Backtalk: Recasting a Disney Princess

This week, Dahlia and Amy talk about the live-action casting for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Halle Bailey was announced as Ariel in the upcoming film and many racists cried it would be inaccurate to have a Black mermaid in this classic story. Why is it so important for viewers to see a young Black woman be cast as a Disney princess?

 

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[FULL TRANSCRIPT]
 
DAHLIA: Our shows are produced by Bitch Media, a nonprofit, independent, feminist media organization that is entirely funded by our community. If you love waking up to new episodes of Backtalk and Popaganda, join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of The Rage. As a member, your monthly donation includes a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a special rage-inspired mug you’ll never wanna put down, exclusive access to a members’ only texting group, and loads of other snazzy benefits. So, don’t wait. Become a member today at BitchMedia.org/rage.

[theme music]
 
Welcome to Backtalk. This is the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Dahlia Balcazar.
 
AMY: And I’m Amy Lam.
 
DAHLIA: We start every episode by sharing a pop culture moment. Amy, what’s yours?
 
AMY: My pop culture moment kind of is connected to last week’s pop culture moment where I talked about how much I loved birds. And I actually got a really great DM on Twitter from a listener who said that they are a regular listener and how much they loved hearing how much I loved learning about birds! This person studied biology and ecology, and they were just excited to hear that people are talking about the natural world. And actually I had thought about this pop culture moment before I received this DM. So, and my pop culture moment for this episode is about flowers, [laughs] another thing about the natural world. Much like with birds and animals and things, I just didn’t really think about them, or I don’t know, notice them as much as I should have. And I think as I grew older, I noticed flowers more, and I wanted to learn the names of them. And actually, I have favorite flowers. I really love, I love me like a beautiful wall of bougainvilleas. I love the variety of colors of them. I think they may be technically like a vine, but I just love that they exist all over the world. I even have a tattoo with bougainvilleas in them ’cause I love them so much.
 
I love magnolias. I love dogwoods. Oh, I love with magnolias and with dogwoods, sometimes they just have the most beautiful and rich colors. Like dogwoods can come into this really gorgeous pink, this like blush pink. Sometimes I see it when it’s at the peak of its bloom. I literally wanna eat the petals. I never do. [Laughs.] But the pink is so beautiful and intoxicating. And I know summer is like, the seasons are kind of weird, so depending on what region you live in, dogwoods are probably, definitely done being in bloom. But I just love seeing some of my favorite flowers when they come into season every single year. It’s so gorgeous, and it’s just something that, it’s kind of like you know when your favorite show is about to drop a new season, you’re highly anticipating it. But with natural stuff, I don’t know when it’s going to come into bloom.
 
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
 
AMY: But I’ll walk around my neighborhood and be like, oh my gosh! This dogwood tree is coming into bloom. I’m so excited. I can’t wait till I go on a walk in a couple days and see all the petals unfurl. It is like literally that exciting for me, and it’s an event for me every year and something that I really actually look forward to. So, I guess my pop culture moment is just like my continuation of appreciating the natural world. And my shout out this week is to flowers.
 
DAHLIA: First of all, I can’t believe you didn’t say anything about dahlias.
 
AMY: [Screams then laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: You didn’t mention those at all. Unacceptable. But second, your recent naturalist enthusiasm is really reminding me of a book I recommended a few weeks ago on Backtalk: How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell where she writes that sort of one of the, she thinks that one of the ways that humans can feel more connected to our world outside of screens is by learning about what lives around us other than humans, by actually learning like these plants have been in this area for hundreds of years. Or this plant is actually not indigenous to this area. This bird is indigenous. And just situating yourself in the history of the place where you live, which I think is really fascinating. And you might like this, Amy. She recommends this app called iNaturalist—
 
AMY: Ooooh.
 
DAHLIA: —where if you like a bird or a weird tree or a plant that you don’t know what it is, you can take a photo of it, and then other naturalist people are like, “I think that’s a dahlia.” And I did it recently in my neighborhood because I saw, for real, I saw a turkey just like walking around.
 
BOTH: [Laugh.]
 
DAHLIA: And I was like, I’m pretty sure that’s a turkey but I’m gonna put it on iNaturalist. And then they were like, “Yes, this is a turkey.” So, I really like this naturalist phase of life that you’re in now because Amy, you’re connecting to your environment outside of screens, and that’s wonderful.
 
AMY: Yay for me! [Chuckles.]
 
DAHLIA: My pop culture moments is sports related. Last week, the U.S. women’s national team defeated the Netherlands and won the World Cup. Congratulations. So amazing. But my pop culture moment is this clip. Who knows why, but Fox News sent a reporter to Lyon, France to sort of see how the crowds were reacting to the World Cup finals. And I don’t know why they kept this on the air and didn’t cut, but I really love this clip of people at this bar in France who just immediately see a Fox News reporter and start cheering, “Fuck Trump.”
 
