by Kim Wimmer
The Lure of the Siren Song
When I was a wee lass I’d spend countless hours wishing I were a mermaid. I would pretend I had an iridescent scaled tail and challenge myself to keep my legs together as I swam, whether I was in a pool or in the warm gulf waters of my South Alabama childhood home. People called me “fish” because I stayed under water for so long. When I wasn’t swimming, I built mermaid habitats in the yard with buried Tupperware bowl lagoons, “tropical” plants, and sandy beaches where my little sister’s Sea Wees mermaid dolls could frolic. I was a college freshman in 1989 when Disney released their animated classic, The Little Mermaid, saving the studio and capturing the imaginations of mermaid-crazed little girls everywhere.
Mermaid fascination is an age-old phenomenon, and not reserved merely for those who grew up within tail-flipping distance of a beach. Even landlocked little ones the world over are enchanted by the idea of being a mermaid. I suppose that intrigue never truly goes away. Ask any sailor throughout recorded history.
As the feisty, fun, curious daughter of King Triton, Disney’s Ariel, with her fiery red hair, bright blue eyes, and beguiling voice stole the hearts of generations of fans. I adored her, so it was a dream come true for me to book my first post-college professional theatre job playing Ariel in Disney’s Little Mermaid show in Florida. I then went on to play her in Japan as well, where I got to “swim” thanks to some crafty wires and a torture harness under that sparkly tail. Suffice it to say, I have a deep attachment to this character and feel some degree of “ownership” having lived with her so intimately, for so long (and having sung “Part of Your World” over 15,000 times).
Making Waves—A Casting Controversy
So perhaps it was because of the strong identity I felt with the character, along with the animated Ariel’s iconic status that I had a “wait… what?” moment when Disney announced the casting of Halle Bailey as the plucky heroine in the upcoming live-action remake of its 1989 classic. How could she not look like the Ariel we all know and love?!
And that reaction lasted for about 5 seconds. 5 seconds of digging my nails into a long-held idea of something as it “should be” because that’s how it’s always been. 5 seconds that would have been filled with similar frustration had they cast a flaxen or raven-haired actress with brown eyes and a pointy nose or someone who was too tall or someone who, in any way, was not a reflection of the Ariel of the 30-year-old film.
But then I looked at this ebullient, bright-eyed, African American young woman they’ve cast and was immediately enchanted. I’ve yet to see her act or hear her sing but her essence, in other words, her type or quality (all words casting directors use to describe how an actor is perceived as a character type) exudes 100% Ariel. I’ve no doubt she’ll be perfect. And I immediately got excited for little black girls everywhere who now get to have an Ariel who looks like them.
I immediately got excited for little black girls everywhere who now get to have an Ariel who looks like them.
An Acting Teacher’s Perspective
I have been teaching acting at a performing arts college for nine years now and I was delighted to see former students (of varied races) excitedly sending me messages and posting the news on social media. Sadly, before the day was over these same students found themselves in the position of having to defend the casting of a black actress in the role. My infuriated tribe of young actors were railing against racists and clapping back in their re-posts of appalling comments and Facebook groups like “make Ariel white again.” There was an actual movement to “scientifically” prove that a mermaid (read mythical creature) would be Caucasian.
This was disappointing but I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. The internet allows for a certain degree of distance from our actions, if not complete anonymity and things can go south pretty quickly. Sometimes there’s a misinterpretation of intent and sometimes people can be downright mean. Our divisive political environment seems to encourage folks to double down on their prejudices and fosters a corrosive us vs. them mentality across the board. This is a nasty business that I will not attempt to unpack here. Instead, I am using this controversy as an opportunity to examine my own somewhat outdated perspectives on casting and to consider how this controversy can inform the way I teach going forward.
I am using this controversy as an opportunity to examine my own somewhat outdated perspectives on casting and to consider how this controversy can inform the way I teach going forward.
In our advanced acting classes, we discuss marketing and casting. We talk about the importance of knowing your essence (how people perceive you when you walk into a room without necessarily even knowing you) and how embracing it can help you understand the most effective way to put yourself out there and book more jobs. This is what I had been taught and it’s always been useful information. I’m sure it will continue to be. However, while qualities (jovial, intimidating, sexy, air-headed, pushy, effervescent) will always be a major aspect of casting, I think race and often gender aren’t such limiting factors anymore—or at least they don’t have to be.
Unless a character is culture-specific (e.g. Mulan, Aladdin, Moana—or Black Panther, Atticus Finch, Elizabeth Bennett) and color-blind casting would fundamentally change the story itself, casting need not be determined by race or in many cases, gender. Even in some of the examples above, non-traditional casting can illuminate the stories in new and profound ways. I was taught the importance of marketing oneself within a very limiting range based on how casting traditionally works. This advice is helpful because in a sea of actors, knowing your type and what you’re “right for” helps you target submissions and distinguish yourself–making it easier for casting directors to find and book you.
What’s That Word Again? Transcendence
While I’ve always bent those rules when I was the one doing the casting, I’ve tried to prepare students to approach the profession by marketing themselves based on the way the business typically works. Halle Bailey’s triumph is exciting, but the casting world will not change wholesale overnight. I think I must continue to educate actors about traditional casting dynamics. But I will also encourage them to push their boundaries and transcend limitations.
I believe that the journey starts with owning who we are. There are certain things that each of us brings to the party and it’s important for us to know and embrace what they are. For example, an L.A. casting director once described my essence as the “vulnerable girl-next-door with a secret.” I quickly got the idea that if that was what I carried into the room with me, I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors by doggedly pursuing, say “brassy, in-your-face, magazine editor” types of roles. Not impossible, but not an essence-match either. Now, if they wanted a heroine haunted by a difficult past while everyone thought she had a picture-perfect life–I was there for it.
Knowing our strengths and leading with them (as opposed to constantly struggling to become something different) will always be a powerful path to success. Self-knowledge and acceptance help us confidently embrace opportunities. There will always be people who say no. But living our yes makes us undeniable.
Self-knowledge and acceptance help us confidently embrace opportunities. There will always be people who say no. But living our yes makes us undeniable.
Thanks again, Ariel, you rebellious, lovable dreamer for reminding me that there’s room for all of us mermaids-at-heart to be “part of your world.”
 Photo Credit: Lara Akal from https://insidethemagic.net/2019/07/little-mermaid-fan-art-ba1/