Disney, The Little Mermaid, and the Politics of “Woke” in a Polarized World
Social Media is awash with examples on top of examples of backlash to “wokeness” in the media from messaging to casting choices of famous characters in remakes. But, what does this say about how easily consumers are manipulated in an age where engagement is the new gold.
The Little Mermaid is a story by Hans Christen Anderson about a love-lorn mermaid who gives up her life under the sea to be with a human prince who never comes to love her. She is transformed to seafoam and sentenced to 300 years of good deeds to earn her soul and go to heaven.
This is, of course, a far cry from the Disney classic, “The Little Mermaid”, about a mermaid who wishes to live on land, falls in love with a prince, is “debatably” swindled in a deal with a sea witch, but perseveres and overcomes the trials and tribulations to get all that she wanted
Now there is a remake of the Disney version and there’s a mountain of controversy. Not because of some plot addition or subtraction, but because of the race of the actress, Halle Bailey, who is Black.
The nature of online discussions about race is one that can only really be described as toxic at best. In some very vocal circles online, there is a mindset that anything not made explicitly for White Males as a target demographic is prima facie “political” or “woke” in modern parlance.
The Etymology of “woke”
“Woke” as it has become used commonly is a bit of a jump from its origins. The most straightforward translation of this term, which is mostly employed in AAE, is “aware” of situations that had an impact on Black people. A spiritual awareness of the world and the machinations that surround Black people, with roots dating back to the 1930s. It existed as a term to remind Black people to remain vigilant about the systems that affected them and shaped the world
Being “woke” meant, in some manner, being aware of the “justifiable paranoia” of Blackness, despite decades of systematic lulling into a political, philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual sleep that was a major objective of the American project
Since “woke” was always more of a Black-oriented notion, similar to “Hotep” and “Ashe” something that was mostly utilized around Black people, the change to it becoming a catchall for liberal to leftist tones in the media is puzzling, to say the least.
“Based” vs. “Woke” dichotomy
A similar evolution occurred with the term “based” which is often used as an antonym to “woke”. “Based” under its early slang definition used to refer to the act of “freebasing” cocaine and then being addicted to “freebase” or “base” being a “Basehead” and then “Based”
The term Based found its second life under the usage of Lil B the BasedGod. Lil B’s usage of “Based” was clarified to mean being yourself and comfortable in ones skin. A message of positivity reclaimed for the origins of the derisive term.
But Lil B, was memetic in the early 2010s for his unique performing style. He was discovered by various users of 4chan and his term based was appropriated to just mean cool.
4chan however has a problematic view of what is cool and before long cool just meant right wing. So “based” became a rightwing term. Not exclusively used by rightwingers, but commonly used by them. The term now is used primarily by right wingers referring to partisan’s being sufficiently right wing in the eyes of the various online right wing movement.
The term “woke” has been removed from its cultural context, assimilated into a broader memetic culture, stripped of its original connotations, and spammed into oblivion by would-be detractors of any and all material that fits the required criteria. Such things as
- Not featuring a white male main protagonist
- Featuring a white female protagonist
- Featuring a Black protagonist of any kind
- Feature a queer character of any kind
- Featuring any non-white character that is in anyway more capable than a White Male character
- Including non-white characters in fantasy worlds
- Including discussions on race
- Including female characters that display any characteristics other than subservient and docile to their counterparts
This list is not exhaustive, but it will still suffice to illustrate the fact that the term “woke” is now predominantly used as a pejorative to vilify content that deviates from the traditional mainstream. It will always be “woke” to have certain characters, races, or genders that exist out of the prescriptive norm.
Put simply, “based” means good and “woke” means bad. And neither of them mean what they meant in the culture they originated in.
The current society, moment in history, world as we know it can be argued to not exist in the ways that are commonly understood to be “real”. To cite the French Postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the world exists as he posited in a state of “hyperreality”.