NEWS ANCHOR: Greg Palkot is live in Lyon. Hey, Greg. [Chuckles.]
 
[Patrons cheering at the bar.]
 
AMY: Oh my god.
 
GREG: Guess what. [Patron cheers getting louder.] History has just been made, Arthel. We are here at a sports bar Lyon, France. [Cheer turns to a chant.] Listen to it.
 
PATRONS: Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!
 
GREG: We’re in a sports bar. We were gonna be…. [“Fuck Trump!” chant continues.]
 
DAHLIA: I also really enjoy in this clip that, at the end the reporter obviously does not know what to do and can hear them saying, “Fuck Trump,” and then he describes it as like, oh I guess this is, the reporter says, “I guess it was a political thing too.”
 
AMY: [Laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: Oh, you think? You think it’s a political thing, all of these people? All of these people in France gathering to say, “Fuck Trump?”
 
AMY: Whenever sports can unite us in any way possible, and especially if they can unite us in a way to channel our hate towards Trump, I fully support it. But also, the U.S. women’s national soccer team has been doing an amazing job. So many great memes to come out of their tournament.
 
DAHLIA: Totally.
 
AMY: So, I fully support this team!
 
[cutesy bells ring]
 
And I wanna take this time to thank folks who rated and reviewed us on iTunes. It really helps us with visibility and letting people know that we exist. We got a really great review from somebody. Their user name is Aria dunks, and the review subject is “rage wars,” which I really love. And part of the review that says that, “Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a dystopian novel.” Oh my god, tears. “And when I listen to Backtalk, I imagining I’m listening to a resistance forces secret radio sharing details of the revolution.”
 
DAHLIA: Wow.
 
AMY: Wow! Thank you so much for this review! I just think that reviews like this—again, I think we say this often—it’s really encouraging, and it lets us know that people are actually listening, and we’re not talking into like a vacuum. So, thank you so much for saying something like this. Cause it’s like I said— Actually, I was reading a interview recently with Jenny Slate, who used to be on SNL but famously—or infamously—got fired because she said “fuck” on the air.
 
DAHLIA: In her first sketch!!
 
AMY: Yes, I know. Which is like legendary.
 
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
 
AMY: But she has gone on to become a really great film actor. But she did this interview from a few years ago, and she talks about how one time, she’s driving along in Silver Lake or wherever she was living. And somebody flagged her down, and she pulled over and said hi to them. And they were like, “Oh, are you Jenny Slate?” And she’s like, “Yes.” And I guess this person went on to say how much they loved her work. And Jenny actually said to this fan like, “Thank you so much cause I really do need this validation.”
 
BOTH: [Laugh.]
 
AMY: I think often, people who do public-facing things just don’t say it clearly like that. I’m realizing this about myself: I need validation to continue with my work! And I think it’s because the work is so hard, and I think validation especially, in this medium, means that people are listening. I think much like for Jenny Slate, maybe the validation means somebody’s watching her art, and it’s making her feel appreciated for it.
 
DAHLIA: I love the idea of us as a resistance radio station because you know, you and I, Amy, are in weird corners of our separate apartments in our makeshift studios made out of like towels and pillows. And it kind of does feel like we’re on this secret underground show in some kind of way. I just love that. I love that. Thanks so much for saying that, Aria Dunks.
 
AMY: Yeah, you’re so right. I am literally sitting in a dark closet. I’m only lit by the glow of my laptop screen. [Laughs.] Oh gosh. It does feel kind of like underground-ish if you think about it that way.
 
DAHLIA: Yeah.
 
AMY: So, that was a really generous and kind review. And in the last episode, I talked about how somebody gave us a two-star review, and in the same breath though, I was like, hey, leave us more reviews, perhaps another two-star review. And guess what! That request was answered. And the subject of the review is, “Another two-star review.” And it goes on to support the last two-star review, that they were like, that they agreed that the giggling and frivolous arguing is disengaging for some viewers.
 
But I do take umbrage with one part of the review, and it is this part of the review where it says, “There are so few places to listen to current events being discussed from a feminist perspective. Why distract us from real issues with silly banter? It’s always bothered me about the show, and I don’t think this is feedback that should be giggled at. You edit these recordings for air. Why not provide a second version for the rest of us who still value and respect your opinions, conversations, and research on topics of feminist issues?”
 
Wow! I think that the reason my feelings were hurt, my feelings were really hurt at the part where it says like, “I don’t think this feedback should be giggled at.” And this, in this moment, I am not giggling at this review and how this reviewer is sort of telling me how I should react to feedback, to tell me to stop giggling or to stop laughing or making light of things that, especially in a time where living is kind of difficult for me right now. And to say that I can’t experience joy in a very specific way on a show that I host, it kind of fucked me up a little. And while, I like I said with the last review, I appreciate the feedback. But in this case, I think that they’re coming at it in a way that is not constructive and is criticizing us in a way that I don’t think is very feminist.
 
