I am extremely excited about the new The Little Mermaid film. No, not only because Halle Bailey has been cast as Ariel (although I am for sure stoked about that too). But also because I’m a marine biologist and environmentalist and we are currently in the midst of intertwined climate and biodiversity crises, which are pummeling the ocean. This film, and the attention it’s getting due to Disney’s newest Black princess, is an excellent chance to include accurate environmental messaging at the very epicenter of pop culture.
Hear me out. I do not want to ruin The Little Mermaid by being a total buzzkill. In fact, I think being boring and full of nothing but bad news is one reason the environmental movement has not yet been successful. But this film has an amazing opportunity to address the threats the ocean is facing, and how much the environment has degraded since the cartoon came out in 1989.
To state it plainly, overfishing is rampant, we have bulldozed most of the world’s wetlands for coastal development, coral reefs are severely endangered due to climate change, and soon there may be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Kids these days are so aware of what’s happening to the environment. One great example is the millions of students around the world who are marching in climate strikes. Plus, there are solutions we should all be talking about and cheering for, from renewable energy and alternatives to plastic, to sustainable ocean farming and protected ocean parks.
How could some of this environmental information make its way into The Little Mermaid without ruining the story? Well, maybe when Ariel talks about “gadgets and gizmos of plenty,” there’s a nod to plastic pollution changing the types of tchotchkes she finds. Older mermaids never had plastic water bottles in their collections! Or maybe her fish sidekick Flounder remarks at missing some of his fish friends or being worried about his home, the coral reef. Possibly when the crab Sebastian sings “Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor,” he has to kick some piece of trash behind himself to hide it. Maybe the witch Ursula is evil because she’s a fossil fuel executive pushing for offshore oil drilling. Or Prince Eric could be a real hero and woo Ariel by working to solve some of the problems facing the ocean (I mean, be still my heart, right?!).
Through partnerships with ocean conservation groups, Disney can not only tell an entertaining story, but also help bring about real change for our oceans, and inspire the next generation of conservation-minded global citizens who can reimagine the future.
I was nine years old when the original Disney film came out. I had already decided to become a marine biologist, and was very much into musicals. Growing up in New York City with a mother who nurtured my passions, this meant a shell collection, trips to the beach, and swimming achievements that earned the compliment “just like a mermaid!” It also meant I had the soundtracks to most musicals on cassette tape, so I could listen on repeat and learn all the words. I certainly knew all the words to The Little Mermaid.
As a kid, I loved to sing and dance, and when I heard that Annie might be coming again to Broadway, I begged my mom to let me try out. “You have enough talent and experience to audition, sweetpea,” she told me, “but there’s no point because you won’t get the part.” ‘But what if I practice really hard?,’ I asked, then I burst into song, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow…’ She said that wouldn’t matter. ‘But what if I dye my hair red?’ Knowing that toxic hair dye would be a no-no, I pleaded for an exception for just this once, and I already had the short curly hair. “Honey, that won’t make a difference. They won’t choose you even if you’re the best.” I was stunned by this, my first run-in with the fact that the world wasn’t a meritocracy. This was the moment she sat me down and explained racism.
Now, Black kids can freely imagine themselves not only as a fantastical mermaid, but also in a world where they can be a part of saving our oceans. It wasn’t until Black Panther, with the Shuri character, chief scientist of Wakanda with impeccable fashion sense and the quickest wit, that I finally saw (and wrote about) having a film icon I could aspire to. But by that time I’d already been a Black marine biologist for a decade, an all too rare and thus often lonely career. Thanks to The Little Mermaid, a whole new generation of Black marine biologists could come to be.
This brings us back to Halle Bailey. As a scientist, I can definitively say there is no evidence that mermaids are real, and since mermaids are fictional they can certainly be Black. In fact, dark skin would be a good evolutionary adaptation for mermaids because UV rays can cause sunburns even when you’re underwater (melanin for the win). So all of the racist #NotMyAriel folks can sit down. And to the generation of diverse ocean scientists who will be inspired by this film, please stand up and join me. The ocean needs all the help it can get.
Given the state of the ocean, and that people of color and young people actually care more about the environment than whites and older generations (data here), and that, as my mom encouraged me, “the world needs more Black scientists,” this film has the potential to be a cultural inflection point toward inclusive ocean conservation. And I am so here for it.
Yo, Disney, holler if you need any help making this happen. Me and my crew of ocean nerds are right here.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and CEO of the consultancy Ocean Collectiv, and founder of the non-profit think tank Urban Ocean Lab. Find her @ayanaeliza.
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images