We have had Bridgerton, Moana and now A Black Ariel …whatever next? Is this a sign of positive change in the role models we see?
Disney’s new The Little Mermaid film has swept across the world’s cinema screens in the past few weeks, offering spectators a more diverse cast than the cartoon classic from 1989. Halle Bailey– an African American actress and singer- was cast in the leading role as one of Disney’s most famous princesses, Ariel. Though many have celebrated a more diverse casting, criticism and backlash has reached a global scale.
With the #notmyariel trend sweeping across social media, criticism of a Black Ariel- over the fair skinned and red haired original depiction- has been most prominent in South Korea and China. IMDb- the world’s biggest film website- reported “review bombing” linked to such racism, where 39% of reviews gave it the lowest score of 1 star despite fairly positive reviews by professional film critics. IMDb have subsequently changed the rating to address the issue of “review bombing”, thought to be driven by hate.
Though based on the 1837 Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, the novel never claimed to be based in Denmark and is also depicting a mythical creature that exists in many cultures beyond European/Western narratives. Nevertheless, Disney and other cultural ‘classics’ often face backlash, defended by protective and nostalgic arguments over previous fictional depictions.
This new version of The Little Mermaid is set in approximately the 18th century Caribbean– based on the ships, clothes and other references- that represents diasporic global culture. However, the historical reality of extensive African chattel slavery that dominated this region is not referenced in the film, and all islanders live in racial harmony with each other. Though a depiction of inclusion and integration is a powerful one for young viewers, some have criticised this as another example of Disney “white-washing” history.
Academic, Marcus Ryder wrote for The Independent that:
“We owe it to our children to give them the most amazing fantastical stories possible, to help their imaginations grow. We do not do this by “whitewashing” the difficult parts of our history. We do it by embracing our rich history and empowering them with the truth.”
Halle Bailey herself also reflected on the racial backlash of her casting, stating:
“When the negative comments started, I was shocked, because it wasn’t something I really anticipated- at least not on that scale. Then I started to think, I’m from the Deep South, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve experienced racism.”
Many organisations are also improving representation of ethnically diverse employees, from the exec board to recruitment processes.
Though noise of the backlash has challenged the positive change towards a more ethnically diverse Disney and Hollywood, it is clear that responses driven by racism and prejudice are not new.
But- is representation doing enough to tackle racism in society and the workplace?
Ethnically diverse representation in the TV and Film industry remains disproportionately low, especially in leading roles and off-screen executive positions. Research, conducted by McKinsey in 2021, found that an average of 90% of C-Suite Executives in the US TV and Film are white, as well as identifying a link between Black off-screen talent and the promotion of Black on-screen talent, criticising that, “Black creatives are carrying the weight of Black diversity and inclusion”. Alongside low representation in creatively powerful positions, research conducted by Birmingham City University identified systematic racism within British auditioning and casting, with 55% of respondents having experienced racist behaviour in their workplace. Sir Lenny Henry considered these findings a “stain against the entire industry”.
Beyond the big screen, many other industries and companies are also lacking sufficient representation.
The updated Parker Review this year praised the British corporate community for making good headway in the past year and “significant changes” to ethnically diverse boardroom representation, with 96% of FTSE 100 companies having at least one director from an ethnically diverse background on their board. However, more still needs to be done as none of the top positions in these companies are held by ethnically diverse members and some of the FTSE 100 companies continue to have an all-white board, including the F&C Investment Trust, Unite Group, FrasersGroup and HomeServe.
It is clear that whilst representation is improving, it is not enough and it does not guarantee changes to racial inequality.
Is more diverse representation going to tackle race inequality in the workplace?
For many young aspiring individuals, representation allows people to visually identify with senior leaders and other colleagues. Such representation often acts as a form of inspiration as “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
When first cast in 2019, Halle Bailey commented:
“I want the little girl in me and the little girls just like me who are watching to know that they’re special, and that they should be a princess in every single way.”
Tayo Bero in The Guardian also commented on the casting that:
“Representation is important, but we also need to separate canon from whiteness and decolonize society’s sense of who children should look up to.”
It is clear that greater representation of visible role models, senior leadership and those with authority can have a positive generational impact on impressionable audiences. When released in 2016, Disney’s Moana film was celebrated for its exploration of Polynesian culture and the protagonist’s curly dark hair. Young, Black girls may also identify with Halle Bailey and her success in the film industry.
However, representation can only create change at a superficial level. To create sustainable and felt change, a whole organisational culture shift is required.
There is no denying that representation of ethnically diverse talent is important in the workplace. But, equality and racial equality go beyond this measure. For true racial equality, a culture change is necessitated.
A culture shift cannot happen overnight. A culture shift is everyone’s business.
How is your organisation ensuring representation leads to an inclusive and socially accepting workplace?
How is your organisation going beyond representation to tackle race inequality for good?
So, what is your motivation to make society and the workplace better for generations to come?
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