DAHLIA: I’m reminded of a former therapist that I had who–I’m already laughing—who, when I was talking about various sad things about my life, I would laugh. And she would say, “Why are you laughing?” And I would be like, “Well, I’m laughing because I don’t wanna be crying!” And you know, I think our arguments, which we’ll get into in a moment, certainly can be frivolous. But it’s like we set a challenge to ourselves to see can we be funny while arguing about various things, or can we make different kinds of arguments while arguing about Game of Thrones or arguing about the Golden Girls? And it is different than talking about more serious politics or more serious pop culture. But I think Amy and I, we have been doing this kind of work for a long time. And to think that like let’s say for the past five or more years of our lives, we’ve been spending really like every day, even more than every workday, like every day, looking at the news, thinking about how to talk about things from a feminist perspective, looking at where there are intersections of racism and classism and pop culture and politics. And it’s fucking hard, you know?
 
And at the same time, I love this. I love doing this show with you, Amy, and I love our conversations. And it’s really difficult, you know? And so, I think that we have tried—and it’s fine to say with various levels of success—we’ve tried different ways to insert our personalities or our particular points of view into what could otherwise be a really serious show. And I think it is absolutely the truth that like, why am I laughing? It’s because otherwise I’d be crying a lot of the time. Or why am I laughing? It’s because this world can be so absurd and so upsettingly absurd that laughing is a human response to feeling overwhelmed sometimes.
 
AMY: And I think that for Dahlia and I, we’ve known each other for years now. We are also both people who laugh or use lighthearted issues as a way to cope. And that’s a part and a facet of our personality and who we are. And I think for us to do a show like this, we show up—and I mean I’m not gonna lie—like I’m not completely my full self. The listeners don’t know everything about my life for sure and a lot of things that I’m going through. But I do try to show up as whole of myself as possible to do this. And part of that is that there is like a silly side to us. There is a side where we wanna argue about whether or not ’90s fashions deserves a place in our closet at the present time. And I think that that’s a way in which we show of a wholeness about who we are and that we’re not just laser focused on being 100 percent serious all the time, especially when we’re talking about really tough things.
 
I appreciate that this listener is saying this is not for all listeners, and we understand that this is not for all listeners. And we’re not saying we don’t want you to listen anymore, but we are saying that this is kind of, I think, a way in which we can look at what it means to talk about things from a feminist perspective but also understand that we’re not robots. We’re also people with lives that are outside of thinking about these things. And this is one of the ways in which we can use our energy in a productive way. We can be silly and also could be very deathly serious about very serious things.
 
So again, I appreciate this feedback. But I do, you know, I did feel a way. I did feel a big way about saying that the feedback should not be giggled at. I remember reading the last review and being like, wow, this is really intense. And then when I read this one, it just pierced at me in a different way because it was criticizing the way I took criticism or that we took criticism. So, as I always say, we’re open to any and all feedback, but we might read it on air and talk about our feelings around them! So, please head over iTunes and rate and review us.
 
[cutesy bells ring]
 
DAHLIA: We also have really exciting news to share with you guys, which is that Popaganda’s coming back for an all new season next week. It’s been on hiatus for a little while, and you can find it not on this feed. A little bit of a technical talk is that Backtalk and Popaganda used to be on the same feed here if you’re listening to us on iTunes. But now Popaganda will be on its own feed, so you will not find it here. But all new episodes of its new season will be tied in to issues of Bitch magazine. The newest issue for the summer is the Heat issue, and so every episode of Popaganda will delve into some relationship between pop culture and politics and heat, and I’m super excited to hear its newest season.
 
[cutesy bells ring]
 
In our last episode, Amy and I argued about ’90s fashion. And Amy very astutely pointed out that it sounded like I was having a personal issue with ’90s fashion, which is that I was a fashion victim as I guess they used to say, and I wore all of the ’90s trends at the time. And so, now it makes me terrified to see them coming back again. [Chuckles.] And I can’t believe I did this, but I texted all of you who texted us to vote in a photo of myself just like fully decked out in ’90s fashion with the funniest, I just look so funny. Someone responded that I looked like I should be on Degrassi, which is funny because I took a photo of a Degrassi character to my hairstylist. It was a boy, a boy character.
 
AMY: [Chuckles.]
 
DAHLIA: And I was like, “I think my hair should be like this!” And I remember she was like, “Uh, are you sure?” And I was like, “Yes! I wanna be like this.” So anyway, last time Amy and I argued about ’90s fashion, and as usual, Amy has prevailed. The answer to Amy vs. Dahlia should ’90s fashion come back is a resounding yes.
 