What we think of as the real world has been abandoned in place of simulations of what the real world should be. ” Should” carrying a lot of the weight as because there are simulations and simulacra of “things” but those things may be more of less real that the simulations of them.
Representation of a people is said to have a tangible effect even though the material conditions of the marginalized classes has not been improved. They will continue to be immiserated but simultaneously told their systemic oppressions aren’t real either anymore or ever.
That is to say, for all the Women Billionaires sexism and patriarchy still exist and may even be propagated by the women of this class.
Black Billionaires, such as Jay Z and Diddy, can and do exist but often they play little role in helping their communities, instead selling the snake oil of striver and hustle culture whilst appropriating Black radicals.
LGBTQ billionaires, such as Peter Thiel support politicians who punish other queer people who aren’t as financially lucky.
Class politics shows that anyone, though they may be marginalized by their race, gender, or sexual orientation they’re still a part of the class that dominates the world. And if they’re of that class they will be loyal to that class over any identity.
All of these are symptoms of the ways that capital consumes everything, removing the fangs of radicalism, making the unpalatable marketable. Making revolution less of an idea and more of a commodity.
It is easy to believe capitalism has won. It has managed to consume what we understand the world the world to be. Capitalist propaganda has become so entrenched in western culture that the basis tenets of capitalism have become dogma. As Mark Fisher once wrote, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Disney is a megacorporation. Its morality is not linked to social justice, its morality is linked to profit. To wit, if a company, a publicly traded company at that, isn’t making money, regardless of its supposed morals, it will be forced to bend to the will of the market. If the market were to go back to favoring racist caricatures and blackface, there would be an outcry but the products would be made as long investors were happy.
This is not to indict a singular corporation, this is to analyze the system of production as it currently exists, because as it currently exists the value of “optics” fluctuates. Disney for all its supposed “wokeness” is still driven by the will of the investors. Marvel, one of Disney’s biggest cash-cows is currently producing a movie with a hero, Sabra, named after a massacre, and is currently helmed by an open and avid Trump supporting chairman in Isaac Perlmutter.
Other brands in other industry don’t escape this analysis either. Whether it’s Nike supporting Colin Kapaernick and the fight for civil rights, while profiting off of child labor, or Nestle and child labor, or any tech company and child labor. The ideological goal of the company is what makes money.
What is the point of “The Little Mermaid” (2023)?
“The Little Mermaid”, the 1989 version has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 93%. It has an IMDb rating of 7.6 at the time of this article. It won 2 Academy Awards and 3 Golden Globes. As an artistic piece it was as successful as it could be in its time. So why is there a remake?
“The Little Mermaid” the 1989 version is a product being recycled for a new general audience. The remake is coming not in spite of the original’s success but because of the original’s success.
There is a market for the Disney remakes and “The Little Mermaid” is the next film on the slab as it were. There isn’t some great flaw in the original that will be addressed. If anything, the record of the remakes shows it will add flaws rather than correct them.
“The Little Mermaid” is an artistic work, but it is also just another product, made by a company that at the time of creation of the “original” Little Mermaid, explicitly stated that it had no great yearning to make great artistic works, only profits. The art and import of their work was only a trifling concern, a bit of lucky happenstance or in the words of at the time CEO Michael Eisner,
“We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement … In order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three.”
Art, as it exists is a nebulous and debatable term. Depending on who you ask or what you’re referring to anything can both be and not be art. So what is the value of it? To Disney, the value exists not in the labor, not in the product even, but in the reaction and reception to the product. Baudrillard refers to this as sign value, that is the value tied to the prestige of something. Something being a Disney product, received by the throngs of Disney fans, critics, and any other pertinent demographic allows for the work to be assigned a greater value than by other studios and corporations.
As Eisner says, they’ve no obligation to make art. That’s not the end goal for the company and that hasn’t change since his reign. Disney has, as a conglomerate, gotten bigger and bigger with more intellectual properties than they could ever hope to use in a decade. So much is gated behind their ownership to be cycled in and out at the whims of the owners.
