Outrage abounds as the live-action version of The Little Mermaid casts Halle Bailey, a black woman, as Ariel. Jac Rousseau takes a deep dive.

Adapting folk stories from an oral tradition of passing stories through generations, Hans Christian Anderson coined the title The Little Mermaid for one of his stories. The Anderson version was part of a technological renaissance in folk stories made available through cheap printing. New versions of old stories, characterised by authors such as the Grimm brothers, were canonised when they were written down, solidified in a way that was unnatural to the folk tradition. Folk stories were always intended to be reimagined. 

The name Ariel was invented by Disney in a sanitised version of the Anderson’s old story. The new version was ‘of its time’ in some regards but the meta-narrative of Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid can be read as a critique of white patriarchal capitalism:

The first musical number Part of your World is punctuated with longing for freedom, movement, ownership and socialisation. In the crescendo Ariel reaches longingly towards the surface of the water which remains just out of reach. 

The surface acts as an analogy for the glass ceiling throughout the rest of the film, above which white men engage in industry, ownership and erect statues to each other. Below is the world of otherness, all the fish are ethnically or femininely exaggerated. The merpeople have a hierarchy headed by Ariel’s father Titan who warns her away from the surface; the palace hierarchy is noticeably lacking a matriarch – the outcast Seawitch, Ursula.

Halle Bailey attends the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Kings Theatre on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Ursula is the embodiment of all forms of otherness: poor, black, gay, large, trans, woman. Her big number, Poor Unfortunate Souls, is a drag act celebrating her power, the free-flowing, untameable, destructive and amplifying feminine power. This is the power of radical subjectivity, to refuse authority or to be a subject. This power gives Ariel the ability to disobey her father’s command to avoid the surface, it gives her legs, movement, the ability to function above the surface in the ruling class but in this world she loses her voice, the ability to speak for her born class, the merpeople.

In order to save Ariel, Titan gives over his trident to Ursula, a metaphor so phallic it needs no explanation. The ensuing all-destructive, all-consuming whirlpool that Ursula creates can only be stopped when Eric, the hero, penetrates her with the stern of his ship. 

There’s a lot of room for interpretation here, at some point the metaphors fall-down and it is just a feel-good Disney story. Make of it what you will. 

The most outrageous casting decision in the new live action retelling of The Little Mermaid is not Ariel’s casting, but that Ursula is being played by Melissa McCarthy, a white woman. She is awesome though, so, look forward to that.


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