AMY: Yes!!! I mean I’m actually really heartened by how many folks engaged and voted and left amazing comments. I did wanna read some of them. Some folks really, really loved your photo, Dahlia. Somebody said, “Awesome photo. Dahlia, don’t be so hard on yourself. I have a scary photo from the ’80s with the asymmetrical haircut, which is much worse.”
 
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
 
AMY: Somebody else said that they agreed with me, somebody who voted on my side, and said, “I desperately wanted to look cool like Dahlia does in that photo, but my parents didn’t let me.” See. So, people are saying that your look was very, very good.
 
DAHLIA: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
 
AMY: And somebody said that they remember Baby-G watches, and that’s their family—
 
DAHLIA: Oh, yeah!
 
AMY: Yeah, said their family couldn’t afford a real one but found a Dollar Store version. And they wore religiously and never let anyone look at it too closely.
 
BOTH: [Laugh.]
 
AMY: But I think they’re loving the revival because then they can go get a real Baby-G watch off of eBay, I guess. And then there was somebody who sided with you, Dahlia, and said that, “I like that ’90s fashion is about fun and not taking yourself seriously, but we should find a different way to do it.” So, they’re saying that we should just keep moving on and not get stuck on the trend forever.
 
DAHLIA: Something I really like about these arguments, frivolous though they may be, is Amy and I both love the comments so much, and it’s so fun to get sort of a taste of your perspectives and your funny anecdotes and your horror stories about moving in and out of apartments and who your favorite Golden Girl is. So, I’ve really appreciated all of your comments, all of your votes.
 
We’re actually putting Amy vs. Dahlia on hold for right now. We’ve been using this really cool texting platform so that we could hear responses back and forth from our audiences, but we’re exploring some new options there so that we can get feedback from you, send more photos, send more gifs. But for now, it is on hold, but please do let us know if you have any fun or funny ideas for arguments if you give us a rate and review or if you DM Amy on Twitter.
 
AMY: [Laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: We look forward to bringing this back because I can’t say enough: I love getting the comments from people. And also, it’s so fun to get them as text messages. So, look for some more funny photos and gifs from us in the future.
 
[cutesy bells ring]
 
Since everything old is new again, and Hollywood plans to recycle their narratives until the end of time, get ready because we’re gonna get a lot of movies we’ve already seen before, especially thinking about the many, many Disney franchises. Last week, the trailer for the new live action Mulan was released. The stars of the live action Lion King posted photos of themselves looking really, really serious, paired with their counterparts like they were serious, and then the animals were looking very serious. I couldn’t take it. Frankly, I couldn’t take it seriously. And also last week, the actress who has been cast to play Ariel in the new live action Little Mermaid was announced. She’s 19-year-old Halle Bailey, one half of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle. And the internet frankly exploded in joy and racist white tears because Halle is a Black musician and actress. You might have seen her as Sky on Grownish.
 
Over the Fourth of July weekend, the hashtag #NotMyAriel started trending, and a lot of frankly racist complaints came out through that hashtag with people saying that because Ariel is Danish, she can’t be a Black actress. Or because Ariel has red hair in a cartoon, she can’t be a Black actress. I saw a lot of people tweeting that this is, in some way—I hate this phrase—a cash grab for political correctness on the part of Disney because obviously, if a half woman-half fish has white skin in a cartoon, she has to be played by a white actress in a live action movie! So, sorry, not at all sorry that this movie isn’t accurate enough for all the Twitter racists.
 
AMY: And I think arguing with racists on Twitter is such a futile thing to begin with. And a vast majority of them, I think, are just bots who are created to poke folks and get them into arguing about something and to waste their energy on arguing over whether or not Ariel, like a film about Little Mermaid made by Disney, which is a huge corporation— Which is, I think, in a way, I know it’s a cynical read, but they are trying to make money by producing this film. And I think that often, these cries for accuracy, like you’re saying, to reflect what a cartoon mermaid is supposed to look like are ways to derail us of talking about bigger issues in a way. Because a lot of people pointed out like, oh, if you really do wanna be accurate to the original tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen—Little Mermaid spoil alert—she dies at the end of his tale.
 
DAHLIA: Yeah.
 
AMY: So, it isn’t about accuracy. I think we all know this. It’s about upholding white supremacy. Period. Full stop. And in the way that it is about upholding white supremacy, it’s about continuing to center white protagonists in these fairy tales that children grow up with so that they think that they’re at the center of the world.
 
