Disney acolytes and Zendaya fans alike got quite the surprise earlier this week, when rumors surfaced that the former child star and Disney darling had been offered the lead role of Ariel in the upcoming live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. The original report implies that casting Zendaya could be a major step for inclusivity in Disney films—since Zendaya is biracial, it’s likely that other actors of color would be cast to play members of her mer-family.
Neither Zendaya nor Disney have confirmed—or even commented publicly on—said rumors, but that hasn’t stopped some disgruntled Little Mermaid fans from taking to Twitter to express their (mostly racist) frustrations with the alleged casting.
People seemed to have trouble understanding how a “black” actor (Zendaya is biracial) could be allowed to play a “white” character (Ariel is a fictional character, and a mermaid at that), when white actors face scrutiny for playing characters of color (as they should). One user complained, “Zendaya would suck as little mermaid. Ariel ain’t no n*****.”
Some were more pointed in their criticism. “Hans Christian Anderson wrote the little mermaid and I’m sure he didn’t have A woman like Zendaya in mind. Disney is just doing the most to include POC,” user Ariz Nardiv Zavala sniped, after complaining that Zendaya’s looks “don’t match those of Ariel.”
Other users helpfully pointed out that erasing a character’s written race, gender identity, or sexuality by casting an actor who doesn’t share that background is much different than, say, having a biracial actress play a mythical creature whose instantly-recognizable appearance is only the result of a 1998 animated film.
Zendaya is no stranger to vicious internet backlash—back in 2016, she was the target of trolls’ ire after it was revealed she would play “MJ” in the then-upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Calling attention to a crucial miscast can be beneficial when it leads to dialogue about inclusivity in the film industry, like the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s decision to accept the role of trans man Dante Gill in an upcoming film. After harsh criticism and significant backlash, she ultimately decided to give up the part, saying to Out magazine, “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”
But rarely does fan outrage result in such a benign outcome. Kelly Marie Tran, the breakout star of last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the first woman of color to play a lead role in the iconic series (she's Vietnamese-American), also faced massive amounts of harassment online due to her race and appearance, leading her to delete her Instagram posts earlier this summer. Tran began dealing with racist trolls shortly after the film’s release last December. Trolls even edited her character’s page on an online Star Wars encyclopedia so that her name appeared as a slur mocking East Asian accents. Twitter users also frequently denigrated her appearance and weight.
It’s enough to get even the most weathered Hollywood veteran down, but in an essay penned for the New York Times earlier this week, Tran said that she wouldn’t let the harassment bring her down—and that she wants to live in a world “where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.”
As a result of the recent Zendaya/Ariel rumors, some disgruntled fans have taken things to the next level and created a petition in protest of Zendaya’s alleged casting, arguing that the public should be allowed to “to vote online to determine who plays what role in the upcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid.” Gonzo casting methods aside, the petition also claims that there are plenty of other Disney movies that celebrate diversity (Mulan and Pocahontas are all actors of color get, apparently), but that The Little Mermaid is hardly the time to be inclusive with casting. “For the love of God, can we please just allow Ariel to be the white-skinned, redheaded girl we've all grown to know and love?” the petition’s homepage begs. “Lord knows girls with red or ginger hair are pretty well under-represented in Hollywood anyway.” As of Friday afternoon, the petition had garnered a whopping 15 signatures.
What seems to rankle those Disney fans most about the recent Little Mermaid rumors is that, according to the 1998 animated film currently hailed as “canon,” Ariel is a buxom young lass with European features and red hair. Fans also argue that Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale was written in Denmark, implying Scandinavian features for its characters. Never mind that mermaids aren’t real, and that Andersen never specified the race and/or appearance of Ariel—for some fans, inclusivity has no place in the hallowed Disney canon, and arguing for a “faithful” adaptation of an animated classic is just thinly-disguised racism.