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COMMENTARY: What colour should a make-believe mermaid be?

Singer Halle Bailey is playing Ariel in the live-action remake of 'The Little Mermaid,' but people on the internet are doing double takes when seeing her name, confusing hers with Halle Berry's.

When Disney announced the casting for Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, it created more than a little splash.

Since news of 19-year-old singer and actor Halle Bailey (best known for her role on Grown-ish and the musical sister duo Chloe x Halle) landing the lead role was revealed, social media savages also came out from under their rocks to complain about the new queen-to-be under the sea, culminating in trending hashtags #NotMyAriel and #NotMyMermaid.

Why the outrage? The majority of complaints went from short gripes to essay-length explanations of Halle simply being too different from the 1989 original animated version — a blue-eyed beauty with bright red hair and porcelain-white skin.

READ MORE: Meet the new Ariel for Disney’s live-action ‘Little Mermaid’

But the original also sports a lush green fishtail in the place of legs. Because Ariel is … a mermaid, a mythological character. For those who forgot, she literally swims under the sea with her six mermaid sisters, calls a flounder her best friend, hangs out with a Jamaican crab and gets duped by a nasty purple sea witch who makes a deal to steal her glorious voice in exchange for human legs.

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Now that it seems completely ridiculous (because it is) to cast an actual mermaid doppelganger, let’s get back to the argument of Halle being too different — maybe the argument is really that Halle is black.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of reaction, nor will it likely be the last. From the racist and sexist online attacks against comedian Leslie Jones after the release of the all-female Ghostbusters remake, backlash against Zendaya’s casting as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming to the online bullying endured last year by Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian American actress to land a lead role in a Star Wars film, this abhorrent behaviour, particularly against women is not new.

READ MORE: Kelly Marie Tran, Rose in ‘The Last Jedi,’ deletes all Instagram posts following racist, sexist harassment

Tran ended up deleting her Instagram posts as a means to cope and later penned an op-ed for the New York Times. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories,” she wrote.

And much like Tran’s sentiments, it is amidst the social outrage, derogatory and polarizing commentary where we see precisely why having diverse characters matters, and a re-imagining of tales (if the key players aren’t willing to take risks on telling new stories with new story-tellers) is so vital.

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As one person notably tweeted, “You’re right, she’s not your Ariel. Because it’s someone else’s turn to see themselves in The Little Mermaid. You’ve had yours.”

When Disney released The Little Mermaid in 1989, it was one of the top-grossing children’s films that year along with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and All Dogs Go to Heaven.

There weren’t any non-white characters featured in those films because diversity simply wasn’t celebrated on the big or small screen at that time. It’s not that we didn’t exist, we were still here, we were still watching — we just weren’t seen. And that matters — especially for children. Because what children see in mass media — reflections of themselves in film on television or in books — helps shape what they dream to be possible.

As a child, I remember seeing little representation of myself in the heaps of Barbie dolls and Disney princesses lining the aisles in the toy stores. And I vividly recall how excited I was (even as a teenager) when Princess Jasmine finally came along because I felt suddenly seen in some way, too.

WATCH BELOW: Who is Halle Bailey? 

Who Is Halle Bailey?
Who Is Halle Bailey?

For my young mind, it felt that someone like me was worthy of celebration and that was an exciting feeling. With a daughter of my own now, princesses are a big part of our lives again. A self-professed princess, she is celebrating her fourth birthday this weekend with a Disney princess-themed party, complete with an appearance from Elsa herself, her favourite of them all.

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And while she absolutely adores Frozen’s Elsa, soften admiring her long blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes — even at her tender age, she has started to ask why doesn’t she have beautiful “yellow hair” like so many of her favourite princesses do. But in the same way, I have taught my daughter that just as Elsa is not defined by her blonde hair, neither is Ariel defined by her bright red mane.

“I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters. What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart, and their spirit, is what really counts,” said Jodi Benson, voice of the original Ariel, to Comicbook.com in response to the controversy.

And it is my responsibility as a parent to place the emphasis on those inner qualities, like strength, compassion and kindness — those which we should look to emulate and see ourselves in, with their outer appearance secondary.

“It was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role,” said the film’s director, Rob Marshall, in a statement to NBC News.

And while Disney is yet to comment on the backlash, Disney-owned network Freeform had some choice words for the Halle haters in an Instagram post, “An open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”

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Some others have mocked the outrage, too. “I’m offended by the casting of a woman of colour as Ariel,” a person tweeted. “They should have used an ACTUAL, real mermaid. Sick and tired of this human privilege.”

But the fact that this — a mermaid — is the ridiculous debate polarizing people is actually quite disheartening —because to think if some people have such a hard time imagining a black woman as a fictional character on screen, how can they possibly view black women with respect or as equals in real-life scenarios — like in the workplace, in romantic relationships, in their communities — that’s the real sad and sobering thought — far from any fairytale.

In 2019, as live-action remakes continue to generate substantial profits for Disney, it appears they also see the potential of a different demographic coming of age in a more diverse world.

Ultimately, I’d like to see completely new stories by new story-tellers, not just the re-telling of old tales.

But if remakes are what’s on the horizon, at least for the foreseeable future from powerhouse Disney, then I’m glad they have come out from under a rock with their imagining of all that can be possible under the sea.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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