Disney has found itself at the centre of debates about diversity in recent weeks. Following the announcement that Halle Bailey has been cast as Ariel in the new live-action remake of the 1989 film, conversations have been taking place online as to whether this decision is a breakthrough for diversity, or is symptomatic of tokenism. The decision has also sparked a backlash from people who believe the new Ariel should look like the original, with white skin and red hair, who have vented their frustrations using the hashtag #NotMyAriel.
DIVERSITY IN HOLLYWOOD
Though these debates centre around a fictional mermaid, they point to much bigger and more important issues around representation on screen and the lack of diversity in the film industry. The marginalisation of diverse voices in Hollywood and the circulation of racist stereotypes in US cinema has a long history. Disney’s own past is littered with films that reproduced damaging racist stereotypes, such as the caricatures of Native Americans and African-Americans in films such as Peter Pan and Dumbo. The lack of diversity in Hollywood has attracted widespread criticism, particularly in recent years. In 2015, activist April Reign started the widespread hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, in response to an all-white slate of acting nominees. When another all-white list was revealed the following year, many prominent members of the film community decided to boycott the awards ceremony, including Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Spike Lee.
The incredible success of films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians demonstrate how audiences are hungry for stories that are more representative of the diverse world we live in. A recent report published by UCLA found that films with casts that were 31-40% from minority backgrounds enjoyed the highest global box office receipts, whilst films that were racially and ethnically homogenous were the poorest performers. However, studies show that Hollywood still has a long way to go before it is reflective of its audiences, and people of colour remain severely underrepresented not only on screen, but also behind the camera. A report by USC Annenberg spoke of an ‘epidemic of invisibility’, particularly of women of colour and described the industry as a ‘straight, white boy’s club’.
In this context, feeble attempts by producers and production companies to cast more diversely have been criticised as ‘tokenism’. Tokenism has been defined as ‘the fleeting promotion of a few marginalised voices, at the same time that deep structural problems persist and in many cases, are glossed over. Tokenism disguises a disconcerting truth: despite the limited inclusion of a few people, the same kind of leaders control the reins of power’. Critics therefore suggest that Disney has cast a black actress as Ariel in order to position itself as progressive and appeal to and profit from black audiences, rather than because of a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion in the film industry.
DIVERSITY AT DISNEY - HOW DOES IT FARE UP?
So how fair are these criticisms? And is Disney’s Ariel symptomatic of tokenism, or are they genuinely committed to diversity and inclusion? Disney has been making the effort to become more diverse and inclusive, both in the stories it produces and the workforce that creates them. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has praised Disney for ‘killing it’ in terms of their commitment to inclusion, stating ‘they don’t even have a conversation about a movie unless they’re talking about how it should reflect the world’. Chairman of Disney Studios, Alan Horn has been clear about their commitment to diversity and inclusion, stating ‘across all our studios, we strive to tell inclusive stories - both in front of and also behind the camera. It’s one of the most important issues facing our industry, and we continue to seek out and work with filmmakers and creatives who understand and share our commitment to making films that reflect the world around us’.
In addition to The Little Mermaid, Disney are also remaking Mulan, which was first released in 1998. Mulan is a Chinese national heroine, whose story dates back to the Northern Wei dynasty, as early as 380AD. Gong Li, one of the stars of the upcoming film stated, ‘the Disney original was trying so hard to be Chinese, but in a stereotypical way - there’s lanterns, fireworks… they even stuck a panda in there’ and much of the film was ‘either wholly American or what America imagines China to be like’. This time, it seems Disney are trying to do better. The new cast includes Liu Yifei, Jet Li and Gong Li, all big names in China, who have also made it in Western cinema. The scriptwriters studied regional 6th century source material when writing the film and some of the film was filmed in China. Weibo users praised the announcement, stating ‘China finally has its own Disney princess’ and ‘China’s Mulan is back’.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Not only is Disney working to improve representation on screen, it has also invested in a number of internal diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as an executive Diversity Council, an annual Women’s Leadership Conference, a Heroes Work Here veteran’s hiring programme and a Global Workplace and Women’s Initiative (GWWI) programme that focuses on expanding opportunities for women. It was recently recognised by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF) as the ‘Best Place to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality’, earning a perfect score of 100 on the 2019 Corporate Equality Index and was listed on Forbes’ ‘Best Employers for Women 2019’ and ‘Best Employers for Diversity 2019’ lists. Disney TV has also recently announced two programmes aimed at developing underrepresented talent, The Executive Incubator Programme and the Studios Intern Programme, due to launch later this year. The Executive Incubator Programme aims to create a pipeline of next generation network executives through a two-year rotational programme, and The Studios Intern Programme will offer career opportunities behind the camera, for people from underrepresented backgrounds. Disney TV Studios President Craig Hunegs stated ‘this new initiative is win-win-win, it helps us discover talent in underrepresented areas, gives candidates real experience as they grow their careers and leads to more diverse stories being told’.
DISNEY’S ARIEL: ‘A BOLD AND REFRESHING STATEMENT’
Of course, critics are right to suggest that the decision to cast Halle Bailey as Ariel won’t lead to the kind of structural change necessary to achieve diversity in the film industry and it is important to remain cautious of over-celebratory claims about increasing diversity in Hollywood. However, in the case of Disney, it seems that they are also doing the necessary work internally and are genuinely committed to improving their record on diversity and inclusion, both on and off screen. As one of the biggest and most influential entertainment companies in the world, this is important and should be encouraged. As journalist Aramide Tinubu argues, ‘Disney casting Bailey comes at a time when Hollywood is attempting to move forward in fits and starts at best, while the country as a whole - with it’s conservative government and overwhelming laws that continue to disenfranchise black and brown bodies - seems to be sliding back into a more repressive era. Bailey earning the role is a bold and refreshing statement that will hopefully set a precedent for the entertainment industry as a whole as we press forward into the 21st century’.