If you think about other old tales that Disney have produced, cause a lot of these stories that Disney made films of, it isn’t like Walt Disney and a room of Disney, like the Disney writers’ room that came up with these tales. They’re often riffs of very, very old folktales or stories from different cultures, and they’ve Disneyfied it. And so, in the vast majority of them where the protagonist or the princess in the middle of a story are white, they can be remade in any way that they want them to. And the ones that are centered, you know, princesses of color, they are often stories where their race and ethnicity play a huge part in what the story is about. Like Mulan can really only be Mulan because it’s based in China. If it was like a white American Mulan-esque person, the story would be completely different. It would have to have a whole different type of arc. It would have to be made into a very specific way. But Little Mermaid is about a fantasy world about fish people.
 
BOTH: [Laugh.]
 
AMY: And so, this cry for accuracy isn’t about being historically accurate in any way whatsoever. It’s really just about upholding these fairy tales that’ve been told since the beginning of time to center white folks and their narratives.
 
DAHLIA: I think we find ourselves in a funny kind of puzzle, which is that, you know, I wouldn’t argue at all that Disney’s work or that any of these famous Disney movies are feminist or that they have good lessons for girls. As you’re saying, Amy, in the real Little Mermaid story, she dies at the end. And because she’s a mermaid, she doesn’t have a soul, and so God tells her, “Sorry. You don’t get to go to heaven, but maybe if you perform good deeds for others for something like a 1000 years, maybe I’ll let you get into heaven.” So, like so many of these stories, are just like layers of historical Christian patriarchal mythmaking. And in some ways, I wouldn’t argue that they deserve to be repeated or retold, and at the same time, these stories have enormous power for young people in representation. Seeing faces that look like theirs and families that look like theirs on the big screen is so important at the same time. And I feel like isn’t that such a horrible little trick of capitalism that we can, in one breath say, “These are not good narratives for young people,” and say, “And it is spectacular and great for young girls of color to see faces like their own in these stories?”
 
AMY: And I think that, like we talked about how long we’ve been doing this type of work examining pop culture through a feminist lens, and I think that one of my very basic tenets when I started doing this work was talking about how much representation mattered. And I think that my own thinking has really evolved. I think it’s much more about representation mattering. But I think that for young people, it starts there. Like for children, it really starts with representation about seeing somebody who looks like you being reflected on the screen and being celebrated. I mean I don’t think we can overstate how much of a big deal Disney is for children and for the lives of children and how it helps to shape what they think the world is like. I think I speak for Dahlia here, but like for the two of us who were born and raised in United States of America, as little girls, we were inundated by not just fairy tales in general but Disneyfied fairy tales.
 
DAHLIA: Mmhmm.
 
AMY: And so, we saw white princesses all our lives, and we understood that being a white princess is the pinnacle of beauty, of grace, you know, and a way to, something to aspire to in order to have your happily ever after. And I’m so happy for children who are existing now and especially for kids of color. And I think it’s also good for white kids to see this as well so that they can somehow, however in a small fraction of a way, undo their own internalized white supremacy. But I think this is a way to see a different type of princess being represented and to understand that they can exist in this world and in this type of imagination. Disney is not only a source by which we’re having stories being told to us and then we are consuming the stories, but they also help to shape how our imaginations can grow or where they think they can reach.
 
And I think that by showing that these different types of people can embody these different types of narratives can expend everybody’s imagination in a way that I don’t know that we can quantify right now. And it’s so important. But like you’re saying, I’m also very unsurprised that there are racist white people that are up in arms about it. At least they’re up in arms about it on Twitter. [Laughs.] And I have a feeling that a lot of the folks that are up in arms about on Twitter are bots that have been planted to push buttons and to get started to have these wild conversations.
 
And I also think that another fascinating thing about this, especially with Twitter and especially with the news about the casting in the live action Little Mermaid, was that not long before they had announced Halle Bailey as playing Little Mermaid, they had announced Melissa McCarthy to play Ursula. And there was kind of a little mini-uproar about that because this is before Halle Bailey was announced. And folks were saying that there are some very talented Black actors who could have done Ursula so much justice, like for example, Tituss Burgess from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
 
DAHLIA: Oh, yeah!
 
AMY: Yeah, who’s an award-winning theater actor, musical theater actor who would’ve been so chefs-kiss perfect for Ursula.
 
DAHLIA: [Laughs.]
 
AMY: Lizzo who famously dressed up as Ursula, I think, a couple of Halloweens ago would’ve been amazing as well. So, people were just up in arms about it, but then when it came out that Halle Bailey was playing Little Mermaid, it seemed to make a lot more sense for folks. Cause there’s this comparison about like, oh, now it makes perfect sense! About like a heinous white villain woman stealing the voice from a young Black girl.
 
DAHLIA: Oh yeah, sure.
 
