Disney was a huge part of life for me as a kid, as it was for most of our generation, Generation Z. After school, I would come home and immediately turn on the TV to watch my favorite shows and movies. I still remember having to rewind each Disney princess movie to the beginning on VHS. The good old days. When Disney was the dream. However as a young Black girl, I found myself trying to mold myself into a dream that wasn’t me. I could count the amount of Black dolls and characters I had on my hand, but they were special to me, nonetheless.
The Disney shows, movies, and dolls I loved molded my dreams of lighter skin and straighter hair. Even the characters that were supposed to look like me had the lighter skin and straighter hair. The closest princess on my VHS tapes was “Aladdin’s” Princess Jasmine and still I tried to mold myself into a princess I wasn’t. Then there was “Princess and the Frog,” the first Black princess Disney movie released in 2009, the first princess who genuinely looked like me. Seventeen year old VOX staff writer, Jennie Matos, reflects on the release of Princess Tianna, “I had ‘Princess and the Frog’ and that was the only thing we had. I will forever cherish that film.”
And with that, Disney started making progress on truly being the company that makes every little kid’s dream come true, but we still have ways to go.
Little Mermaid Bringing In a New Wave
In June of 2019, Disney announced that they would be releasing a new live-action movie of “The Little Mermaid.” Everyone was bouncing for joy. Then, Disney announced who would be playing the beloved Ariel and the cheers were amplified (with the small exception of the racists in the back). Singer and actress Halle Bailey, who originally got her big break on the Disney Channel with her sister, Chloe Bailey, was announced to be the next “Little Mermaid.” A Black girl with locs. The responses were one of two extremes: excitement or disgust. And although those who were disgusted expressed their opinion loudly and proudly on Twitter, Disney ignored them and released the trailer for “The Little Mermaid” featuring Halle Bailey as our familiar mermaid in September of 2022.
When Disney released the trailer with Bailey, the phrase “She’s Black” was heard across the world. Parents were posting videos of their kids’ touching reactions of having a princess that looked like them. However, the kids weren’t the only people happy to see another Black princess. The inner child of teen girls of color were jumping up and down for joy too. Elizabeth Gates, a biracial 16 year old, expressed, “The heart of my inner child has just been a light of fiery passion and joy with all the new movies and shows. [It] lets [kids] grow up to expect diversity in the world.”
However, giving girls of color representation isn’t the only thing “The Little Mermaid” brings to the theater. In the new-live action film, Halle Bailey’s Princess Ariel is the epitome of the change Generation Z is starting to make.
With the new “Little Mermaid,” her race was a part of the story, but it wasn’t the main story. So, the representation was there, but it wasn’t a part of the story. She was still the same “Little Mermaid” fans love and cherish, just with skin young girls of color can relate to.
As a kid, Rebecca Larkin, 15-year-old mental health curator at VOX ATL, saw “girls in dresses, and girly hairstyles doing more simple things while the guys got all the hard work… solving all the problems and having all the leadership roles.” Her piece of advice to Disney? “Don’t always focus on the strong guy, because that also sucks for guys thinking they always have to be strong and be the savior.” She adds, “It’s great that we’ve come this far and we see more girls taking charge but it also sucks that women and girls are still in second place…The whole world is talking about how we have come so far, and we have, but we never seem to cross that line.” Well in the new “Little Mermaid,” the line has been crossed. Halle Bailey’s Ariel isn’t the Princess to take a step back against shipwrecks or Ursula the sea witch and Prince Eric lets her take the reins.
A Princess Not on the Hunt for a Man
One of the major critiques “Little Mermaid” has received from teens in the past was that her storyline was giving up her voice for a Prince. Rebecca Larkin, 15, says a quality she admires the most in a princess is one who is “looking for her own freedom… not just waiting for a guy to come around the whole time.” In the new live-action version, it’s clear Ariel didn’t give up her voice for a man. In fact, the romance in this version is a slow-burn and Ariel’s storyline is emphasized to be a quest for freedom. It isn’t until Ariel and Prince Eric meet on land that she shows true interest in him.
Representation for the Dolls Too
It’s not only important for young girls to see themselves on screen but to play make-believe with dolls like them too. The first doll that looked like me that I ever received was from my Grandma. She had brown skin and hair just like me and for bonus points, she came fully equipped as a doctor. She was the epitome of everything I wanted to be and most importantly, everything I could be. Jennie Matos, 17, emphasized the importance of having dolls that looked like her. “ My mom always made sure to get dolls that looked like me.” Now along with the release of “The Little Mermaid,” there is a brown skin doll little girls can cherish along with the movie.
In an interview with Access Hollywood, Bailey reveals that she cried when she saw the doll saying, “Wow, if I had this when I was five, a Black doll that looked like me, it would have really changed how I felt about my worth, confidence, and everything. So I’m so happy that we’re now moving forward as a community and getting to have moments like these is so important.”
Generation Z has been the generation to see the importance of representation come to fruition. Everyone says we are the generation that will be the change, and the new live-action “Little Mermaid” shows just how we are bringing that change to the surface.