The Little Mermaid: Representation or Tokenism?

Colin Llyod

Mermaid swimming (image is free use via

The upcoming live-action The Little Mermaid film- in theaters May 26, 2023- starring Halle Bailey, has brought up debates about positive representation and tokenism in Hollywood. The original The Little Mermaid film was released in 1989. With the announcement of the live-action film, Disney fans were so excited, but upon hearing that Ariel would be played by a Black woman, the reviews were ambiguous and left people questioning Hollywood’s true intentions.
While casting a Black woman in a traditionally white role may seem like representation, Black audiences are concerned that this is really a bigger issue: tokenism. Tokenism can be defined as when a group of people is used as a “token” to give the appearance of representation, diversity or inclusion, when it is actually a minimal effort of inclusion, diversity and representation. So, is Halle Bailey being used as a “token” Black girl in the upcoming Disney film?
Gabby Stallings, a junior at Groves High School and a member of the African Americans Changing Tomorrow (AACT) club, gave me new insight into the negative perspective that many Black audiences have.
“…Me personally, I’m still all for it and I’m pro-Black mermaid, you know? But I started to understand the whole tokenism thing behind Hollywood and how sometimes they make it seem like it’s representation by putting the minority into a role or on screen, and really it’s not… So I guess I can see the other side, and people were saying how [Hollywood] should start making more movies with Black characters, but not remakes” Stalings said.
I also spoke with Norman Hurns, Groves High school counselor and the sponsor of the African Americans Changing Tomorrow Club (AACT). “…it seems as though something should be done more to specifically honor that particular group, based on their contribution to American society. I think they deserve more than a remake, you know? They need a make. Not a remake,” Hurns said.
After speaking with both Hurns and Stallings, I was given a new perspective. What I previously saw as a great step towards more representation and inclusivity, I now see as Hollywood’s futile attempts at diversity on screen.
In the end, whether it truly is representation or tokenism, it certainly is great for little Black girls to have another Disney princess to look up to and to show them that they, too, are beautiful princesses.