AMY: [Laughs.] You know what I mean? I think those types of discussions that I don’t know if children will understand the complexity of nuances of that type of representation. I think that for adults who will watch this film, it gives us a new layer to think about the stories that we consumed as children and how we are going to negotiate these stories that we feel very nostalgic about. And what does it mean to think about how we’re evolving and understanding how we were indoctrinated in a very specific way? And now we can reframe the story differently and to see how this will play out. I think this is so interesting, and I think that in a way, these discussions of what color Ariel should be are a purposeful distraction to not discussing how perhaps historically, these portrayals of princesses on Disney’s side were very racist! I think if there’s enough outrage being built into us protecting Halle Bailey and her role, then perhaps there’s less energy being put into how, oh, perhaps the original sketch of the Little Mermaid from 20 years ago was fucked up.
 
DAHLIA: And that’s super interesting too cause I feel like I’ve seen some of these complaints on Twitter that are like, “Oh, well, you can’t just put a different face on Ariel and pretend like it’s all the same story.” And what you’re saying is that, you know, actually, if we brought in our view a little bit and we allow sort of dynamic casting decisions to inform the narratives that we’re making, that is a really interesting point that you made. Like what if this is a story about a white woman stealing a Black woman’s voice? And another dynamic is like, what does this mean now if we’re seeing a film about a Black mermaid produced in a country where we had segregated swimming pools for decades and decades, you know? I think that there is a layer of history and complexity and actual interesting narrative that can come out if— and maybe you’re right, Amy. Maybe some of this will not directly be interpreted by children. But I think kids are very aware of a lot of what they see. And kids, of course, understand that there is a lot of racism in this country. And rather than sort of sugar coating or pretending like those dynamics don’t exist in this country, what if these stories, these myths, these fairy tales for children engaged with some of that in an interesting and illuminating way so that kids can also sort of have a broader view of history and a broader view of what these stories mean?
 
AMY: And I think that this outrage about a Black Little Mermaid, it is often framed as like, well, it’s not telling the true story. Like we said, this is a fairy tale. But it also ignores the fact that for many decades, Disney made a choice to not even cast real life people to play these white princesses but to animate them, to draw them in a very specific way.
 
DAHLIA: Mmhm.
 
AMY: And I think that for children to understand that not only is this not an animation, so this is not just borne out of like somebody’s imagination, but that now we are casting real people in the flesh who actually exist to play these roles. I think that that’s another way of saying that not only do you exist in this world, but you can exist in this world in blood and flesh. And that that’s the power of casting, and that’s the power of centering different folks in these fairytales that I think are the foundation for the way I think that we grow up as adults to think how life should be. And then I know that’s maybe like a reach, right? But to think that when I watched The Little Mermaid as a child, what I think my life should be like as an adult. But if we think about like— I’m reflecting about how when I watched it as a child, I remember that a central part of the movie was that, wow, having your own voice is a really big deal, you know? And this is before I had words to say that I was a feminist. I was a kid, okay? So, I didn’t know what being a feminist was, but I did know that I didn’t like being treated differently cause I was a girl. Cause I was treated differently as a daughter in a house, in a very patriarchal house with two brothers, you know.
 
But I was able to infer while watching The Little Mermaid that like, oh, having a voice is a big deal. And when Ariel’s voice got taken away, it kind of fucked up her shit. Like she wasn’t able to express herself and to say who she really was. And in that case, I saw it from an animated young white woman doing this. I can’t imagine what that would feel like if I was a young girl of color. In particular, I can’t imagine what it would feel like if I was a young Black girl living in this America now, watching a film where it’s another young Black woman who’s an actual young Black woman in a story about how her voice is getting taken away [laughing] from a villainous white woman. And to understand what that did to her and what does this story mean, I think that it could shape the way young Black girls think about who they are and how powerful their voices are going forward.
 
And you know, I think we can sort of toss off these films of being like, oh, they’re no big deal. They’re just little fairy tales for children. But I think that they do have a hand in shaping how we perceive our world and how we move forward and grow into adults.
 
[cutesy bells ring]
 
DAHLIA: At the end of every episode we share something we’re listening to, reading, and watching. This week though, Amy and I both separately, sadly, saw Ari Aster’s new film Midsommar, and we cannot wait to talk about it. We were in this very long text thread immediately. Ari Aster’s the director of Hereditary. And this is gonna be a spoiler-free, brief conversation about Midsommar. Midsommar is about a group of young Americans who travel abroad. It’s always a mistake in a horror movie.
 
BOTH: [Chuckles.]
 
DAHLIA: And they go to this Swedish commune’s midsummer festival—so, sort of like the summer solstice festival—and they don’t know what to expect. And what ends up happening is just…horrific murders and various degrees of terrifying cults activities. I thought though, it was just like it, it made me…like I walked out of the movie totally unsure what I thought. Which is like for me, actually kind of a maddening feeling. I don’t like to be unsure. And I really missed that moment after you leave a movie theater and you stand outside and you get to talk about it for like half an hour with your friends. And so, I was sort of doing that internally, and I thought about it for ages. And I was texting Amy talking about it. I cannot stop thinking about it, and I really, really enjoyed it.
 
