When I was a little girl, I knew exactly what a princess looked like. She looked like me. Maybe I didn’t have Cinderella’s blonde hair and blue eyes, but I had dark eyes like Belle. I had Merida’s curly hair. And I certainly had one of Snow White’s infamous traits: skin, white as snow. (Funny, that trait seems to be shared among a lot of the Disney princesses!)
I’m not going to pretend like those original snow-white princesses are the most compelling female role models, but as a little girl, I was able to see myself in their best traits. I could dress up as them for Halloween. I was able to define what a heroine is, who a princess is, as someone who looked like me.
For that reason, I am so excited that Disney has cast Halle Bailey, an African-American woman, to play Ariel in the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same.
Soon after their casting decision was announced, #NotMyAriel began trending on Twitter. It appears that some people are angry because if this happened the other way around — if Disney recast a classic black princess as white — there would be a huge uproar. The point some people are missing is that that would never happen, because there has only been one black princess in the past 95 years of Disney history. Frankly, that statistic is pathetic.
Being able to see a princess or hero who looks like you is no small thing in the psychology of a developing child. We know that peoples’ attitudes towards race are impacted by racial representation in media and movies. When black people are consistently portrayed in media as drug addicts, criminals and sidekicks, while white people are portrayed as complex heroes and protagonists, it impacts the way we see black and white people in real life.
The solution to this problem is incredibly simple: hire more black writers and directors. Make movies with fully developed and complex black characters. Create black protagonists, heroes and princesses.
Remaking The Little Mermaid with a black Ariel isn’t taking anything away from white people; we have Elsa, Anna, Cinderella, Rapunzel and even the original Little Mermaid. Rather, it’s giving something to a generation of little African-American girls that they have only experienced once before: the chance to see themselves in a Disney princess.