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Little Mermaid: Disney Made Non-White Mermaids Canon Nearly 30 Years Ago

The backlash to the casting of an African-American actress, Halle Bailey, as Ariel in Disney's live-action The Little Mermaid, and led to the hashtag #NotMyAriel trending on Twitter. The protagonist of the 1989 animated classic was, of course, a Caucasian mermaid whose red hair, along with her fish tail, was a signature trait.

Amid the protests that Disney was ruining their childhoods was the insistence the live-action reimagining remain faithful to the 1989 original, itself loosely based on the Danish fairy tale (which didn't include a singing crab, for starters). Although Ariel's skin color has nothing to do with the story of The Little Mermaid, or its themes, it's certainly worth noting that non-white mermaids have been part of the Disney canon for nearly three decades.

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We're, of course, referring to Gabriella, the earnest mermaid in The Little Mermaid television series who was inspired by Ariel, and who aspired to be just as great a singer. She looked up to Ariel, not only as a role model, but as a big sister over the course of series, which aired from 1992 to 1994 on CBS. What made Gabriella all the more special is that she was deaf; she communicated using sign language, with Ollie the Octopus helping translate her messages.

Atlantica's mermaids didn't all look the same. Clearly, Disney didn't envision them with a single skin color or ethnicity in mind; the studio had a global outlook. And make no mistake, Gabriella could have even been European, because Europeans aren't only white.

With that said, what's the hubbub about Ariel being black? We haven't seen a photo to lambast, as we did when the first image of Will Smith's Genie was released for Aladdin, and we don't even know if Bailey will wear a wig or dye her hair. But what's for sure is neither her hair nor her skin color should define her.

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Gabriella herself was based on a young fan who passed away during the series' first season. She was introduced into The Little Mermaid so kid could relate to a character of color and for deaf children to see themselves represented onscreen. Her presence alone would seem to render moot the feeble arguments about the property's Danish roots, as Disney long ago established the existence of non-white mermaids in its fictional world. For that matter, Ariel herself could just have easily been of Hispanic or Asian heritage. Even the original actress, Jodi Benson, has supported the notion of a non-white Ariel, contending it's all about the character, and the magic inside.

The point is, Bailey was hired because her spirit and talents fit what Disney wants to do with Ariel in this live-action adaptation, made all the more logical because the actress is a skilled singer. We live in an era in which major studios, like Disney, seek to provide greater representation of people of color onscreen, after decades of characters, in animation and in live-action, being overwhelmingly white.

As such, a mermaid who looks like Gabriella doesn't diminish or erase what came before. It simply presents a new take on an established character (that is, Ariel), for contemporary audiences.

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