On Tuesday November, 5 – ABC aired its semi-live performance of Disney’s The Little Mermaid to high ratings and much fanfare. The cast was an exciting mix of stars that included a lot of diversity from Queen Latifa performing a show stopping Ursula to John “Uncle Jesse” Stamos as the Chef Luis he was apparently born to be.
The lead role of Ariel was played by Princess Moana herself, the sweet-faced and talented, Auli’i Cravalho. Cravalho is Hawaiian born with Native Hawaiian heritage. She is a young woman who, much like the animated character who first made her famous, has thick long brown hair, brown eyes and a sugary brown complexion.
When the production began, and on screen the animated Ariel swam along all pink and pale with blue eyes and bright red hair, it was thrilling to see a production have the intelligence to recognize that Ariel is a character and where once she was portrayed with white skin and blue eyes, she can also be portrayed with brown skin and brown eyes and it makes no difference. What is important about Ariel is that she’s into legs, forks and questionable contractual agreements. What is not important is her race. In fact, it’s a lot more interesting to see different faces and different takes on an iconic character.
Alas, what could have been a great thing became alarmingly insensitive the moment Ariel swam on to the stage with makeup and lighting which washed her out completely to look much lighter skinned.
“Whitewashing” is a term used in film to refer to casting white actors to play roles that were meant for a person of color. Variations of “whitewashing” include changing characters and stories to fit a more traditionally white narrative, and in this case lightening the skin and changing other features of a person of color to make them seem “more white” to fit a role.
In light of Disney’s recent decision to cast a brilliantly talented black woman in the role of Ariel in the upcoming live remake, I’m surprised that ABC was not more careful in ensuring that Cravalho’s image was not inappropriately altered in a way that might be damaging to their parent company’s vision of inclusion.
To the small credit of ABC, as the production continued the lighting was warmed and the issue seemed to be mostly resolved. However, perhaps more damning than the production itself is the marketing differences between Cravalho when she voiced Moana and when she played Ariel.
The above image of Cravalho is from ABC news in a piece promoting the film Moana.
It is especially concerning that ABC seems to be presenting the notion that “Moana is brown” and “Ariel is white” when in winter of this year they seemed very concerned that a cartoonist for Nissin (a Japanese noodle company) had “whitewashed” tennis star, Naomi Osaka. Additionally, in 2017, ABC News ran a story on the controversy surrounding Matt Damon’s casting in The Great Wall and the allegations there of whitewashing. So it is clear that ABC is aware that it is culturally inappropriate to make someone look “more white” even if unintentional.
Incidents like these do nothing to instill confidence that ABC has a set of ethical, journalistic, or production standards that would be high enough to prevent them from running a story on Jeffrey Eptsein, who did not kill himself, and his pedophiliac friends when (according to an ABC reporter) a victim herself produced evidence including photographs. If they can’t even make sure a beautiful polynesian woman stays beautiful and polynesian while performing on their stage, how could their standards be too high for a story on Epstein?