AMY: So, the reason why Dahlia said that sadly we saw it separately is because you are my horror movie watching buddy. [Laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: Yes.
 
AMY: I love going to theaters and watching horror movies with you. And actually, I was thinking, I was reflecting on the last time I went to a theater to watch a film, and it was to see Us. And I’m realizing that ever since my Movie Pass—you know that pass where you can go see a ton of movies at any time—ever since my Movie Pass imploded (cause it doesn’t work anymore) I only pay to go see horror films in theaters nowadays. Because it’s like I love being that immersed in a horror film. And I think we’ve talked about how horror films are a very specific and contained way to experience fear and anxiety. And then you can leave the theater and have that sort of fear and anxiety dissipate, which is not, which is very different than experiencing it in real life where [laughing] your fear and anxiety are ticking over all the time. You can’t escape it. So, I think that’s the feeling that I really enjoy about going to a movie theater and watching a horror film. And Midsommar was, I think, so affecting for me because I don’t have a good deep history of watching horror films. Dahlia has famously been the one who got me into this shit.
 
BOTH: [Laugh.]
 
DAHLIA: Yes.
 
AMY: And so, I love watching horror movies with you. And I think that the thing for me about this film is because it’s so beautiful, like the setting of the film is gorgeous. So, in this midsummer festival in Sweden, they have many, many, many hours of daylight and very few hours of darkness, of nighttime light, I guess. But because it’s so oversaturated with beautiful, gorgeous, yellow, bright daylight, the film is beautiful, and there’s so many montages of florals—so much floral! Like I can’t wait to see all the floral this Halloween—of pristine looking white folks, like blond white people in white garments frolicking about! And to see how that’s juxtaposed against death and horror was so interesting.
 
And we were just talking about the decisions around casting and in storytelling. Cause I did go into film thinking about wow, this is a very white movie. But I think that it had to be this way, and it had to be a festival in Sweden, and it had to be a festival in Sweden with a ton of white folks so that the story could be unfolded in this specific way. And I think that with Ari’s work, he’s often exploring grief and trauma, and Dahlia had said this to me when we were talking about it. And I think that this, and also this film is, I think, also exploring another layer of what it means to sort of be in an unknown place and feeling not safe. And how do you deal with not feeling safe and not knowing where else to go? Like feeling trapped in this very specific way. So, I think that like…I’m talking about it now and getting excited about feeling anxious. Which is fucking bizarre for me. [Laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: Yeah, yeah.
 
AMY: Which makes no sense. But I think that in that way, it does all this work. And I’ve also read reviews about how this is also, this is mainly a breakup film. I don’t know if I completely agree with that. I think that often those reviews are centered around Ari Aster having done an interview where he spoke about how he wrote this film after a very bad breakup. But I don’t think that this film, the central theme of it is that. I think it is way much more than that. And I think it’s just so lush and grotesque, and I think that the juxtaposition of those two things make it very captivating for me.
 
DAHLIA: Yeah. I mean I…. Sorry. I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say. If you’ve seen Ari Aster’s other film, Hereditary, like Amy was saying, I think both Midsommar and Hereditary are very much about grief and trauma and about how family structures in particular either are able to support and create empathetic structures or completely collapse under the weight of a loss, under the weight of trauma and grief. And I think that’s partially why Hereditary, but especially Midsommar, feels so affecting and engrossing and all-encompassing is because you’re watching, like Amy’s saying, these juxtapositions of beautiful, beautiful, like the nicest summer festival you could imagine with lovely flowers but also very grotesque death and feeling like you yourself are trapped in the movie theater, you know. You are with these characters who are trapped within their feelings of grief, within their feelings of fear. And it’s just like, like I said, I know I said I felt like it’s maddening to not know how you feel about a movie, but at the same time I think that that’s a mark of a really incredible work that you can come away and say like, well, I feel scared, I feel sad, I don’t know how I feel. And have to sort of like dwell in that even longer even though that may be uncomfortable and is uncomfortable for someone like me that wants to know right away what I think and what I feel, that space it’s just, I’m like in awe of works of art, especially films, that can create those kinds of anxieties, create those kinds of like real feelings in the audience.
 
And I knew as soon as the movie ended, I was in— shout out. Let me say shout out to this older woman who was watching it by herself sitting next to me.
 
AMY: Whoo!
 
DAHLIA: I kept catching glances at her being like, is she into this? And I was like I guess she is into this. But afterwards in the theater there was this sense of I could hear people, like I actually heard someone say like, “What the fuck was that?” And you know, not everyone likes. Like I just said, I don’t even like being in that space of like, what is this? What do I feel? What am I thinking? But at the same time, I think that that’s a mark of a really engrossing work of art that you can have to process it for hours and days afterward.
 
