What Disney Teaches Us About Growing as Allies
The news broke yesterday that Halle Bailey, from the singing and acting duo Chloe x Halle, had been cast as Ariel for the upcoming live-action version of Disney's The Little Mermaid. Aside from the fact that I am generally excited to give the Mouse a blank check for any amount they want to write on it in exchange for their endless content, my joy went into overdrive with the prospect of seeing a mermaid with locs popping out of the water to the tune of "Part of this World".
The Little Mermaid is one of Disney's iconic "princess" movies, kicking off a renaissance period that would define the way animation was done, stories were told, and characters were written. That consistency would define mine and other's childhoods throughout the late 80s and 90s and encouraged us to believe in magic, fairy tales, and happily-ever-afters.
That consistency cuts like a double edged sword though, as it also reinforced very narrow definitions of womanhood, true beauty, and love. And that definition didn't leave a lot of room for locs or color. And even with the development of movies like Pocahontas, Mulan, and Aladdin, these films did little to break the mold of the archetypal fairytale princess as decidedly eurocentric in features and culture.
Which is why Halle as a choice for Ariel is particularly poignant. Over a ten-year-period of Disney's animated renaissance, the studio played a significant role in perpetuating stereotypes about women that children learned, believed, and reinforce today as adults. And yet, 20 years later, the studio can grow enough to reimagine a classic archetype they helped establish and cast someone that redefines and breaks their mold.
Disney is by no means perfect, and can always do more to increase representation. However, the journey of representation in their studio's films in the 21st century highlights an important lesson that can be applied to allyship —
Being an ally isn't about being perfect; it's about being better every day. The tricky thing about perfection is that it leaves no room for learning. That is a dangerous mindset for an ally. Imagine if Disney stuck with the "perfect" formula and remained unresponsive to the changing world around them? Yep, that's right. No Moana. And very likely no Frozen because (❗⁉SPOILER❗⁉) there were no damsels in distress, and true love was found between sisters 👭 and not Prince Charming 🤴🏿.
I will applaud the efforts someone takes to be an ally if those efforts are rooted in self-improvement and growth rather than in a need to be affirmed or recognized for trying to be one. Because when the ally who is focused on self-improvement falters — which they will — I know they will not abandon their beliefs or principles that sparked the pursuit for growth in the first place. They will not abandon supporting inclusion because it's hard. They won't become defensive out of guilt.
The importance of representation in all facets of culture and society has been written about and researched extensively. For Disney and other studios like them, thinking critically about whom they pursue to cast in movies and whether race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, or ability are a necessary part of that character's story and identity is one act of allyship that can change the industry and the generations that will grow up reinforcing and believing what they grew up with in their youth.
So be like Disney. Ask yourself: what is one action I can take in my daily routine to actively show up on behalf of someone else so that they feel more included and not excluded for being different? Once you hone in on that action, make a conscious decision to get better at it than you were the day before. And then, fail gracefully and learn from it. Because an ally that thinks they are perfect is no ally at all.