Jayma Anne Montgomery
THE LITTLE MERMAID IS BLACK BUT...
I more or less live under a rock of my own choosing until things not directly related to my life command my attention. I like it that way because being a working mom with young kids is exhausting and distracting enough and also because many things that are considered interesting by many are not of particular interest to me. I first heard about Disney’s unconventional casting choice of the main character in The Little Mermaid about a month ago. I came of age during the Disney Renaissance and don’t feel like that caliber of wonder can be replicated ever again, especially not in live-action. Disney seems to know this and is doing a pretty good job of not straying too far from the originals all while cashing in on my generation’s nostalgia. Apparently, there was some backlash that I missed by fictional character purists who felt that the live-action casting should be an exact replica of the cartoon. I tend to roll my eyes when people get overzealous about representing fictional characters ‘accurately.’ I also roll my eyes at racial representation that utterly makes no sense and only serves the purpose of checking the diversity box. A prime example is the Broadway adaptation of Frozen making Kristoff a black guy. It’s somewhat of a stretch for a setting in fictional Norway but black and brown people can be found all over the world, so it’s certainly not impossible. Plus, the actors that have been cast, like Jelani Alladin and Mason Reeves, have been extremely likable, injecting some serious swag into the character (not throwing shade at Jonathan Groff because I also love his take on Kristoff). Casting the king of Arendelle as black while keeping Anna and Elsa a lily-white redhead and platinum blonde, respectively, is just silly. The point is, that art is subject to many interpretations and re-interpretations. Sometimes you will like it, sometimes you won’t. It’s hardly a national crisis. Neither is what I’m about to delve into.
There have been a number of articles recently about the positive reactions that little black girls are having to the reveal of Ariel’s ethnicity in the trailer. Parents are filming their little girls squealing with delight and uploading the videos to Tik Tok. Most of the black community is over the moon about it and I share this feeling in part. I know that my daughter would love it and it may be a way to cure her of her obsession with trying to replicate hair types that she simply doesn’t have (see my post When Fiction is More Than Skin Deep). On the other hand, I’m not so thrilled. Let me first say that the Bailey sisters are incredibly beautiful and talented young women. They have amazing singing voices with killer range and versatility. I also love their lady dreadlocks. They are portraits of beautiful, natural black woman hair on display. But the reality is, that these girls engender a stereotype that other conservative, respectable, professional black women such as myself have to disprove on a daily basis. You don’t have to dig at all to find portrayals of black women as loose, amoral, and hypersexual. The effect of their mentorship relationship with Beyonce is pretty obvious. Women like them have decided on behalf of all of us that the way to gain power and respect is to play up your sexuality and use it to get ahead. They preemptively objectify themselves to gain fans and stardom. I have a problem with this. Millions of little black girls are going to look to Halle Bailey (not just the character she is playing) as someone to admire and emulate, and by association, her sister as well. All you have to do is google them or follow them on social media and you will see countless photos of them scantily clad and assuming suggestive poses. When I was young, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown were popular. But no one was asking them to do a guest appearance on Sesame Street or Reading Rainbow.
I know that this is just the world that we live in and that celebrities behaving in this manner is commonplace and expected. But I think this is part of the problem. We have become so desensitized to things like this, that we don’t even react anymore. This apathy and complacency comes at a cost. The price is toddlers and preschoolers mastering provocative dance moves and flirtatious behavior. Teenage girls are so oblivious to what’s inappropriate that they enter the house of GOD and even serve in the ministry in mini-skirts, see-through blouses, halter dresses, and crop tops. If you don’t make a conscious effort to dress modestly, you will end up looking like you are ready to go clubbing or slide down a stripper pole if you just wear clothes right off the rack. Mature women that are my age and older see things like this and know its wrong, but rather than making an effort to correct and instruct them we shake our heads in disapproval and gossip about them amongst ourselves.
I got a little more worked up about this than I planned so let me get turn my calm, rational voice back on. Raising kids in a society saturated with inappropriate sexual content is hard. We cannot and should not attempt to shelter our kids from absolutely everything but we are charged to steward them through life and to help them develop a moral compass. Entertainment, celebrities, the internet, peers, and public schools are poor substitutes for parenting. But when we aren’t intentional and mindful of the content our children are taking in, then whatever values you are trying to instill in them will be constantly and effectively undermined. A guy dressed in a pink skirt, a mid-drift tank top, and a hot pink wig came up to me and asked for money while I was with my four-year-old in uptown Charlotte. I wasn’t thrilled about it but there is no unseeing something like that. One of the features of being on the spectrum is difficulty understanding pronouns. I was equally as dumbfounded as she was. But it was a teaching moment whether I was prepared for it or not. I let her ask me the same questions repeatedly and tried out different ways of explaining it to her. Yes, honey that man is dressed like a woman. No, I do not know why he is doing that. I think he may be confused and not have a home and not know Jesus. We should ask GOD to help him.
Somewhere between attempts at mind control and being completely hands-off is the right approach to raising children in a world designed to rob them of their youthful innocence by corrupting their very impressionable minds. I don’t allow my daughter to wear bikinis. I make sure she wears bike shorts under her dresses/skirts and mainly buy her Bermuda cut shorts. My husband and I fully intend to meet our kids at their level of maturity as sensitive topics arise. We don’t intend to send them mixed messaging regarding sexual conduct (i.e. encouraging our son to ‘sow his royal oats’ while placing a figurative chastity belt on our daughter until she is 30). None of what I have just said is meant to be taken as a rule. I could execute every one of these things perfectly and still end up with adult children who are wayward, promiscuous, and living like heathens. I can’t control their outcomes, but it won’t stop me from trying to lead them in the right direction.
Back to Ariel. As far as Disney princesses go, she isn’t my favorite. Tiana may not be the most popular but she is a smart, hard-working, independent, sassy woman who learns that ambition and dreams aren’t the most important things in life. I'm here for that! I’m not about to encourage Ellie to emulate a whiny teenager who abandons her family for a good-looking stranger. It’s bad enough that we sometimes can’t get her to wear pants because Skye from Paw Patrol doesn’t wear pants (you know, because she’s a dog). The last thing I need is for Ellie to start parading around in one of my bras and her mermaid tail swim coverup determined to show herself in public. I can’t blame this one on the Bailey sisters (I pray shalom over your lives and legacies, Halle & Chloe. Truly.)
As things get weirder and wackier on this planet, I think that more in-depth and transparent dialogue surrounding such things needs to happen. Christian (and even non-Christian) parents who are seeking to raise wise, balanced, and well-adjusted kids should be prepared to wade through this stuff with their kids and find the solid ground on the other side. I’m very curious about how you parents out there feel about this casting choice and the movie as well. Leave me some comments or send me a message about it. Thanks for reading. Stay Thoughtful.