This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Onni Gust is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nottingham. Their research focuses on ideas of sex and the human-animal boundary in eighteenth-century British imperial thought.
Towards the end of the summer, Disney launched a trailer for its new version of The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. The launch generated much excitement on social media. Parents of young Black girls posted videos of their daughters’ faces lighting up when they saw a heroine that looked similar to themselves. And then came the inevitable pile-on by racists. According to some commentators, the casting of a young, Black actress as Ariel was a distortion of the original, ‘authentic’ and necessarily white Ariel. To turn Ariel into a Black mer-girl was yet another egregious example of ‘wokeness’.
Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836 and the best-known adaptation is Disney’s 1989 film. In both versions Ariel is portrayed as having white skin – ‘delicately fair’ – with long flowing hair and blue eyes. There is nothing politically neutral about this physical description. These images are deeply embedded in racialised concepts of beauty and femininity that were being developed in the long eighteenth century in the context of European colonial expansion. A brief look at the history of mermaid sightings, capture and display during this period offers some insights into this history of racism and anti-blackness that resurfaces continuously in our own times.
Mermaids have a long and enduring presence across the globe in literature, myth and spiritual beliefs. As Celeste Headlee and Kalyani Saxena write, Black mermaids, notably the gender-fluid Mami Wata, have an important presence in African folklore; aquatic goddesses and spirits also exist in various forms in myths and legends across Asia; in Europe mermaids and sirens were regular features of sea-faring stories and ancient myth. In eighteenth-century Europe, however, a renewed fascination with merfolk formed part of a wider interest in the limits and possibilities of the natural world.