Pale skin, long, wavy ruby-colored hair run down to her neck, and clear blue eyes look as if someone embedded twinkling stars inside. These are some characteristics that once comprised the amicable image of Ariel, the princess of the The Little Mermaid. However, it seems that Disney has chosen a different notion in the modern version: olive skin, disheveled braided hairs all scruffy and windblown, with its high cheekbone jutting out, implying a rather charismatic atmosphere to the princess. With the African American actor Halle Bailey casted as the mermaid position, it is certain that Disney has been trying to overcome the disdained image of white-washing.
It has not been long since Disney and a number of filmmakers started to present people of color as the protagonist of movies. In the past, such production companies were not free from the white-washing controversy – casting white actors in roles that were initially scripted for non-white characters. For instance, Marvel appointed the white movie star Tilda Swinton in the position of Ancient One, which was portrayed as a Tibetan monk in the original comics. With the wide range of criticism from the society for being racist, studios recognized the severity of the situation and rearranged its cast in response to the public’s demand.
▲ Actor Halle Bailey, Provided by FILMMAGIC
Since The Princess and the Frog (2011) that proposed the image of black princess Tiana, Disney has been the vanguard at the wave of change. In Aladdin (2019), Disney hired Naomi Scott, a half Indian and half white actress, and was praised by the public for choosing a well-matched actor to the princess character. However, disputes over white-washing still continue regarding The Little Mermaid. Some argue that Halle Bailey is not suitable to the conventional image of Ariel and that hastily changing the plot without any further explanation would result in ruining the original book. Moreover, there are concerns that over the issue that political correctness has run riot in the movie field, and it deems itself important to achieve consent with thorough discussion.
Political Correctness Changing Filmmaking
Most people agree to the saying that current film productions should break the worn-out stereotypes of favoring white characters and head towards valuing racial diversity. Yet, Hollywood continually makes excuses for its disproportionate casting upon the capitalist logic that it is essential to employ white actors since a meaningful number of audiences are from the West. For instance, Max Landis, a screenwriter for Ghost in the Shell (2017), insisted that studios have no choice but to cast a white actor because A-list Asian actors that are recognized at the international level are virtually non-existent.
Nevertheless, opponents consider the very argument as an excuse for avoiding the casting of colored actors. Professor Park Ji-hoon (School of Media & Communication) stated that the ideology of white supremacy lies behind the distorted racial variety in the casting system. Only the white actors appear as the hero of the movie-fighting off the villains and protecting the world. The token black friends are left to the black actors, supporting the main character behind and often get beaten up on behalf of them. Asians tend to take the outdated nerd-yellowish skin, slanted eyes, and a pair of dull glass with a snooty impression. Such constructed images of non-white actors affected how the public sees a particular racial group.
Critics argue that the outlandish image of black and Asians are purely the outcome of a white-centered perspective that is pervasive in the modern world. Rather than portraying the reality, scriptwriters choose to elaborate on the Orientalist imagination, a western representation of the East. It is this Orientalist depiction that becomes the selling point toward the majority of white audiences, as they are more familiar with such a fictionalized image than the accurate description of the real-world life. What is worrisome is that many audiences embrace the stereotypes without giving a second thought to it.
The Impact of Media in Society
Professor Park explains the influence mass media can cause on the public awareness of racial identity. Information in the present world is no longer limited to the rich and powerful leaders. Through various platforms, news is easily conveyed from person to person, in forms of visual and auditory entertainment. It is where one can gain knowledge and share it with other people. Yet, as people heavily rely on media to find information, media acquires the power to shape one’s perception toward certain events. In other words, it controls the individual’s interpretation of the world and people with the image media spreads.
▲ Professor Park Ji-hoon (School of Media & Communication), Photographed by Nam Hye Bin
“When you look at a film, black people are constantly associated with negative terms of crime, drugs, and rape, while the Western whites are portrayed in a positive image as rich, abundant, and beautiful,” Professor Park stated. It means that media is responsible for creating the reservoir of such images and filters that influence the way particular groups are represented in society. Professor Park continued by saying that the current trend of revising the plot and hiring colored actors as main characters is a positive sign for breaking the white-washing custom. For instance, female characters nowadays possess a great degree of independence and power, which is a huge shift from the past image of submissive women.
Yet, it should be kept in mind that change should be done in a responsible manner. Although the very movement was supported by many of the human rights activists, it also faced severe resistance from the public. In the case of The Little Mermaid, online users claimed that Disney ruined the original plot by altering the trait of Ariel. Concerning the matter, Professor Park mentioned that filmmakers should be careful in handling media-mix contents - those that have initial stories beforehand – since it is easy to break the storyline when they change some parts without adding explanations.
It is welcoming to see the colored- skin trend washing away the past notions. Such measures would not only give more opportunities to the actors of other skin colors, but also support the equality of all kind-racial, gender, sexuality, etc. Yet, the change should be done in a thorough manner, as an extreme adjustment would undoubtedly bring a fierce resistance from the public. Filmmakers are responsible for ensuring the audience a bon voyage to the cinematic world. When such parts are reflected in the process of transition, the audience will be able to enjoy the journey into more equitable and amusing movies.