Disney princess or Disney nightmare?

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Graphic by Kayla Roberts.

It seems like a dream come true when actresses are cast as Disney Princesses, but it cannot be any more of a nightmare situation. 

People of color actresses, like Rachel Zegler and Halle Bailey, are cast in an effort to diversify the Disney princesses; only for them to receive an onslaught of internet hate and resistance, with many claiming that they are taking away roles from white actresses. 

The summer of 2023 saw the release of “The Little Mermaid,” making it the latest movie that Disney has remade, with the movie grossing over $500 million. Halle Bailey, a Black woman who was cast as Ariel, received racism and backlash for her role. Bailey is one half of the R&B duo, Chloe x Halle, and is mentored by Beyonce. “The Little Mermaid” would also be the first feature film Bailey would be acting in. Despite Bailey’s singing talents, her casting was the subject of outrage over the original animated cartoon featuring a white mermaid. 

Following news of her casting, the hashtag, #NotMyAriel, was trending on Twitter. In other parts of the internet, there was the use of the term, “redhead erasure,” to describe how people of color actresses replace white characters with red hair, reducing the amount of roles for natural white redheads. However, many have countered with the argument that many white actors with non-red hair dye their hair for their roles and that there are many people of color actors with natural red hair as well. Claims have even stretched to encompass arguments that the sun doesn’t reach below the water much; therefore, there would be no need for melanin in the mermaids. “The Little Mermaid” would be the fifth Disney Princess remake.

The remakes that have already been released are “Maleficent” (2014), “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), “Maleficent 2” (2019), “Mulan” (2020), and “The Little Mermaid” (2023). “Snow White” is scheduled to be released in 2024. Rachel Zegler, who has been cast in the upcoming “Snow White” remake, has received similar criticism for being a half-white and half-Colombian actress when “Snow White” was based on a German fairytale published by The Brothers Grimm.

In an interview clip with Variety, Zegler said, “The original cartoon came out in 1937, and very evidently so. There’s a big focus on her love story with a guy who literally stalks her. Weird, weird. So we didn’t do that this time. So we cast a guy in the movie, Andrew Burnep. Great dude. All of Andrew’s scenes could get cut, who knows? It’s Hollywood, baby.”

In another interview with Gal Gadot, who was cast as the evil stepmother, Zegler said, “I just mean it’s no longer 1937 anymore. And we absolutely wrote a Snow White–” 

“That’s not gonna be saved by the prince,” Gadot interjects.

Zegler continues, “She’s not gonna be saved by the prince. And she’s not gonna be dreaming about true love. She’s dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be and the leader her late father told her that she could be if she was fearless, fair, brave and true.”

This initially sparked discussion on TikTok on the overuse of liberal feminism. Users expressed that they were exhausted from the “girl boss” feminism that prioritizes storylines with strong female characters and themes of female empowerment. 

One Tiktok user claims, “My biggest issue with girl boss feminism is that it not only alienates women who do want to just be mothers, which is such an important role in society and do want to be wives, and do love love and pursue love, but it’s also positioning feminism as being in pursuit of what men have.

However, this feminist critique of Snow White’s purported storyline quickly transformed into attacks on Zegler’s voice, tone and appearance. Zegler has been called smug, condescending and ungrateful in response to these interview clips. 

While striking during the joint writers’ and actors’ strike, Zegler is filmed saying about residuals, “If I’m standing there 18 hours in a dress of an iconic Disney Princess, I deserve to be paid for every hour that it is streamed online.” 

That interview clip has been compared with interviews with actresses who played Ariel, Cinderella and Aurora as evidence that she is ungrateful and isn’t fit for the role. Notably, Disney hasn’t put out a statement on the internet outrage directed at Zegler yet. Actresses, actors and writers aren’t allowed to write, act or promote the films they are in, as per the terms of their union contract; therefore, it is difficult to get media and public attention for their upcoming releases. The scandal revolving around Zegler operates as the perfect vehicle to get the public talking about “Snow White” when they otherwise wouldn’t. 

Nevertheless, all of the criticisms these two actresses have faced have a common theme. The news of their casting sparked discussion on how the Disney princess remakes are unoriginal. And so, Disney has found itself in a double bind: If the storyline of the original cartoon is changed too much, it is defacing and disrespecting the original beloved cartoon. If the storyline is not changed enough, Disney is being lazy and unoriginal. 

Disney’s audience is becoming increasingly unhappy with the company. CNN reports that Disney’s amusement parks are raising ticket prices and there have been complaints about long lines for their amusement parks. According to Variety, Disney+ is raising prices for the streaming service. In a piece by the Atlantic, there is upset over the direction and storyline of the recent Star Wars trilogy and their acquisition of the superhero franchise, Marvel. Anger towards Disney has all been focused on these actresses, with them bearing the brunt of unoriginality complaints, not the studio, screenwriters, producers or directors. 

This is reminiscent of the “glass cliff” phenomenon, coined by psychology professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam. They explain that in failing companies, there is a pattern of female CEOs being appointed and expected to patch up the drowning ship, with them being kicked out if they fail to do so. In this way, female leadership, then, conveniently becomes the reason that these institutions crumble, not the fact that they were going to crumble regardless.

Disney’s push to diversify its franchises relies on people of color actresses to revive interest in its intellectual property. Except, these actresses receive an unbearable amount of hate, an unbearable amount of backlash and an unbearable amount of racism, all for trying to do the herculean task of saving a beloved franchise a studio is too lazy to invent new characters and stories for.

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