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Part of Whose World?

Historical revisionism in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023)

cw: anti-Black discrimination, slavery, colonization

A previous version of this article featured an illustration which was not properly credited to its original artists. The Daily regrets this mistake.

To say that the release of Disney’s 2023 live-action remake of The Little Mermaid has been smooth sailing could not be farther from the truth. The film has been infamously bathed in criticism since its very conception. Most notably, the loudest and most egregious backlash came from racist bigots on the internet who used their platforms to throw a fit over the casting of Halle Bailey, a young Black woman, as Ariel. Sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB were even subject to droves of review bombs that affected the reputation of the film for weeks. This tidal wave of hatred was truly horrific to watch unfold. It felt like we were taking not a step forward but a dive backward in history with how vitriolic and downright stupid these responses were. 

Mermaids, like Tolkien’s elves or Marvel’s superheroes, are not real. They exist in fantastical made-up worlds and can look, act, or sound however we want them to. And with such a long history of anti-Black discrimination and oppression latent in every corner of Western media (looking at you Disney!), isn’t it the bare minimum for Black actors to get more casting opportunities in Hollywood? But empathy and common sense never had anything to do with this hateful response. This backlash was just another instance of many where unaddressed, carefully repressed racism bubbles to the surface. 

At first glance, it might seem like this outrageous public response is the only aspect of The Little Mermaid (2023) that harbours such latent anti-Black sentiment. Unfortunately, because of Disney’s decision to make the story “more realistic,” the film itself has been built on a foundation of crudely sanitized imperialism, slavery, and colonization.

When The Little Mermaid became available on Disney+ on September 6, 2023, I got the chance to see the film for the first time. I knew that like all of Disney’s live-action remakes, it would be a shadow of its original animated counterpart. Nevertheless, I was excited for a night of bright, colourful visuals and jaw-dropping vocals from Halle Bailey. But the movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth – Disney’s choice to make this fairy tale as realistic as possible produced an extreme case of historical revisionism. 

The above-water scenes largely take place on a fictional island governed by Prince Eric and his adoptive mother. Although the location is kept ambiguous, it is clear that Disney intended for this island to be somewhere in the Caribbean: most of the secondary characters speak with Jamaican or Trinidadian accents, aquaculture features prominently, fruit stands burst with ripe bananas and mangos, and street musicians jam out to calypso classics on steelpan drums. Disney most likely chose this location in keeping with Samuel E. Wright’s 1989 performance as Sebastian the crab in the original animated film. We can also see Disney’s attempt to adhere to a rough time period. The clothing and architectural designs suggest that the film takes place in the mid-to-late 1800s, which was probably a nod to Hans Christian Andersen. On the surface, these choices might appear harmless. So what exactly is the problem here?

If you dive deeper into history, you’ll find that the 1800s Caribbean political scene was no fairy tale, especially for Black inhabitants. The slave trade brought unimaginable suffering to these nations, the legacy of which persists to this day. For example, Haiti has spent 122 years forcibly paying slaveholders and their descendants in France the equivalent of $30 billion USD today in order to “compensate” for France’s decreased income following Haiti’s abolition of slavery in 1793. With a story set in a place with such a painful relationship to colonization, how do you tell a whimsical love story between a white, British prince and a Black princess in a respectful way? Definitely not the way Disney did it.

I never expected The Little Mermaid (2023) to segue into an all-out history lesson on the horrors of African slavery in the Caribbean. Despite that, I was pretty shocked at how they handled the positionality of the Black characters. During Ariel and Prince Eric’s slapstick carriage-riding scene, the camera turns to focus on various merchants and farmers as they go about their day. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, you can see the rippling rows of sugarcane that line the carriage pathway. This small detail actually says a lot; in the 1800s the Caribbean was exploited by the colonies almost exclusively for sugar. You can’t open a history textbook on slavery in the Caribbean without encountering pages and pages on the brutality of the sugar plantations. To have Black actors stand against this backdrop while smiling and waving at a white, British prince reads as very tone-deaf to me. This scene has the potential to feed into the happy slave narrative present in some of Disney’s older films, The Song of the South (1946) and Dumbo (1941). 

These instances of historical revisionism essentially sanitize and erase the evils of slavery. In another scene, Lashana, a Black maid played by Martina Laird, gives Ariel a bath while a white maid looks on. Although this contrast may not have been intentional, I couldn’t help but notice that this is the only scene of a character performing physical labour in service of another person, and it is performed by a Black actor while a white actor stands at a distance. Marcus Ryder, prominent activist and head of external consultancies at the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, wrote in a blog post entitled Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Caribbean Slavery, and Telling the Truth to Children about his experience watching the film with his six-year-old son. He writes: “the total erasure and rewriting of one of the most painful and important parts of African diasporic history, is borderline dangerous, especially when it is consumed unquestioningly by children.”

I would also like to critique Disney’s “update” to Prince Eric’s character. The Little Mermaid (2023) tries to create a parallel between Ariel’s desire to explore land and Eric’s desire to explore the ocean. However, the choice of location and time period once again complicates a seemingly innocent change. In a scene where Ariel admires Eric’s “treasures” from around the world, several objects are displayed from nations that have historically been victims of colonization. An oud, vāhana elephant, and Buddha statue are just some of the objects that adorn Eric’s study. And yet, Disney attempts to pass this off as a harmless hobby akin to Ariel’s underwater collection. 

Prince Eric is played by Jonah Hauer-King, a white British man. This gives Eric’s “voyages” on which he seemingly collected these objects an insidious tone. When Eric describes these trips to his mother as an opportunity for “cultural exchange” you can’t help but get the feeling that the film is trying to excuse, or Disney-ify, British imperialism. He directly mentions having traveled to Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia – all nations that were subject to colonization. All of a sudden his new song “Wild, Uncharted Waters” feels off. Eric states explicitly throughout the film that he wants to put uncharted waters onto maps. But this begs the question, uncharted for whom? 

By framing this exploration storyline from a sanitized European point of view, Disney effectively creates a world where imperialism and colonization either aren’t considered wrong, or flat-out don’t exist. I think that Marcus Ryder explains the effects of historical revisionism in The Little Mermaid (2023) best: “I do not think we do our children any favours by pretending that slavery didn’t exist. For me Disney’s preference to try and wish the inconvenient truth away says more about the adult creatives than it does about children’s ability to work through it.” It’s not that this film had to do a deep dive into the legacy of slavery and colonization in the Caribbean. But washing away the past will only lead to ripples in the future.