The Walt Disney logo is known throughout the world. PHOTO COURTESY OF WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Last week, Disney released a new trailer for “The Little Mermaid” (2023), a live-action remake of the 1989 animated classic. I and many others have grown tired of Disney’s recent retellings, finding them devoid of the original films’ charm. Others disapprove of the “woke” changes made in the remakes, such as Ariel now being played by an African American actress.
The word “woke,” often used as an insult towards progressive and leftist beliefs, has done irremediable damage to media discussion. Every time a new entry in a beloved franchise is revealed to have some hint of diversity, many immediately criticize the entry as pandering to the “woke” crowd.
The bitter sentiment became strangely common in recent years, likely due to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recent projects featuring more diverse and/or female heroes. Even franchises built around fantasy species have been under attack, as seen with the backlash from the dark skinned elves in “Rings of Power.”
My first experience of seeing outrage due to a “woke” new interpretation of a classic franchise was with the 2014 “Annie” reboot. The titular Annie went from a little redheaded girl in the 1980s film to an African American girl in the newer movie, some claiming the change was disrespectful to the original film. The story of an orphan girl growing up and overcoming her problems seems like a perfect tale to apply to many demographics, making the criticisms invalid to me even when I was a young teenager.
As a white male with brown hair, I had many characters growing up that I could frame myself within due to having similar physical characteristics. In fact, in the 2010s, the aforementioned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) centered around actors like Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Pratt, all while the MCU was becoming the most popular concept in fiction.. I associate myself with characters like Captain America and Starlord, and while I watch very little Marvel content as an adult, why shouldn’t other kids get a chance to have their own heroes?
Whether show creators and writers intend to or not, having great characters for many demographics just helps more kids feel seen and represented.
Beyond relatability, sometimes representation increases awareness of specific groups for those within less diverse areas. Symbolic annihilation is a media studies term that means if viewers are not seeing diverse groups, the groups practically do not exist in the viewers’ worlds. For some consumers, seeing a homosexual couple on TV is their primary and/or only exposure to the LGBTQ+ community. While it should not be TVs’ job to educate people, fictional representation has tangible effects on people’s perceptions of groups.
Referring back to the “Annie” situation, many critics of “woke” storytelling get frustrated by media insignificant to themselves. I doubt that everyone criticizing the new “Annie” actress were diehard “Annie” franchise fans, and even if they were, the past movie still exists with little Annie as pale as ever.
Perhaps the most ridiculous instances of “woke” hatred are with media that people would really have to go out of their way to be offended by. One example is with the outrage after Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, kissed another man in a 2021 comic. Unless more people are reading comics by individual issues in the 2020s than I thought, with many readers also being anti-gay DC fans, many people were getting upset over a few comic panels that they only saw because of Facebook.
Do I think the overuse of the term “woke” means no media vapidly panders to groups only for publicity? Not at all, and Disney themselves are often a major offender of this. Disney’s “support” of marginalized groups feels unauthentic due to decisions such as removing African Americans from international movie posters and nearly removing a gay kiss from “Lightyear” to avoid damages to international ticket sales.
The mermaid princess being black is not the issue with “The Little Mermaid” (2023), as it is just another interpretation of the character. To me, the issue is the remake lacks the color, fluid movement and personality of the animated film. However, this movie is not meant for me, nor for the adults pouting on the internet; it is meant for the little African American girls who get to have a mermaid princess they can dress up as for Halloween.