Making art is a side effect of the company’s core mission. Winning awards, gaining acclaim, these are immaterial concepts unless they drive up the value of the Disney brand. If they could get away with doing less with more they would, as seen in the current saturation of their Marvel and Star Wars TV shows and movies.
That sign value is the driving motivation for the remake. The original’s value, its story, its whole existence, is not being measured against anything to frame it as “bad” or even “outdated”.
The remakes that Disney has made for the most part have trivial plot additions such as “The Lion King” making Shenzi a more pronounced Hyena leader, but still subservient Scar.
The remakes are also fond of unnecessary plot clarifications, as seen in the live action “Beauty and the Beast” where due to decades of bad faith readings of Belle as a victim of Stockholm syndrome, the romance of the film is supplanted by overt displays of Belle fighting back and not getting along with the beast. These changes only serve to distort the tone or nature of the characters, while leaving the plots almost wholly the same.
What exactly is the goal of the remakes, then, if it isn’t to improve the film’s quality or fix a flaw? What purpose do they serve?
Disney is both attacked and defended by people who may or may not have been fans of the “original” work. The ideological backing is still the same Whether or not they were fans, their outrage is generated not based on the cinematic quality, but some supposed realism about fantastic creatures.
Those attacking Disney for their supposed “wokeness” are ahistorical, because many of the IPs Disney owns have been accused of “wokeness” in their times. Belle, Ariel, Mulan, and Jasmine all existed in response to the old princesses in Disney’s canon. There is no prelapsarian point of Disney because no one is arguing for a return to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
Those defending Disney are culpable as well though because Disney’s manner of addressing previous flaws is to smooth over their past with regards to racism.
Gender is fine to address for Disney, many of the princesses have been shifted to be more assertive in their stories, more active protagonists, but as seen in Dumbo’s remake, Disney goes very much out of its way to sidestep it’s racist history. Disney has no problem with erasing its history. And defenders likely to bring it up.
So between the two sides of the discourse based on a rage at a change, there is the core and the crux of the entire thing. Pandering an underserved demographic as cynically as possible and then reaping the engagement from the backlash. This outrage is in turn utilized as a way for the company to signal they’re not on the side of those detractors.
Detractors then become lumped together as the disparate groups of critics, Anti-Fans, and of course outright bigots. All thrown together in a hodgepodge of antipathy, from which Disney can then use both in marketing the products and the brand itself. Taking a stand, in defense of their brand, without having to run the risk of alienating paying customers.
It costs Disney nothing to not appeal to said outrage merchants. Triggering their outage yields positive coverage and general attention. It also allow them to branch into new demographics and fresh consumers. Per Chartered Institute of Marketing,” … Futerra revealing surveys that suggested 88% of those polled are disappointed if their brands are not helping them be ethical.”
Under the current marketing climate, engagement itself is valuable. The trailer for “The Little Mermaid” was met with over 1 million dislikes. With a large portion being complaints of “wokeness”. What is to note here is the critique is not about the subject being broached in the movie, not about the quality of the film, the visual effects, the sound production, the quality of the actress. It is strictly about a perceived slight in the casting of Ariel.
Under auspicious of being “fans” right wing provocateurs, racists, grifters, and all of their compatriots have a similar pattern of preserving the original, but not on the basis of the story. Disney for instance is quite hesitant to address historical oppressions, like for instance racism is something that almost universally gets ignored in their works.
So the argument is not an indictment of Disney for politicizing a story, the politics of “The Little Mermaid” from bodily autonomy to monarchism to queering of villains, none of that is discussed. Politics, in this case, is for recasting a character who never existed and for whom race isn’t a substantive aspect of the character. It’s a criticism of certain colors of skin existing.
The rub in this case is that “fans” who are outraged want a race “neutral” world where only white people are allowed to exist unquestioningly. It’s white supremacy in the face of a liberal capitalism that doesn’t seek to challenge it but to ignore its arguments in place of its money. Disney is no friend to the underprivileged, but if the underprivileged are where the money is, then that is where Disney will cater.
