In the new “Little Mermaid” black girls and mothers meet again

Precious Avery remembers how rare it was to see black characters growing up on TV, so she started recording when her 3-year-old Emery was recording the trailer for the new movie Little Mermaid.

As turtles swam through coral reefs, an image of a mermaid appeared, then Halle Bailey, a black actress and singer, was revealed to be Ariel. “I think she’s Brown,” Emery said with a grin. “Brown Ariel!”

Emery said she loves Bailey’s long hair and mermaid tail. It reminds her of her swimming lessons and how she practices holding her breath underwater. She knows all the Disney princesses and one day she wants to live in a castle.

But her mother sees something bigger. Avery, 33, said it always made her “feel good” to see black characters on TV, and now her daughter is experiencing it.

Black parents across the country capture their daughters reacting to the new Disney trailer. Videos of kids squealing with joy, dancing, bursting into tears, or exclaiming, “She’s as brown as me.” have gone viralgarnered millions of views and sparked a marketing bonanza for Disney.

Parents say the videos show why it’s important for kids to see people who look like them in movies and TV shows. But for some Black mothers, the moment was powerful in other ways, allowing them to relive a bit of their childhood through a new lens.

Bailey is the latest version of the fairytale mermaid, replacing the red-haired cartoon character from the 1989 Disney film. The original rebellious underwater princess had huge blue eyes and wore a purple bikini top made from seashells. Instead of legs, she had a green fishtail. For Bailey, “Seeing the reactions of these little babies makes me so emotional,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Thank you all for your unwavering support.”

The live-action The Little Mermaid, slated for release in May 2023, won’t be the first Disney film to feature a black princess. Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog made history as Disney’s first black princess in 2009, and the 1997 remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which starred singer Brandy Norwood, streamed on Disney Plus last year.

Parents are using TikTok to share videos of their little daughters’ reactions to Halle Bailey, who will star as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, due out in May 2023. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Dariana Fleming, 26, recalls how important it was for her to see Cinderella played by a black woman as a child. Inspired by the videos of black girls reacting to the Little Mermaid teaser, she decided to make her own. Her daughters Rylie, 2, and McKenzie, 4, smiled as they watched the first few seconds of the trailer. Her smile turned to gasps and giggles as Bailey appeared on screen.

Rylie was delighted. McKenzie says she was impressed that Ariel’s hair was dreadlocked like her father. The video documenting her reaction to the new Black Ariel has been viewed more than 2 million times on TikTok. “To me, they weren’t really brought up, so it’s good to see that representation for their generation,” Fleming said.

Ashley Potts, 26, says she doesn’t discuss skin color with her 5-year-old daughter London, but it was clear she was shocked to see an Ariel who looked like her. London was already fond of The Little Mermaid and has an ever-growing collection of mermaid dolls, including a prized Disneyland Ariel doll that she received for her birthday.

Watching the trailer, she pointed to the mermaid princess several times while her mother was recording, but stopped when the toddler saw Ariel’s face. “It was a natural reaction for her,” Potts said. “I wanted to cry.”

“It’s so surreal that the mermaid I grew up with will grow up with my kids in a very different way,” said Dariyan Bell, a 30-year-old mother of five. In a video Bell posted to her TikTok account, Zavae, 3, suddenly stopped playing when she heard Bailey sing “Part of Your World.” With her back to her mother, Zavae seems mesmerized by the on-screen image of Bailey.

The many reactions from little black girls were a huge marketing boost for the film. But these feelings of joy and awe were not universal. The announcement of Bailey’s casting in 2019 was initially met with some backlash. Some critics on Twitter used the hashtags #NotMyAriel and #NotMyMermaid to argue that the person chosen to play Ariel should have been White, like the story’s Danish author and in the original animation.

Many of her fans used the same Twitter hashtags, along with #MyAriel, to defend Bailey. They discovered that mermaids are mythical creatures have appeared in legends and folk tales around the world, including in the African diaspora. Disney Network Freeform also continued to support Bailey social media with “An Open Letter to the Poor Unfortunate Souls”.

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Bailey isn’t the only black actor being harassed for playing characters originally cast by white actors or in predominantly white film series. When John Boyega was cast as Finn in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he faced so much racial slur from fans that he told SiriusXM he wasn’t interested in returning to the Star Wars franchise. Leslie Jones and Kelly Marie Tran received similar hate for their roles in the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars: The Last Jedi respectively.

Though Disney has included more diverse characters like Princess Tiana in recent years, the changes were long overdue, said Kaila Story, associate professor in the departments of Pan-African Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville.

Shows with white casts have historically been presented as suitable for all viewers, Story said, while films with black actors and filmmakers have been black-only. However, the presentation of more characters of color on TV and movies better reflects how the world looks, she said.

What sets Ariel in the new Little Mermaid apart from some of the other non-white Disney protagonists like Pocahontas is that “the core of her story doesn’t have to be that she reveals her racial identity at the same time.” story told.

For Devyn Coulson, 33, sharing Disney movies with her 3-year-old daughter Khloe has always been a coming full circle moment and a chance to relive her childhood. “It makes me feel like I got a sense of how my mom felt when I found so much enjoyment in the Disney movies,” she says.

But Khloe’s reaction to the new Little Mermaid trailer was special. In the video, Khloe fixes her gaze on the screen, her eyes seeming to fill with tears. “Are you crying?” Coulson asked Khloe, who immediately said no. “Oh, sweet girl,” cooed her mother.

Adelia Chaiyakul, 31, said she also feels like returning to her own childhood after watching the “Little Mermaid” video with her 9-year-old daughter Ava, who told her mother that after her reaction video in famous at school where she smiles and covers her mouth in shock when she sees the new Ariel went viral on TikTok.

Chaiyakul said she just had to introduce herself because she wasn’t reflected in characters growing up. But in the comments of the viral TikTok video, she realized how reaction videos like her daughter’s allowed many white women to understand how natural they took seeing themselves in white princesses and other characters.

That dynamic will change with the next generation, Chaiyakul said. “I kind of made it up that I’m a princess,” she said. “She actually gets to see that she’s a princess.”

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