For the marginalised, The Little Mermaid is an empowering tale that helps them make meaning out of their love and sacrifice. So what’s with the media objection over Disney’s casting of a person of colour for the titular role? Why worry over an act of empowerment when it’s nothing but a fairy tale? We listened to a literary panel at MCM Comic Con in May 2023 to gain some context. We also watched the film in cinema to observe the public reaction to this newly reimagined fairy tale.
For the marginalised and the downhearted, The Little Mermaid is an empowering story that helps them to make meaning out of their unrequited love and sacrifice.
Arguably, Disney can be credited for bringing this story closer to the global audience – especially in non-English speaking regions – with their 1989 take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.
Fast forward to 2023, Disney’s live action remake of the 1989 animation allegedly rubs the western media the wrong way. But is that really the case with the public? Is the media – social and established – doing its usual round of admonishment over anything that doesn’t fit their agenda?
Decolonising The Little Mermaid
We attended a panel titled Decolonising fantasy as a genre at MCM Comic Con in May 2023 and heard the counterblow to the criticisms levelled at The Little Mermaid, black mermaids and representation in fiction. It was a literary panel, not just one dedicated to The Little Mermaid. The two authors, Ella McCleod (Rapunzella, Or Don’t Touch My Hair) and Natasha Bowen (Soul Of The Deep) discussed these within the context of their books.
Bowen’s Soul Of The Deep is about a mami wata, a mermaid who makes a great sacrifice to save the boy she loves. The slave trade provides the backdrop as well as the catalyst to the story. Mermaid folklore has existed in many cultures around the world, said Bowen. When asked of her reaction when Halle Bailey was announced as Ariel, she told the audience: “I didn’t read social media. I didn’t want to give energy to it.”
Like all mermaid folk tales around the world, the mami wata has existed long before Andersen published his tale in 1837. To our knowledge, he was a fan of Arabian Nights and perhaps had gotten his mermaid inspiration from that, if not from some north African travels.
Mermaid folklore has existed in many cultures around the world.
To deny representation is to ‘other’ the marginalised
Earlier in the talk, when commenting on The Little Mermaid, McCleod said it’s important to see yourself in a story as a “name” – “the first time I see my name in a book”. It’s important to have representation, for readers to be aware that black people can be whimsical and magical. She pointed out that whiteness is situated in society as a norm, whilst others are considered niche. This categorisation has a profound consequence: people of colour or black people are hard to empathise with.
Bowen agreed, stating that black people are magical. Perhaps alluding to the alleged events that inspired Andersen’s Little Mermaid – the author’s lover, a duke, left him to follow social convention and marry a lady – Bowen said that gender fluidity is the norm in non-European fiction.
McCleod stated that whiteness is situated in society as a norm, whilst others are considered niche. This categorisation has a profound consequence: people of colour or black people are hard to empathise with.
Pretty elves, short hobbits and ugly orcs
Any talk on representation in fantasy nowadays will take us to J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. And those got mentioned during the talk.
McCleod deliberated on the “Western European aesthetics” of The Lord of the Rings. She observed the elves are the most civilised. That made us think: yes, they’re depicted as very good-looking and refined. McCleod said other than that, the non-human characters are “devolved, like the hobbits and orcs”. A fairy in this imagining, she said, is “a pale white pointy eared person”.
To us, that statement was a bit strong. We don’t mind fairies or leprechauns being white and having pointy ears. But then, we came from a background where folklores of demons and myths of gods are plenty. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity can’t brush out thousands of years of Polynesian and Austronesian lore in our parts of Asia. Not in Southeast Asia. Not in Japan. Not in Taiwan. Not ever. British colonialism gave up on converting us by the 19th Century. They made do with just ‘doing business’ in the end, preferring to stay out of customs and traditions.
McCleod deliberated on the “Western European aesthetics” of The Lord of the Rings. The elves are the most civilised. Other than that, the non-human characters are “devolved, like the hobbits and orcs”.
But we feel that McCleod has a reason behind her statement. The Caribbean identity, she explained to the audience, is a complex overlap of ambiguity in origin and history; of an enduring effort in preserving a Native American identity, and of slavery in its past.
Of history and identity, she said it’s still powerful to know where you came from. “You grieve over what you lost,” she said. And generations have experienced loss and grief. The facts aren’t pretty but she felt that she shouldn’t shy away from it.
Don’t get triggered, mermaids aren’t real
Taking us back to her book, Bowen said black mermaids can’t be under the sea. On the fuss over the casting of Halle Bailey as the little mermaid, she commented that “mermaids are actually not real”. She said: “If you let your ignorance limit that, what does that say about you?”
Publishing is a business, she said. People are going to buy what’s being published and placed in the market. The accountability in ensuring fair representation also lies with the industry.
Watching The Little Mermaid at the cinema
On Saturday 10 June 2023, we went to the cinema to watch The Little Mermaid. Initially, we planned to wait for the film to arrive on Disney+. But with the western newspapers giving it low ratings, and with some Twitter trolls calling it “critical race theory B.S” (and then trying to uphold anime as a better example!), we decided to watch it on the big screen.
Initially, we planned to wait for the film to arrive on Disney+. But with the western newspapers giving it low ratings, and with some Twitter trolls calling it “critical race theory B.S”, we decided to watch it on the big screen.
The majority of the audience was white. There were several East Asians. There were three hijabis – one Asian and two black. We spotted three males sitting in the audience alone – two white and one black. Sitting next to us were a mixed-race girl and her white mother. The experience was typically Disneyesque. Just as the voice of Ariel – or Halle Bailey – soared in Part of Your World – a toddler bawled at the back of the cinema, distracting everyone.
By the time the film got to Kiss The Girl, everyone in the audience was quiet and focussed. Even the toddler went quiet. That’s the magic of Disney: a key moment, an unforgettable song and a memory made to last for generations.
What the media says isn’t a reflection of what the cinema goers think.
We concluded that what the media says isn’t a reflection of what the cinema goers think. There was a big fuss recently over The Little Mermaid not breaking the box office in China. So? Since when does the western media care about anything outside their sphere? Oh yes, since a black lady was cast as The Little Mermaid. Funnily enough, some of the most encouraging reviews we read are published on Reddit, of all places. The most scathing of film critics seem to like it.
Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid from the place of hurt, loneliness – and of great hope. It’s a tale that has resonated well with many because we know how it feels to be marginalised. We know how it feels to be let down. Its theme is universal. Anyone can repurpose it, profit from it or make a totally new thing out of it. It’s just a fairy tale and mermaids aren’t real.
But culture is about making meaning. It can be made and re-made. And that’s why for some, it’s worth having a culture war over an imaginary being such as the mermaid. Because it’s important to gate-keep the making of meaning that contributes to culture.
Still, like the sea foams that Andersen’s little mermaid turns into, our love for this tale won’t diminish. Not as long as there are sea foams scattering about in the ocean.
Culture is about making meaning. That’s why for some, it’s worth having a culture war over an imaginary being such as the mermaid. Because it’s important to gate-keep the making of meaning that contributes to culture.
More on MCM Comic Con London
- Read the latest and past coverage of MCM Comic Con London.
- Read more on our coverage on fantasy fictions
More on fantasy and romance on Story Of Books
- My Brother’s Husband”: Tagame Gengoroh at the Japan House (Story Of Books, 16 June 2019)
- How to nerd well and not give away spoilers (Story Of Books, 9 May 2019)
- We need to talk about toxic fandom (Story Of Books, 30 August 2022)
- Tips on writing drama and how to read books by bigoted authors (Story Of Books, 5 October 2018)