I remember the first reaction round of #NotMyAriel. In 2019, Disney announced that singer and actress Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel in the live-action recreation of her beloved classic, The little Mermaid. In response, the racists took to Twitter to claim that a black mermaid would ruin the movie and traumatize their children. As a black woman and huge fan of Chloé x Halle, my first reaction to the casting choice was pure joy. My excitement was cut short – not entirely stolen, but still affected – by how #NotMyAriel went viral, but I’m happy to report that when the long-awaited trailer for The little Mermaid was released on September 9, something else took over the internet. Sure, seeing a black mermaid upset the haters, but more importantly, it created the biggest influx of black girl cheer I’ve seen on social media in a long time.
The trailer features a clip of Bailey as Ariel, floating serenely in her secret treasure cave. Her soft, ginger-colored locs move through the water and frame her face as she sings part of the iconic “Part of Your World.” Even though people knew a black mermaid had been hitting the big screen for over three years, seeing Bailey in the role was powerful. Black parents across the country have started posting videos of their daughters’ thrilled reactions to being portrayed as an IRL version of one of Disney’s most beloved princesses.
Aja Johnson, a 32-year-old mother in San Antonio, Texas, is one such parent. On September 10, Johnson shared a TikTok video with his 250,000 followers. of her youngest daughter’s thrilled reaction to seeing Halle Bailey as Ariel. Seeing the red-haired black mermaid, three-year-old Airess exclaims, “She’s brunette like me!” The little girl lights up and it’s a beautiful moment.
“She’s been carrying this Ariel doll around for a while,” Johnson tells me, “so she’s obsessed with The little Mermaid. OWhen I showed him the trailer, you saw his reaction, [but] she was so excited to see someone who looked like her.
Black women weren’t represented in the media when Johnson was growing up, and she hopes her children will have more opportunities to see actors who look like them. “I want my daughters to know that whatever they want to be in life, they can be. [and that] there is no limit,” she shares.
Johnson recorded the video because she knew the trailer would delight her daughter and wanted to capture the excited reaction, but decided to post it on TikTok as a way to spread the joy and highlight the importance of the real-time representation. “Representation really matters to a child, even at the age of three. I wanted more people to see how much impact [this has on] a little brunette girl,” Johnson says.
Like Johnson, Dariana Fleming, mom and founder of skincare brand Natural by Dari in Atlanta, Georgia, says she wanted her daughters Rylie, 2, and McKenzie, 4, to finally see themselves represented. through the characters of Black Disney. She says seeing Bailey as Ariel has helped her daughters learn that race shouldn’t be something they view as limiting.
“Anything is possible,” says Fleming. “[Bailey] was discovered singing on YouTube with her sister. Now she plays [Ariel in] the Little Mermaid, one of the greatest Disney movies of all time. She has a huge impact on this generation. Fleming also hopes critics will change their minds and see the significance of Bailey playing the role.
“Having [the] Little Mermaid re-invent [as] a black woman can turn people off,” says Fleming. “However, all the positive feedback [Bailey] received by all these young black and brown girls is an example of the importance of diversity.
Some of the viral reaction videos, like the one posted by TikTok user @armlina, show that it’s not just mothers and young children who are getting a serotonin boost from this trailer. It mattered to me as it did to Angel Davis, a Gen Z model and student at New York University. Davis felt the same happiness I felt watching the viral videos of black girls seeing an Ariel that looked like them for the first time. “It was so beautiful,” Davis says. “Their smiles are so genuine.”
It got her thinking about how this kind of portrayal would have impacted how she saw herself among her white peers. “If I saw what I [looked] like in the mirror on TV, more than once in a blue moon…I think I would have figured out that being a black girl is normal,” Davis says, “instead of wanting to change the texture of my hair or wish to be lighter. ”
Despite the detractors, The little Mermaid teaser is cause for celebration. The outpouring of joy from black girls on social media touched me because the lack of black representation in children’s movies and TV shows shaped one of my earliest experiences with racism.
Growing up, my favorite TV character was Hanna Montana. One year, of course, I wanted to be her for Halloween. Several other girls at my mostly white elementary school had also decided to be the pop star, but instead of bonding with our shared obsession with the singer, one of my fellow Hannah Montana lovers told me that I couldn’t be the character because I was Le noir. That moment stuck with me forever and cements why race should never be the defining trait of a character, especially for kids.
Hopefully Bailey’s role as Ariel in The little Mermaid will show the next generation of black girls that they are worthy of being princesses. If nothing else, the viral response from hundreds of black children literally overwhelmed with happiness was a nice way to start September. When black actors play roles that all children love and admire, it makes a difference. When kids see they can be part of the worlds they see in the movies, the magic happens.
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