From under the sea to the C Suite: what we can learn from the backlash against The Little Mermaid

From under the sea to the C Suite: what we can learn from the backlash against The Little Mermaid

6th October 2022

After it was announced that a black actress (Halle Bailey) would play the lead role of Ariel in the upcoming remake of the Little Mermaid, social media was awash (pardon the pun) with a backlash against her casting, on the grounds that the role shouldn’t be played by a black actress.

As the hashtag #NotmyAriel began trending, this led some to ask the question: if a black person can’t play the role of a fictional character in a fantasy world where there are no rules, how much more challenging might it be to appoint them to positions of leadership in the real world?

Is race essential to the role?

Of course, there are examples where race may be essential to be able to do the role itself - it wouldn’t necessarily work to have a non-Colombian Mirabel Madrigal in Encanto for example. However, in reality, these instances should be extremely rare. Employers would need to objectively justify why this was the case and so may want to take advice on this.

Ultimately most would agree that the person appointed to a role should be the person who is best qualified for it, irrespective of their colour  - even if they don’t fit the mould we may have been expecting.

Black History Month: Action not words

This Black History Month the focus is on action not words, so what can be done to support senior black leaders if these kinds of issues arise?

  • Challenge unfair criticism: For example, some of the criticisms of Halle Bailey were that Ariel has red hair (Halle has red hair in the trailer), or that black people can’t be mermaids. In the real world, some of the criticism may be open and obviously wrong, so easy to challenge, but you may also need to be prepared to address unfair criticism when it is more subtle.
  • Credibility: As with Halle playing Ariel, sadly, some individuals may believe black candidates are less credible or have only been appointed due to their race. An important way to challenge this kind of criticism and to minimise the risk of it arising in the first place can be to reinforce that you will have selected the strongest, most credible candidate who you believe will be the best at the job and to reiterate that as appropriate. 
  • Champion (‘Mermaids assemble’): Darryl Hannah who was the lead in the 1980s mermaid film ‘Splash’, publicly came out in support of Halle’s casting in the midst of the backlash, as did Jodi Benson, who herself voiced Ariel in the original (1989) animation. Being a true champion of such leaders can be critical in reinforcing their credibility and ensuring they have appropriate support when needed.