Get woke, go broke?
This concept of medias and companies “becoming woke” and then “going broke” is a frequent one in the current climate of culture warfare. It’s a terrific slogan in terms of its inherent memetic potential, but it neither accurately captures the actual reality nor seems to be losing favor in light of the repeated failures of “woke” to “go broke.”
Examples of this can be seen with Captain Marvel, but this extends back to Ghostbusters 2016 and even into Shera and video games. Despite some conservatives’ claims, there’s very little evidence of getting woke leading to broke-ness. For all the complaints about Disney’s supposedly “woke” agenda, they’re currently, due to some “creative” accounting ahead of Netflix in total streaming subscriptions, not to mention their purchases of other media companies.
The fact that Disney’s financial portfolio is expanding due to its dominant position is hardly a compliment to the business. Just to be clear, Disney would be the best-known firm to “go broke” as a result of “becoming woke,” though they’re currently in a better situation than they’ve yet been. This comes after a year in which their stock price fell by 50%, only for them to later shatter a record from advertising commitments to the tune of $9 billion, according to Fool.com. And according to Disney’s own statistics, revenue growth for the quarter and nine months grew 26% and 28%, respectively
Conservatives versus the current mainstream
Conservatives in the west, especially American conservatives, are very passionate about the various cultural war focal points. From the “War on Christmas” to Drag Queen Storytime, Conservatives seem to be in a constant state of grievance.
The current state of media is filled with examples of conservative ideology, from film to tv to books to video games, conservatives are not wanting for choice. But, that hasn’t dampened their complaints about “woke” media.
From Star Wars to Avengers, the grievance culture hasn’t been wanting for talking points. Shaped by a zero-sum ideology any small caveat made for minorities is treated as a direct insult and erasure of white people.
Consumption as Politics
There is an idea that supporting a media or not supporting it is a form protest is quite the bewildering development in a political landscape that is drifting ambiently towards the collapse of systems millions depend on. In a way it seems silly to bemoan the love or hate people feel for media properties for the fact that those media properties only exist to be consumed. The idea of media consumption as a form of politics is a growing trend across the political spectrum and it is a clear example of the consumptive-politics of the present era.
Whether Ariel is Black or white doesn’t fix the systems of oppression that keep Black children in cycles of poverty. It’s a placebo of cultural acceptance where Black children are disproportionally targeted for systemic abuse being allowed to feel a more visceral and visible connection with a Disney Princess.
Whether Disney has a Gay, Trans, or Straight character, the material conditions of sexual minorities across the world are still unfortunate to say the least. Even in supposedly advanced nation there are legislatures currently unsure of the legal existence and humanity of those they don’t approve of.
The life of a marginalized person is not dependent on consuming the right movies, supporting the right brand, or listening to the right people’s opinions on the way a property should be made.
It makes writing about it maddening. How does one argue about the scientific logistics of a human-fish hybrid and not feel the slightest bit out of touch?
The Realism of a Human-Fish
One area worth little attention is the supposed realism of the character of Ariel, who once again, is a mermaid, a fictional sea creature.
Many right wing commentators alledge that Ariel, the mermaid, can’t be darker skinned because it’s not scientifically possible. The merits of this argument are almost universally moot because authorial intent is not being used for any other reason than to limit options for casting, not because it would make the movie better, but because they don’t like the color of the character.
A common counter argument for this and other racially diverse casting choices is a theoretical white actor playing Black panther, or as the Daily Wire has rumored, a Malcolm X biopic starring a white actor.
Aside from erasing the history of white washing in film and equivocating some race bent characters with the legacy of white supremacy in media, it’s a self defeating premise.
Two things aren’t equal just because of you want them to be. Removing issue from their context and then attack a perceived imbalance only serves to favor the side that has historically been privileged.
