, then Halle Bailey, a Black actress and singer, was revealed as Ariel. “I think she’s Brown,” Emery said with a grin. “Brown Ariel!”

Emery said she loves Bailey’s long hair and mermaid tail. It reminds her of her swim lessons and how she practices holding her breath underwater. She knows all the Disney princesses and wants to live in a castle one day.

But her mother sees something bigger. It always made her “feel good” to see Black characters on television, Avery, 33, said, and now her daughter was getting the experience.

Black parents across the country are capturing their daughters responding to the new Disney trailer. Videos of children squealing with delight, dancing, tearing up or proclaiming, “She’s Brown like me,” have gone viral, garnering millions of views and sparking a marketing bonanza for Disney.

Parents say the videos highlight why it is important for kids to see people who look like them in movies and television shows. But for some Black moms, the moment was powerful in another way, allowing them to relive a piece of their childhood through a new lens.

Bailey is the newest iteration of the fairy tale mermaid, replacing the redheaded cartoon from the 1989 Disney movie. The original rebellious underwater princess had enormous blue eyes and wore a purple bikini top made of seashells. Instead of legs, she had a green fish tail. For Bailey, “seeing these little babies reactions makes me so emotional,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Thank you all for your unwavering support.”

“The Little Mermaid” live action film, set to release May 2023, will not be the first Disney movie with a Black princess. Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog” made history as the first Black Disney princess in 2009, and the 1997 remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” in which singer Brandy Norwood took on the titular role, began streaming on Disney Plus last year.

Parents are taking to TikTok to share videos of their young daughters’ reactions to Halle Bailey, who will star as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” out May 2023. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Dariana Fleming, 26, remembers how important it was to her to see Cinderella played by a Black woman as a child. Inspired by the videos of Black girls reacting to the “Little Mermaid” teaser, she decided to make her own. Her daughters Rylie, 2, and McKenzie, 4, smiled as they watched the first few seconds of the trailer. Their smiles turned to gasps and giggles as Bailey appeared on screen.

Rylie was wowed. McKenzie says she was impressed that Ariel’s hair had dreads like her dad. The video documenting their response to the new Black Ariel has been viewed on TikTok more than 2 million times. “For me, I didn’t really have them growing up, so it’s good to have that representation for their generation to see,” said Fleming.

Ashley Potts, 26, says she doesn’t talk about skin color with her 5-year-old daughter, London, but that it was clear that she was shocked to see an Ariel that looked like her. London already loved “The Little Mermaid,” and has an ever-growing collection of mermaid dolls, including a prized Ariel doll from Disneyland that she received for her birthday.

As she watched the trailer, she pointed to the mermaid princess several times as her mom recorded, but once the toddler saw Ariel’s face, she fell silent. “It was a natural reaction for her,” Potts said. “I wanted to cry.”

“It’s so surreal that the mermaid I grew up with is going to grow up with my children in a whole other way,” said Dariyan Bell, a 30-year-old mother of five. In a video, which Bell posted on her TikTok account, Zavae, 3, suddenly stopped playing once she heard Bailey singing “Part of Your World.” Her back to her mother, Zavae is seemingly entranced by the image of Bailey on the screen.

The outpouring of reactions from little Black girls has been a huge marketing boost for the film. But those feelings of delight and awe were not universal. The announcement of Bailey’s casting in 2019 was initially met with some backlash. Some critics on Twitter used #NotMyAriel and #NotMyMermaid hashtags to argue that the person chosen to play Ariel should have been White, like the story’s Danish author and in the original animation.

Many of her fans used the same Twitter hashtags, along with #MyAriel, to come to Bailey’s defense. They noted that mermaids are mythical creatures that have appeared in legends and folk tales across the world, including in the African diaspora. The Disney network Freeform also supported Bailey on social media with “An open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”

Disney network defends casting black actress in remake of classic film

Bailey isn’t the only actor of color to be harassed for playing characters originally cast by White actors or in predominantly White film franchises. John Boyega faced so much racist abuse from fans when he was cast as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 2015 that he told SiriusXM he was not interested in returning to the “Star Wars” franchise. Leslie Jones and Kelly Marie Tran received similar hate for their roles in the “Ghostbusters” reboot and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” respectively.

While Disney has included more diverse characters like Princess Tiana in recent years, the changes were long overdue, said Kaila Story, an associate professor in the departments of Pan-African studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville.

Shows with White casts have historically been presented as appropriate for all audiences, Story said, while movies with Black actors and filmmakers were only targeted toward Black people. Yet showcasing more characters of color in television and films is more reflective of what the world looks like, she said.

What sets Ariel in the new “Little Mermaid” apart from some of the other non-White Disney protagonists, such as Pocahontas, is that “the crux of her story is not going to have to be her unpacking her racial identity simultaneously,” Story said.

For Devyn Coulson, 33, sharing Disney films with her 3-year-old daughter Khloe has always been full-circle moment and a chance to relive her childhood. “It makes me feel like I can get a glimpse of how my mom felt when I was finding so much joy in the Disney movies,” she says.

But Khloe’s reaction to the new “Little Mermaid” trailer was special. In the video, Khloe fixes her gaze on the screen, her eyes appearing to well up with tears. “Are you crying?” Coulson asked Khloe, who immediately denied it. “Oh, sweet girl,” her mom cooed.

Adelia Chaiyakul, 31, said she also felt as though she was returning to her own childhood after viewing the “Little Mermaid” video with her 9-year-old daughter, Ava, who told her mother she was famous at school after her reaction video, in which she smiles and covers her mouth in shock upon seeing the new Ariel, went viral on TikTok.

Chaiyakul said that because she didn’t see herself reflected in characters growing up, she simply had to imagine. But in the comments of the viral TikTok video, she realized how reaction videos like her daughter’s allowed many White women to understand how much they took for granted seeing themselves in White princesses and other characters.

This dynamic will change with the next generation, said Chaiyakul. “I kind of made it up in my mind that I was princess,” she said. “She actually gets to see that she’s a princess.”

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