Between Progress and Tradition, Can Disney Keep Everyone Happy?
Written byJuliana Jaramillo
If you were online in early September of this year, you got to see it: the intense racist response and controversy that ensued after Disney dropped the trailer to their upcoming live-action movie The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. The casting decision was met with harsh criticism by loyalist fans and racist trolls who popularized the #NotMyAriel hashtag to protest the inclusion of a black protagonist and flooded the comments section with hateful rhetoric on every platform. This reaction prompted the need for a more nuanced look at Disney’s decision and what it means for the future of the brand. Still, it wasn’t all grim: the news and the public’s reaction also brought to light the important conversation of inclusion in the media. They got people talking about the future of diversity and inclusion when it comes to players as influential as Disney.
As twitter wars went on for days, hundreds of parents recorded the reaction of their children to the trailer, speaking to the impact it can have to see a major character such as Ariel reflect you as a child. Halle Bailey herself spoke of how important and touching it was for her to see those reaction videos and thanked fans and her strong support system for helping her persevere in the face of the backlash. In an interview with Variety magazine, she mentioned: "I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they're special and that they should be a princess in every single way.”
As Halle had to personally face relentless attacks and mockery, many viewers became skeptical of Disney’s intentions when casting her as Ariel. Was this a case of “all publicity is good publicity” even when it comes with this unprecedented level of backlash, or is this a true show of Disney’s commitment to DEI goals and representation? The media giant has not been shy about the direction it’s taking when it comes to increasing the representation of people of color and other underrepresented communities overall, even clearly stating its DEI goals on its Social Responsibility page: “ We champion a multitude of voices in our storytelling across dimensions of diversity, including racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender, LGBTQ , mental health, people with disabilities and veterans status.”
There is a lot to say about the glaring unbalance between the progress made by Disney studios and the parks division, especially when so much has changed in the last few years. While the parks are still struggling to hire women of color as princesses and are figuring out how to deal with the racist past of some of their rides and imagery, the opposite is true for their moves on the big screen. Just in a few years, we’ve seen the proliferation of culturally diverse (and in many cases extremely well-researched and developed) movies and characters such as princess Tiana, Moana, Coco, and most recently, Encanto. Beyond the classic animated movies, we’ve also seen the development of the Black Panther Marvel universe and continue to feel its invaluable cultural impact. These examples, paired with the daring decisions of having black actresses and singers Hally Bailey and HER represent some of their most beloved characters, Ariel and Belle, are enough reasons to give Disney its flowers when it comes to taking action.
Addressing the lag on progressive changes at the parks will force a more nuanced understanding of who Disney’s core visitors and pass holders are. In the words of Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s Parks Experiences during an interview with the LA times: “How do you think about what our guests love so much versus the fact that you want to invite new guests in and move to new frontiers? It’s a great balance and it can be difficult. You have the traditionalists and the ones who maybe want to be a little more proactive in their thinking.” Are these progressive changes alienating their oldest, most loyal fans? If so, the hesitation comes with a price tag and we’ll have to wait and see if one of America’s most influential companies can strike a balance.