Chinese Disney fans are voicing their disapproval over a planned live-action remake of the 1989 film “The Little Mermaid” after a black actress was cast in the lead role.
In an online poll conducted by Chinese entertainment platform Sina Movie, over 60,000 respondents had signaled their displeasure over singer Halle Bailey playing the mermaid Ariel as of Thursday evening, while only about 5,000 approved of her being tapped for the part. On Wednesday, Disney announced that the cast for the remake of the animated classic included 19-year-old Bailey, with the film’s director Rob Marshall praising her “rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice.”
While Western media outlets largely lauded Disney for its colorblind casting, the Chinese internet has unleashed a torrent of shock, anger, and disappointment at the multibillion-dollar company for “ruining” their childhood memories and “disrespecting the original work.”
“It’s not that I don’t like black people,” one netizen commented on microblogging platform Weibo. “The problem is that this character was originally white with red hair.”
When the superhero film “Black Panther” was released in China last year, the Hollywood blockbuster prompted debate over attitudes toward race in China, a country where fair skin is often prized. Though the movie drew racist comments from some, others suggested the film would “heighten awareness of race among domestic audiences.”
Chu Mufeng, a Beijing-based film critic, told Sixth Tone that Disney has embraced diversity with its casting of Asian and black actors, referring to releases such as “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” “If the actor does a good job and is suitable for the role, there is nothing wrong [with casting them],” he said. “We should not perpetuate stereotypes.”
However, some discussions on Chinese social media have sought to distinguish between diversity and tokenism — and questioned whether Disney might be succumbing to the latter.
“Casting a black actor in a role rooted in white culture — that’s just a corporation trying to earn money by being politically correct,” wrote one user on Weibo. “Real respect means giving black culture more representation on screen and allowing the black community to tell its own stories.”
Meanwhile, some unhappy fans have dedicated themselves to nominating other actresses they feel would be more fitting for the live-action role. One of the most popular suggestions so far is another Ariel: “Modern Family” actress Ariel Winter, who fans say resembles the fictional princess due to her pale skin and red hair.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A mobile phone shows a photo of singer Halle Bailey beside her cartoon likeness in the style of Ariel from the 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid,” July 4, 2019. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)