Black Panther is the canonically Black, as in it is an inherent part of the character. A white man playing Black Panther would be White Wolf. A white man playing Malcolm X isn’t just inaccurate because Malcolm X actually existed, the story in and of itself wouldn’t work. This is not even addressing the purpose is just to cynically upset a demographic, not to make a work of art.
Walsh, to his credit, has said his point was just a joke, but that’s a classic defense. A quick “go to” whenever there is push back on a “joke”. Schrödinger’s humor, “it’s both my real opinion and joke whenever and wherever suitable and thus immune to criticism”.
So much of the conservative backlash is founded on bad faith, spite and actual bigotry it seems almost naïve to address it as such. People are often asked to take seriously bad faith actors who out of one side of their mouth complain about media erasure, but at the moment they receive any pushback claim not to care until they take a victory lap the moment their claims are addressed either positively or negatively.
To be completely open and fair, it is perfectly fine and acceptable to not like the Ghostbusters remake, the Shera reboot, and the upcoming Little Mermaid. No one is entitled to your money, your time, or any of your attention. BUT, it must be stated that this cycle of outrage, it’s not just fan outcry, it is cynically manipulated by parties portraying themselves as opposing sides. The lens of ideology allows for the spectacle to propagate itself ad infinitum.
How the cycle perpetuates itself
The cycle of cynically marketing to underrepresented demographics while fostering a culture of outrage to generate more engagement or drive more sales is not wholly without precedent. Hedging your bets by banking on nostalgic consumers but also using any outrage to also justify the creation of the product. This cycle of cynical marketing has been growing since 2016.
Outrage marketing has always existed in one form or another, but with the digital age and social media being able to turn random people into massive influencers, where enough followers allow for the grifters selling outrage to present themselves as actual vocal proponents of fanbases.
Whether it’s Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, whether it’s Last of Us 2, Fire Emblem Fates or Grand Theft Auto, the way that social media is set up, the ways that companies can manufacture discontent, the ways that people will be able to monetize the outrage of consumers, all of it speaks to a cycle of media marketing that will continue ad infinitum.
Nothing can be gained from the outrage for the audience, but nothing is actually meant to be gained. Consumers are cynically targeted and pandered to, and as a result, they stand up for their preferred intellectual property against anyone who would try to alter it. Woke or Based, the ultimate goal is money, so any attention is beneficial.
- Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid, 13 Dec. 2007, http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html.
- Bayne, Bijan C. “Opinion | How ‘Woke’ Became the Least Woke Word in U.S. English.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/02/02/black-history-woke-appropriation-misuse/.
- Cim. “When Brands Go Woke, Do They Go Broke?” CIM Exchange, 13 May 2021, https://www.cim.co.uk/content-hub/editorial/when-brands-go-woke-do-they-go-broke/.
- Di Placido, Dani. “Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid’ Backlash Has Reached Insane Heights.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Sept. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2022/09/14/disneys-little-mermaid-backlash-has-reached-insane-heights/?sh=47e9c01d5592.
- Edgecliff-Johnson, Andrew. “The War on ‘Woke Capitalism’.” Financial Times, The Financial Times Ltd., 28 May 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/e4a818e5-4039-46d9-abe0-b703f33d0f9b.
- Ellis, Lindsay, director. Woke Disney. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Sept. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU1ffHa47YY&ab_channel=LindsayEllis. Accessed 11 Nov. 2022.
- Harriot, Michael. “The True Hollywood Story of ‘Woke’ Mermaids.” TheGrio, 22 Sept. 2022, https://thegrio.com/2022/09/22/the-true-hollywood-story-of-woke-mermaids/.
- Willingham, AJ. “Analysis: A Definitive Rebuttal to Every Racist ‘Little Mermaid’ Argument.” CNN, Cable News Network, 17 Sept. 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/17/entertainment/little-mermaid-racist-backlash-halle-bailey-disney-cec/index.html.
What do you think? Leave a comment.