On July 4th, Disney announced that they were casting actor Halle Bailey to play the Little Mermaid Ariel in a live action play, prompting reactions from fans who labor under the notion that Ariel cannot be black. As an adaptation of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 The Little Mermaid, the original 1989 Disney cartoon figure was created with white skin and red hair. People have argued that it is not historically correct. Let’s dig into that.
As a college instructor of Nordic literature, language, and culture, and a Dane (someone from Hans Christian Andersen’s homeland Denmark), I have of course spent some time teaching his original story, The Little Mermaid. Now, before you start wondering what a post about The Little Mermaid is doing on a blog about Nordic mythology, you should know that mermaid-like creatures are ancient mythological beings in Scandinavia. Like the other Western European and Mediterranean cultures, we have historically believed in various kinds of water-dwelling beings, some good and some bad. In that sense, mermaids -and especially mermen– are part of our original mythology and folklore.
Not historically correct?
Those who argue that the new cast of The Little Mermaid is historically incorrect are likely thinking about Disney’s 1989 cartoon, and I assume that most of them have at least some knowledge of where the story originally comes from. From their perspective, since it comes from northern Europe, it is historically incorrect to cast a non-white actress in the role of the mermaid. The idea, I guess, is that the author probably envisioned a white-skinned person. That seems to be true: Hans Christian Andersen did describe the mermaid’s skin as “clear and shining like a rose petal.” In the scene where she gets her legs, he describes them as “little white legs.” He was thinking of white skin.
However, what is important to understand about Andersen as a writer, is that he was an avid user of color symbolism. If you read his original fairytales, you will notice that he pays a lot of attention to detail and that he will linger on a description much longer than most modern humans’ attention spans can tolerate. Colors, just like shapes, smells, sounds, are used to give the reader the full picture of what he wants to say. In this case, whiteness to him meant innocence.
Hans Christian Andersen’s relation to race
Historically, Denmark (and the empire Denmark-Norway) was in the top ten of European slave nations. We had colonial forts in West Africa, India, and the US Virgin Islands were Danish sugar colonies until they were sold to the United States in 1917. Different rules applied for African-descended bodies depending on whether they were in the colonies or went to the European colonial power. On the islands of St. Jan, St. Croix, and St. Thomas, African-descended bodies were only subject to Danish law by virtue of being property by their slave-owners. After a revolt on St. Croix in 1848, slavery was abolished in the colonies. During the colonial era, there was a minor trickle of African descendants into Denmark. Most were brought there as servants for the royalty, the aristocracy, and rich traders. Some, like Victor Cornelins, arrived under different circumstances, and attained respectable positions in society.
Hans Christian Andersen was not oblivious to these intersections regarding race. In fact, in 1840, he wrote the play Mulatten (Horatio), whose theme was social and sexual intrigue. Featuring the racially mixed and highly educated Horatio as the protagonist, the play addresses the issues of racial hierarchies, social status, and not being either fish nor fowl, so to speak. The subject of being in between classes, maybe even genders, was close to Hans Christian Andersen. As a person who had risen from poverty and gained access to the highest strata of a still feudal society, Hans Christian Andersen tended to write allegorically about these subjects. While scholars still debate if he was homosexual or at least bisexual, it is safe to say that in a multitude of narratives, a favorite interest of his was the life situation of women, whom he seemed to identify with on various levels.
The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Mermaid addresses his favorite subject: a character’s striving to achieve their dreams. The Little Mermaid lives at the bottom of the ocean and longs for attaining a soul. As a fairytale creature, she has no soul, but she has learned about the human world and about the eternal souls of humans. That is what she wants; it is not about love, like in the Disney version.
As an author who explores the lives and roles of people at the bottom of social hierarchies, Hans Christian Andersen takes the folktale creature, the mermaid, and turns the perspective around: what would it be like to be a mermaid who longed to become human? He makes her as relatable to his audience as possible, turning the scary, ugly folktale creature into a beautiful woman. She strikes a deal with the witch of the sea to get legs and access to the upper realm. The price for all of this is that she loses her voice and that walking on her new legs is incredibly painful. She never succeeds. In the end, her choice is to either kill the prince or die herself. She chooses death and becomes an air spirit.
It is a story about the pariah who seeks to join the good company in society. The price that she pays is the loss of her voice, pain, and ultimately self-sacrifice. I cannot speak for the experiences of non-whites and those who identify as other genders, but in many ways, this situation sounds a lot like what I hear from people who are not cis-gendered white males like myself. The historical reality of Hans Christian Andersen’s literature is that he explored the lives of those who did not fit in, and he often spoke his own truths about his experiences as a pariah through the mouths of women, the poor, non-whites, folktale creatures.
The last word about #notmyariel
Yes, you are right. She is not your Ariel. She never was. The 1989 Disney cartoon The Little Mermaid is an adolescent love story and a piece of commercial appropriation of a profound narrative that explores the human condition through the eyes of a Scandinavian folktale creature. It is a beautiful story about having dreams and aspirations, and suffering the hard bite of a crushing hierarchy. It is a story that is based loosely on Scandinavian folklore, written by a Danish author, which has become part of the very core of Danish culture. As a child, my parents read this story to me; in my academic career I have read Hans Christian Andersen through primary school, high school, and college. Hans Christian Andersen’s literature is to Danes what Shakespeare is to the English. Most Danes know The Little Mermaid by heart, and one of the biggest (and most disappointing) tourist attractions in our nation’s capital is a statue of her. For many Danes she is an icon of our maritime nation.
When Disney appropriated the story, we did not raise an eyebrow. Neither did we raise an eyebrow when Disney appropriated another of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, The Snow Queen, and made the movie Frozen. We did not react when we saw that some people thousands of miles away from Hans Christian Andersen’s homeland had decided to gloss over the cultural and ethnic complexities of Scandinavia, and placed The Snow Queen in a goofy Norwegian landscape. No Scandinavian, not even the Sámi, raised their voice when we realized that our cultures had been shoved through the corporate American woodchopper and spewed out on the other side as a big pile of historically and culturally inaccurate woodchips. Why would we? The great Danish bard wrote his words for the world, not just for us. So, if you are offended about a non-white actress playing Ariel, just remember that she was #neveryourariel to begin with.
The Little Mermaid was written by Hans Christian Andersen as a way of negotiating his own under-privileged situation in society. It was written to bring attention to the lack of privilege among the lower classes in the aristocracy; and it was written for all those out there who felt that lack of privilege. With this story, he wanted to tell the aristocracy exactly how much you have to go through when you strive for something better. By taking away the mermaid’s voice, he brilliantly pointed out to the rulers in society that there are things that the striving pariahs cannot tell them. By letting the mermaid suffer greatly, he brilliantly pointed out to the aristocracy that the striving pariahs go through so much pain just to get a whiff of what their life feels like. Considering the spirit in which this story was originally written, I guess it is only befitting that Disney cast a non-white actress to play Ariel.
Image original by artist Dylan Bonner.