‘The Little Mermaid’ Criticized By Prominent Diversity Advocate For Its “Dangerous” Erasure Of Slavery

The Little Mermaid has been criticized by a prominent media diversity advocate for failing to acknowledge the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean.

Marcus Ryder, an influential British campaigner who also chairs the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, celebrated the casting of Halle Bailey but took issue with the film’s glossy depiction of racial harmony.

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After watching the Disney remake with his six-year-old son, Ryder felt compelled to write a blog about the movie, which he said missed an opportunity to gently educate children.

Ryder said The Little Mermaid appears to be set in the 18th century at a time of African chattel slavery, but the fictional Caribbean islanders close to Atlantica live in a world free from human rights atrocities.

“I do not think we do our children any favours by pretending that slavery didn’t exist,” he wrote in the blog, titled ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Caribbean Slavery, and Telling the Truth to Children.’

“Setting the fantastical story in this time and place is literally the equivalent of setting a love story between Jew and Gentile in 1940 Germany and ignoring the Jewish holocaust.”

Ryder acknowledged that The Little Mermaid is fantasy and the story does not need to be assiduously faithful to history, but he argued that children are not well served by overlooking the past.

He said that Disney could have set the film in Haiti after it had overthrown the shackles of slavery, with Ariel meeting her prince against the backdrop of burgeoning racial harmony.

“We owe it to our children to give them the most amazing fantastical stories possible to help their imaginations grow,” he said. “We do not do this by ‘whitewashing’ out the difficult parts of our history. We do it by embracing our rich history and empowering them with the truth.”

Ryder posted about the blog on Twitter, but received blowback from users on the social network, who said The Little Mermaid should be treated as nothing more than a fairytale. He later deleted the viral tweet because it had been “widely misunderstood.”

In a Twitter thread clarifying his comments, Ryder said he enjoyed the film, which he praised for its portrayal of Black beauty and its on-screen diversity. He raised questions, however, about diversity behind the camera. Rob Marshall and David Magee directed and wrote The Little Mermaid respectively.

“The sad reality is this great film left me concerned that Disney did not take seriously this very sensitive time and place which due to the atrocities that happened there should be treated very carefully – especially for impressionable children,” he wrote.

In a statement to Deadline, Ryder said: “The whole affair points to how important representation is. And even though it was no fun to be the target of the Twitter onslaught, the positive I hope it demonstrates to film studios is that if you increase diversity you can get a loyal and committed audience that will defend your film vociferously from even the slightest perceived criticism, that is the type of audience engagement money simply cannot buy. Even if in this case I think the perceived criticism was misunderstood.”

Disney has been contacted for comment.

Ryder is Head of External Consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity. He has previously worked at the BBC and chaired the Royal Television Society’s Diversity Committee.

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