The Little Mermaid and the question of racially-conscious casting
Memorial Day saw one of the biggest releases of the year so far in the live-action remake of Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey as the titular character. Whether the movie was a smash hit, or a flop appears to differ depending on one’s perspective. The truth is a bit more complex: the movie opened as a huge success in the United States, with a $118 million opening weekend, but struggled overseas. It also dropped swiftly in the United States market in its second week and it’s not clear if it will make its “break even” profit point. Little Mermaid got fine but not outstanding reviews, and a 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, though film critic Erik Kain suggested Rotten Tomatoes might have cooked the books on that audience score (i.e., the “all audience” score is a much lower 57% than the stellar “verified audience” score, though the “all audience” score may also be susceptible to review bombing).
Little Mermaid was always at the center of a race-related debate, given that Halle Bailey is black, but the original story was a Danish folktale written by Hans Christian Anderson. This invited the question of when it is appropriate to open one culture’s folktales to actors of another ethnicity. Although no doubt explicit racism motivates some hostile viewers, the question of whether there is a double standard on this, or whether it is wise to disrupt parasocial relationships, are probably more salient to the debate than actual racism.
To be clear, I have not seen Little Mermaid. I’m just not in the intended demographic and this is not a movie review. I am more interested in the cultural battles around the movie than I am the movie itself. Here are some takeaways I believe we should focus on, in no particular order.
The smash opening weekend in the United States is awesome news. Debate over the race of the main character aside, this suggests American audiences are very welcoming to black lead characters. This cuts against all the “white supremacy” and “anti-black racism” narrative on the progressive left. It also fits with other evidence that racism is at historic lows (not just for the US, but across all history) in the modern United States. The slanderous narrative of a “racist” United States is dead. It’s time to stop pandering to it.
So why didn’t the movie do well overseas, particularly in Asian countries such as China or South Korea? Well, racism of course! If you can’t find it in the US, look elsewhere. Only this narrative was shattered the very next weekend as Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse featuring a black lead character, opened as a hit in China. I’m hardly one to defend the People’s Republic of China as a race utopia, given their ongoing genocide of their Uyghur minority (an ongoing tragedy neither progressives nor virtue-signaling big companies seem much interested in). But it seems the Chinese mostly just didn’t like The Little Mermaid.
As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. I think we can say at this point that there’s a cadre of folks for whom accusations of racism have become that hammer and, increasingly, we should learn to ignore those people. This is not to say real racism never happens. Yet these broad and neurotic accusations have grown to be a real problem.
Trying to change a character as iconic as the red-haired animated Little Mermaid is always going to be risky. Some fans develop parasocial relationships with iconic characters…they feel like friends, or they see themselves in those characters. Changing them in major ways—their race, sex, sexuality, etc.—can feel like the death of those characters and will generate predictable displeasure.
Some people will respond, “But don’t minority groups deserve to be represented in film?”, to which the answer is “Absolutely!” But taking an existing character and swapping out their identity characteristics is a crude and clumsy way to do it. A much better way is to create new characters and stories. For example, Wonder Woman for girls and The Black Panther for black Americans were both runaway success stories that generated comparatively little backlash from irate fans (there’s always some but we can ignore the trolls).
The live-action Little Mermaid remake was a missed opportunity to bring to screen a story we haven’t seen before. Disney could have brought an African folktale to US audiences, in which case a black cast wouldn’t have been at all controversial. It would also have given us some new stories rather than tired remakes. Tell us new stories! Sure, new stories are untested and risky, whereas the Little Mermaid must have looked like easy money. But some risks are worth taking.
Undoubtedly, the few true racists left in the US weren’t going to care for The Little Mermaid. But much of the backlash was likely due to two separate issues that, though involving race and race casting, aren’t racism, no matter how much “good” progressives wish to cast any disagreement as such.
First, there’s some perception of double standard, namely that Hollywood is eager to cast black actors in, say, European fairy tales, but the inverse would be strictly taboo. I think there’s probably some truth to this. Progressives might point out that, historically, Hollywood did the inverse, casting white actors in traditionally non-white stories. That’s certainly true, although if that was a problem in the past, then simply doing a mirror-image of the problem now falls under the “two wrongs don’t make a right” rule. I also generally don’t find digging through history for past sins to be very convincing, particularly if the motive seems to be to get away with a similar sin now—it’s about as constructive as marriage partners bringing up old conflicts during every new fight. That said, there are a lot of nuances and complexities. Asian films, such as The Ring are remade in the US without much complaint (in part because I suspect the Asian companies that made the original make serious bank off the remakes). So, I suspect most of the taboo is specific to black or American Indian roles (think of the ridicule Johnny Depp got for playing Tanto). Hamilton generally gets a pass, as the race-swapping of historical characters is done for obvious fun and with a wink, but overall, I think the perception of a hypocritical double-standard is probably true. And, unfortunately, double-standards tend to breed resentment.
Second, the argument is that many examples of racial casting are obviously performative and clumsy as opposed to story related. In other words, Hollywood producers are trying to score diversity points at the expense of good storytelling. Rings of Power is perhaps the most (in)famous example where the casting seemed outright genetically improbable. Why were some elves white and some black, when they were technically all the same historical ethnicity? How had a biracial hobbit couple borne a daughter who simply looked Irish white? The producers could, instead, have chosen different human countries and make one of them black, another Asian, etc. This would have made more sense (though Tolkien purists might still have objected, which, again, is fine…I don’t perceive that as racist). I think people are picking up on the sense that Hollywood producers are trying to pander to a particular socio political movement rather than telling good stories. Again, I think this is probably true, not only affecting movies and TV shows, but games like Dungeons and Dragons.
It is worth remembering that data suggest that, at least at the moment, gay and black characters are overrepresented in media. So cross-racial casting may be trying to fix a problem that doesn’t actually exist. By contrast, Latinos continue to be unrepresented, but my observation is that concern for Latinos seems to be minimal in discussions about race on either side. I’m not quite sure why that is.
All this is to say we still need to work on some kind of consensus about when cross-racial casting is ok, and any standard needs to be fair. My sense is that most fictional roles should be open casting. For stories that take place in a specific cultural context, whether Little Mermaid or Black Panther, it’s fine to keep the roles ethno-centric. Concerns about overrepresentation of Eurocentric stories are fair, so let’s tell a wider variety of stories instead of crowbarring race into stories in ways that are hypocritical double-standards.
We probably don’t need more live-action remakes of iconic cartoons anyway. In a general sense, Disney and the rest of Hollywood seem rather lazy of late. Bring us some Latin American, African, Asian, and other stories we’ve never heard before.
Overall, am I losing sleep over Little Mermaid? No. But I think Hollywood is handling race issues more generally in a way that is clumsy, neurotic, and overly moralistic and, in doing so, doing more damage than good. We should probably keep the Little Mermaid as the flame-haired Danish girl. But we should also be telling more stories from diverse parts of the world.
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