The most dispiriting thing happening in movies nowadays is not the superhero-fication of cinema, or the world-swallowing exploits of Disney. Rather, the saddest trend today is the regular arrival in the public eye of the Official Casting Controversy.
It goes like this: Hollywood, bereft of new ideas, announces that it will be remaking a beloved old film, with one twist: the racial and/or gender mix of the cast will be different to the original, sparking a furious slanging match between those who hail it as a blow for equality and those who decry it as the worst example of political correctness gone mad since Obama made McDonald’s halal.
The latest example of this wearisome trend is, apparently, centred on the imminent Disney live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, which will star Halle Bailey as Ariel. Halle Bailey (NOT Berry) is African American, and as fans of the original film will know, Ariel was not. I mean, she couldn’t have been, because she was a mermaid, and neither Africa nor America is in the ocean. But also, she didn’t look African American: she was white.
Cue outrage! Fury! Spittle-flecked tweetstorms about white genocide and uncontrollable wokeness and the rape and pillage of our childhoods! And in response to that outrage, more outrage! And more fury! And savage takedowns of the racists by people who cleverly point out that objecting to a black Ariel is naked bigotry and that the trolls are nothing but Nazis and we better watch out because they are coming for us!
That’s how it goes. Right?
Well…not so much. Because it turns out that when you go online, and actually look for the outpouring of anger over the black mermaid…it’s not actually there.
Oh sure, there are a few tweets. The odd, “The Little Mermaid is DANISH” or “WHY MUST DISNEY RUIN EVERYTHING”. But when you look at these few tweets – and by “few” I mean, like, there’s literally about five of them in the whole world – you notice that a) they’re from accounts with fewer than a dozen followers; b) they’re from people whose only purpose is to deliberately piss others off; and c) they might not even be real people.
Of course, there are many more tweets, and Facebook statuses, and thinkpieces defending black Ariel against those who would denounce her. And when a thousand people rise up to defend a principle against an evil horde, you can’t help but assume there is an evil horde to defend it against. It’s only when you look for the evil horde, and find that at most, it consists of a couple of crazy guys running around in the nude screaming “COMMUNISTS WANT MY FLUIDS”, that you realise a terrible truth about pop culture controversy: they don’t happen because people are angry; they happen because people’s brands depend on making you think people are angry.
Lots of people have a vested interest in making you believe there’s a fierce battle over the skin colour of the little mermaid: anyone who gets paid to write progressive articles about the power of representation, for a start. But the biggest vested interest, obviously, is Disney itself. It’s marketing genius to not only get everyone talking about a movie that hasn’t even been made yet but simultaneously position itself as a courageous warrior for equality. The more people believe Disney is under siege from basement-dwelling fascists, the better Disney looks. And the basement-dwelling fascists won’t actually hurt the movie, because they don’t actually exist.
So, if you meet someone who’s mad that the new Ariel won’t be white, tell them they’re an idiot. But odds are, you won’t meet anyone like that. More likely you’ll meet someone who’s mad that someone else is mad. In that case, tell them to relax: it’s all just marketing as usual.