AMY: And I think that one of the other interesting about this from a horror film perspective is that it’s not like a cliché horror film with a ton of jump scares or reliant on dark rooms and very eerie music. And I think that in that way, it’s a different way of thinking about what horror films can do, which I’m very interested in. But it’s also interesting that it’s not following that sort of trope of what horror films is, but it’s also very much a film exploring about what do traditions mean?
 
DAHLIA: Yeah.
 
AMY: What does ritual mean? So, it’s examining tradition and ritual without falling into those same tropes in terms of filmmaking, in terms of it being an art piece. And I think that’s why I really like it. And like I said, I’m kind of very inexperienced when it comes to talking about horror films, but in my gut I know what I like and what I don’t like. And in this way I was like, I like this. This is an interesting way of doing horror.
 
DAHLIA: Mmhm.
 
AMY: And I just want to see all of [laughing] Ari Aster’s films forever. I think that’s what I said to you when we’re talking about it.
 
DAHLIA: Yeah! I’m ready to like— It is a long movie, and I came out of it being like, oh, I guess I need to see that again. I probably need to see it like two more times to get it even more.
 
AMY: Yeah. And we did wanna bring up that like Ari Aster has also been, there has been criticisms about him and in terms of ableism and in his films. And that’s something that I had to really think deeply about. And I do see that criticism because in both Hereditary and in this film—without spoilers—I think there is a use of disability as a shortcut to saying something that is grotesque.
 
DAHLIA: Yeah.
 
AMY: And I really do hope that for Ari’s sake like in his work forthcoming that he thinks more deeply about it because that’s very trope-y and very cliché and not exciting or new or interesting even. And I think those criticisms are founded, are completely founded, and I actually wanted to see more of that criticism, more being written about how Ari treats disability and how he uses it in his films, and especially when talking about horror.
 
Okay! So, that’s our Midsommar discussion. We could really talk about Midsommar for another hour. [Laughs.]
 
DAHLIA: We totally could.
 
AMY: But we have to shift. And I wanna talk about my read. I know we were just talking about a very fantastical setting and premise, but my read is actually more grounded in reality. And it is Edward P. Jones’s short story collection Lost in the City. So, Edward P. Jones is, I think he’s like a writer’s writer in a way. I didn’t know about him until I talked with other writers, and they often would refer to him as being somebody you must read. And he’s still a living, working writer, and he’s actually won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel The Known World. But I wanna talk about his first book, which is the collection Lost in the City. It is very much about just the daily lives of Black folks in Washington D.C., and it’s just rendered in a very uncomplicated way but while exploring very complicated themes. There’s this really great quote that he says in the foreword to the new reissue of the copy that I have where he talks about how he had read James Joyce’s Dubliners and, “I was quite taken with what he had done, and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like, the other city.” So, he wanted to sort of give a view of what it felt like for him to live in Washington D.C. in a very specific time.
 
This collection came out in 1992. The writing is just like, it’s so, like I said uncomplicated, but I don’t mean that at all in any pejorative way. I just mean it’s just so refreshingly plain in the way that it lays out a story, and these narratives are just so gorgeous that they kind of like stick in your mind even though they’re not huge world-exploding things. But they are talking about the daily lives of just people living. I think that he’s just doing incredible work and that we should be reading him more. And as a fiction writer, I’m so excited to read more of his work cause it’s informing my work, and it’s teaching me a lot. I’m learning so much in terms of craft as well. So, my read pick is Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.
 
DAHLIA: That sounds so good, Amy. Since we have been talking about The Little Mermaid so much, I wanted to play a song by Chloe x Halle—the song is called “Wolf At Your Door”—so you can hear a little bit of a preview of what the Little Mermaid singing voice might be like. Seems like the new Little Mermaid movie is going to have new songs written by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. So, this is a sneak peek of Ariel’s singing voice, and just imagine some Lin-Manuel Miranda lyrics on top of this. So, this is “Wolf At Your Door” by Chloe x Halle.
 
[“Wolf At Your Door” plays]

♪ “All creeps softly in the snow” ♪
 
AMY: Thanks for listening!
 
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening.

♪  “Light and tears along a path (‘Long a path)/
A knife between her teeth, she roams….” ♪
 
DAHLIA: Thanks for listening to Backtalk. This show is produced by Cher Vincent. Bitch Media is a reader- and listener-supported feminist nonprofit. If you wanna support the show and our work, please head over to bitchmedia.org and donate.

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by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s contributing editor. Find her at @amyadoyzie.

by Dahlia Balcazar
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Dahlia Balcazar is a contributing editor at Bitch Media. She’s passionate about horror films, ’90s music, girl gangs, and Shirley Jackson. She is the artist formerly known as Dahlia Grossman-Heinze. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.