The Little Mermaid’s new look
My mother was a blonde. My father was a brunette. As soon as I was born, my mom asked the doctor if I was a blonde or a brunette. “Red!” said the doctor. “Red?!” exclaimed my mom. They had no idea how I ended up with red hair. As far as they knew, none of their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. had red hair. But there I was, a newborn babe with a crown of ginger fuzz.
Was I teased at school? Yep. For a variety of things, including my red hair. In kindergarten one classmate wrinkled her nose at me and said, “Ew, your hair is orange. That’s so gross.” Actually, it wasn’t an orange shade of red. It was more of an auburn. Of course in the sunlight the red really stood out, and so did my freckles. Of course I got called Carrot Top, but I didn’t mind that one as much.
When I was ten, Disney released their animated film, “The Little Mermaid.” Imagine me, a ten-year-old kid, seeing a Disney princess with red hair! I can’t tell you how many times I watched the movie. For the first time, I felt my red hair was beautiful and that I could be pretty. For the first time, I felt like I was represented, long before I even knew what representation meant.
Lately, Disney has been making live-action versions of their classic animated films. They are currently in pre-production for the live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” So far, the live-action remakes have gone over well with audiences and are big box-office draws, but the announcement of Ariel’s adventures seems to be the most controversial because the role of Ariel will be played by a black girl--19-year-old Halle Bailey. The 1989 Disney version depicted a mermaid with fair skin and the trademark red hair.
Let’s look at our T-mermaid friend from a historical perspective. It was originally a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. It has been adapted several times, with Disney’s 1989 version being the most popular, and loosely based on Anderson’s story. Before Disney got a hold of it, the tale was made into an anime (Japanese animation) film called “Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid” in 1975. Here, our mermaid was ... BLONDE (gasp!)! Before Japanese artists depicted T-mermaid as blonde, the story was adapted for a segment on the TV show, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” in 1958. Here, the mermaid was also, sadly, blonde. In 1909, a statue of the titular character in Ander’s story was errected. The bronze statue sits atop a rock in Copenhagen, Denmark. Being bronze, one cannot decipher the hair or skin color of the model used for the statue. The statue was commissioned by Carl Jacobsen, who had seen a ballet based on the story. We do not know the skin color (or hair color) of the ballerina who played T-mermaid. The artwork for the story has depicted T-mermaid as a brunette, even.
Here’s the thing about stories: When we read a story, we get a mental image of the characters in our heads. Most of the time, we make them look like ourselves. We, as human beings, tend to limit our world view to what we see in the mirror. It doesn’t make us bad; it just makes us a little short-sighted. That’s why almost all of the Disney stories we have seen depict white characters, because white animators and directors have read these stories and imagined the characters as white.
Studies have shown that children of color will mostly choose a white babydoll over a black babydoll because they consider the white babydoll to be more beautiful. When I was a little girl, Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage. My grandmother’s friend made a Cabbage-Patch-like doll with red hair to give to me. I remember not liking the doll because she had red hair. It wasn’t until, a few years later, I saw a red-headed Disney princess and thought red hair was beautiful, after all.
Representation is important ... for everyone. In the 182 years since “The Little Mermaid” was written, the titular character has had every shade of hair, but their skin has remained white. It’s time to let girls of color know that they can be beautiful mermaid princesses, too. I look forward to seeing the live-action version of one of my favorite Disney films. The color of Ariel’s skin will not skew my enjoyment in any way ... as long as she has red hair.