Representation in Disney: the importance of Halle Bailey playing Ariel in the live-action “The Little Mermaid”


Kennedy Nix, Staff Writer

Halle Bailey, 22-year-old African-American singer, will be playing Ariel in the new live-action “The Little Mermaid” in 2023. Along with her music career, Bailey has also starred in the ABC show Grown-ish. Since the announcement of Bailey playing Ariel, the internet has had a lot to say. 


On September 9 at Disney’s D23 Expo, the teaser for the new “The Little Mermaid” movie was released. The responses to the teaser have been mixed. Parents of black children have been sharing their kids’ reactions to seeing a black woman in the role of Ariel for the first time on TikTok.


“She’s brown like me,” young girl Maya said in her reaction to the teaser. On YouTube, the teaser has over 25 million views. However, the responses haven’t all been positive. After the teaser was released on the 9th, it received over 1.5 million dislikes. One person on Twitter went so far as to change Bailey’s face to one of a white woman. He shared that he would also use AI to edit Bailey’s face in the full movie when it was released. This backlash surrounding Bailey’s role in the remake started years before the teaser was released. In 2019, when Disney announced that Bailey would be playing Ariel, many fans of the original objected to the casting. After it was announced on Jul. 4, 2019, people on Twitter expressed their distaste of Disney’s choice in Bailey with the hashtag #NotMyAriel.


The importance of Bailey’s role in this movie comes down to Disney’s lack of representation. As of 2015, 11 out of 54 of the Disney animated movies featured non-white leads. None of these came before 1995. In more recent years Disney animated movie leads have been more diverse. “Encanto”, “Moana”, “Big Hero 6”, and “Coco” are all recent animated movies from Disney that have shown diversity in its leads. However, even when Disney has represented non-white leads in its animated movies, it has not always been positive representation. There has been criticism about Tiana, the first black princess from the 2009 film “The Princess and The Frog”, being a frog for a large portion of the movie. While prioritizing ethnic and racial diversity is important for Disney to do as a company, representation in Disney movies has a deeper significance. 


The amount of representation in Disney movies impacts children. Representation in television and movies, specifically Disney animated movies, creates an opportunity for children to see themselves reflected on screen and develop an image of themselves as a part of a community. When a large company such as Disney, which, as of 2019, contributes to roughly a third of the movie market in the United States does not have enough quality representation for people and children of color, it matters. Even Bailey acknowledges how important it is for her to play Ariel in a video on Bailey’s YouTube Channel. I know what it would have meant to me as a little girl to have been able to see a black Ariel when I was younger,” Bailey states. “If I would have seen that, it would have changed my whole outlook on life.” Parents of black children as well as Bailey’s grandparents understand the significance of this movie. They talk about the importance of how Bailey’s role allows them to see themselves through Bailey in a world that, according to TikTok user jendayis682, “wasn’t made for them.” 


When there is only one example of someone who children can relate to in movies, it restricts the way that they get to see themselves on screen. In 2009, Tiana became the first black Disney princess which was extremely important for young black girls during the time. However, as the years pass there continues to be only one black Disney princess. For black girls in terms of Disney princesses, they only have one example of how they can see themselves.


Representation for black children and children of color needs to become more prominent, especially in Disney movies. Disney is a large contributor to the movie industry in America and because of its size Disney is bound to have an impact on people and children’s ideas and beliefs about the world. When black children and children of color see people who look like them on screen, they should be able to see an example of who they can be. Children of color need to see that they matter. With the creation of this movie, Disney and Bailey take another step forward with representation in today’s media and films.