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Ignore the ‘Little Mermaid’ backlash and racist social media trolls

No one should pretend these people have more power than they do

In case you’ve somehow missed the news, The Little Mermaid is black.

Halle Bailey has been tapped as the star of the highly anticipated live-action remake of the popular 1989 flick. The movie is slated for next year, and Disney shared the news last week that the grown-ish actress (and younger half of Grammy-nominated musical duo Chloe x Halle) had landed the starring role. The announcement was met with excitement from many — but, like clockwork, the naysayers came out in full force to criticize the casting, bemoaning the idea that the story’s heroine, Ariel, could be black. The hashtag #NotMyAriel was soon trending on Twitter. The backlash was countered with louder support from fans and pundits.

Jodi Benson was the voice actress for Ariel in Disney’s beloved 1989 animated musical and voiced her support for Bailey during Florida Supercon last week.

“We need to be storytellers,” Benson said. “And no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter our race, our nation, the color of our skin, our dialect, whether I’m tall or thin, whether I’m overweight or underweight, or my hair is whatever color, we really need to tell the story. And that’s what we want to do, we want to make a connection to the audience. So I know for Disney that they have the heart of storytelling, that’s really what they’re trying to do.”

Diana Huey played the role during a 2017 touring production of the film, and the Japanese American actress spoke to TheWrap about Bailey having to endure the nonsense. “Keep your head up and know that it’s so much bigger than you as a single person fighting these battles. If she can stay positive and just remember, there’s more support than there is hatred. It’s an important battle to fight and she’s not alone.”

But it all feels so cyclical and tired. And internet trolls are always going to be internet trolls.

It’s great that so many are rallying around Bailey and the film. But no one should pretend the critics have more power than they do. They’re an impotent lot wallowing in the last place where they can stew, vent and gain attention: social media. They complained about an all-female Ghostbusters in 2016 and railed against Kelly Marie Tran, an Asian American actress, in 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. They get mad and they can stay mad. A few thousand monkeys won’t stop no show. And besides — it’s been done countless times before. Sometimes it’s comforting to remember what these things were like before we got so “connected” and had to start giving any kind of light to racist lurkers.

As far as reimagining popular female characters with black women as the leads, there’s a pretty famous history there. An all-black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, the 1978 movie The Wiz, wasn’t a box-office smash, but it has maintained cult classic status for decades, a story sustained by both the enduring popularity of the Diana Ross-led film and the timelessness of the Broadway production. A decade later, Keshia Knight Pulliam starred in a well-received TV movie remake called Polly. The Cosby Show star teamed with her then-TV mother Phylicia Rashad to portray the precocious girl with the sunny outlook originally featured in the classic novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter.

In 1997, Brandy famously starred as the title character in ABC’s glitzy Disney production of Cinderella. Co-produced by and co-starring Whitney Houston, the television project was an ethnically diverse retelling of the classic tale of the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that originally starred Julie Andrews. The film was a rousing success: It aired to more than 60 million viewers — at the time, ABC’s best ratings in a decade — and earned seven Emmy nominations. How did racists in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s feel about these projects? We don’t really know. And we don’t really care.

The mantra was once “never read the comments.” Now, we can find ourselves dedicating so much attention and energy to what are, essentially, the comments. And self-proclaimed allies score some points by pitching rocks at obvious targets. “Hey, racists,” tweets Do-Gooder No. 1. “The new Ariel is black — deal with it!” It’s the kind of empty moralizing that’s standard on Facebook and Twitter: Declaring that racism is bad and waiting for easy likes and retweets. It won’t silence the trolls, and it’s not doing much to amplify a project that isn’t going to be slowed by some bigoted yahoos in their feelings. It’s mostly inconsequential. It’s just part of the all-too-familiar dance.

“Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black,” read a sarcasm-heavy Instagram post from the Disney-owned Freeform network (which airs Bailey’s hit show grown-ish). “Ariel can sneak up to the surface at any time with her pals Scuttle and the *ahem* Jamaican crab Sebastian … and keep that bronze base tight. Black Danish people, and thus mer-folk, can also *genetically* (!!!) have red hair.”

To be certain, many of the reactions to this backlash have been witty and hilarious, including memes of famous black movies remade with all-too-wrong white actors and, conversely, popular white films recast with prominent black stars. There have been affectionate homages to the new Ariel, including a particularly charming one featuring the 1989 character with a cartoon version of Halle Bailey. Drowning out the racists with humor and positivity doesn’t do much in the way of actual social change, but it can be a gratifying panacea against empty-headed hand-wringers online.

Laughing and mocking these Twitter trolls does not diminish the hate black women face, but it recognizes how to compartmentalize when we’re bombarded with so much from so many. The best part of this entire backlash has been the support shown to Bailey and the creativity and sense of humor of the fans. We should all lean into that. Don’t give the haters (on suspect Twitter accounts) too much power. Laugh, point, buy your ticket and remember to protect your joy. Mute and move on.

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer, host and cultural commentator based in New York City (by way of Fort Valley, GA). He loves music, stirring the pot and Diff’rent Strokes references, and his work has appeared in Billboard, The Daily Beast and Genius. He's also a frequent guest on Sirius/XM's "Tell Me Everything" with John Fugelsang.