Politics

The racist backlash over increased diversity in The Little Mermaid and Lord of the Rings, explained


Two new adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Little Mermaid are prompting deep outrage and indignation among fans who are arguing that the projects’ increased diversity has weakened their faithfulness to the original story.

Detractors of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series, which debuted this month, claim that casting Black and Asian actors undermines the show’s faithfulness to Tolkien’s world. Meanwhile, some ostensible fans of Disney’s animated Little Mermaid are rejecting the new live-action version for swapping out the titular mermaid’s famous blue eyes and red hair for the features of Black actress Halle Bailey.

The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power first drew widespread anger from fans because it casts Black and Asian actors as characters across the spectrum of fictional Middle Earth races. Fans’ chief complaint was that the decision to include nonwhite characters had ruined the authenticity of Tolkien’s world, because he had never described his elves, hobbits, men, and dwarves as anything other than white. Then last week, Disney released the first trailer for The Little Mermaid, featuring Bailey singing “Part of Your World.” Thousands of YouTube users brigaded, leaving more than 2 million dislikes and countless derogatory comments on the trailer, and creating memes ridiculing the film for casting Bailey and mocking all of its supporters.

To anyone who’s paid any attention to geek culture over the past decade or so, these arguments probably feel endless and exhausting. After all, this is the same cycle of backlash that plays out when any beloved story gets rebooted (or, in the case of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, adapted to film for the first time) and makes any changes, big or small. The anger intensifies to a new level when they’re big changes that shake the foundations of a story that was originally framed within a white, male worldview. Let’s face it: Most of the stories that have been passed down to us throughout the centuries have been created for us by white men.

From a progressive standpoint, stories all could use a good shake-up by varying their points of view through casting, and pop culture is full of narratives ripe for retelling. Taking the detractors at face value, however, you have a pantheon of geeks who just want to see their beloved tales left alone. These fans now face repeated battles as they watch one franchise after another fall into the clutches of progressive directors and writers who insist on — gasp — casting women in the lead roles, or — gasp — casting actors of color in roles long reserved for white people.

The negative attention on The Little Mermaid and The Lord of the Rings has fueled a groundswell of support from other fans who view such anger as founded in racism. Complicating all of these arguments are angry right-wing politicians and influencers like Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, who are using both franchises as an example of Hollywood and liberal “wokeness” run amok.

On the historical accuracy of diverse hobbits and mermaids

On their face, the arguments over Rings of Power and The Little Mermaid are superficially absurd. The “historical inaccuracy” argument falls apart any way you look at it.

For starters, as many fans have noted, hobbits and mermaids aren’t real, so it shouldn’t matter what race they are. For another thing, even though Tolkien’s setting for Middle Earth is based on Europe, people of color lived throughout medieval Europe, so a diverse Middle Earth is historically accurate.

As for Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Mermaid,” it was originally a sublimated allegory for a closeted queer man, and its original setting was “far out in the ocean.” Seeking historical accuracy from this type of fairy tale seems like grasping at best; but to further put to rest the argument that such characters have to be white, consider that the first Disney version made Ariel’s home a fictional amalgam of Greek and Mediterranean mythology somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic sea. So the idea of strictly Caucasian mermaids from this vicinity is a stretch.

Again, all of this is the stuff of fantasy, so really, who cares whether they’re played by white or Black actors?

As it turns out, the answer is lots and lots of people.

A key cry among these kinds of fans is that such productions are insisting on what they’ve dubbed “forced diversity.” Detractors claim that the goal isn’t really to meaningfully inject realistic representation into the universe, but rather to advance a “woke ideological agenda.” This argument has been particularly loud among right-wing politicians and conservative influencers.

The ideal for such fans would be something they tend to describe as “organic diversity” — something that would arise naturally from the canonical descriptions of characters. For instance, one Tolkien scholar complained to CNN that since Tolkien described elves as “fair-faced,” anything too tawny would ruin the authenticity of the show.

“This is not something organic that’s coming out of Middle Earth,” Tolkien expert Louis Markos told CNN. “This is really an agenda that is being imposed upon it.”

Framing the mere existence of nonwhite characters in media as an inherently political stance is itself an ideological agenda. Moreover, it contradicts the long legacy of fantasy adaptations deviating from canonical descriptions of characters, and fans usually not minding — as long as the casting still reinforces a white, male-centric worldview.

This brings us to the larger issue at play. This isn’t just about hobbits and “fair-faced” elves and redheaded mermaids, but about the existence of real people in our nonfictional world.

Welcome to the culture war, for the 8 millionth time

The endless culture war over increasingly diverse media has famously targeted everything from games to Ghostbusters, and now it has arrived to a fantasy universe near you. See the latest Star Wars series, or Captain Marvel, or Black Panther, or Black Adam, or Star Wars again — or pretty much every familiar franchise being adapted or remade these days with women and/or Black protagonists.

Usually, the audience that resists change will decry every reason except racism and misogyny for their hatred of these changes. For example, they might argue that casting actors of color is a cheap aesthetic change that does nothing to deepen the worldview of a story. Or, if the casting does result in a shift in worldview, they might argue that said worldview isn’t faithful to the original creator’s vision. (This usually makes it clear they never understood the creator’s original vision at all, because these narratives nearly always have deeply humanist and optimistic themes that align far more closely with a progressive worldview than with a traditionalist worldview — especially a racist one.)

Cynthia Addai-Robinson as the Queen Regent Miriel in Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power.
Amazon Studios / IMDB

Diverse casting can come with pitfalls and sometimes can be a shortcut to appearing progressive without actually being progressive. (See: Bridgerton and Hamilton.) Studios such as Disney are often more invested in rebooting their existing IP rather than taking chances on new and exciting stories from minority creators. Fans argue that this emphasis on simply redoing an old story with a casting facelift has led to a repetitive, tedious emphasis on pointless reboots and tired retreads rather than something truly meaningfully different and expansive.

However, these arguments often drown out the voices of fans of color who are overjoyed when they see themselves reflected in the legacy media they love — like the parents who celebrated the new Little Mermaid trailer by sharing photos and videos of their Black daughters reacting ecstatically.

What’s more, when high-powered studios like Disney do take such chances on new original work, the resulting wonderful work often also draws tremendous amounts of inflamed backlash. Pixar’s sleeper hit Turning Red became a surprise culture war target because of its culturally unique place and subject, as well as its characters.

This all suggests that the arguments for less diversity are just as shallow and political, just as racist and sexist, as they sound. Journalist and period drama expert Amanda-Rae Prescott learned this lesson well when she began tracking the fandom for the cult PBS series Sanditon. The series, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, features one character of color — hardly the racially diverse cast of much more high-profile period dramas such as Bridgerton and The Gilded Age. As Prescott observed, despite many fans wanting more characters of color to also have more screentime, the majority of the show’s white fandom was committed to “maintaining Sanditon as the anti-Bridgerton” — in other words, to preserving its mainly white cast.

Prescott next saw a similar form of racist gatekeeping around the recent Netflix adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, with white Austen fans masking racism behind other critiques of the movie as well as ostensibly lighthearted memes making fun of the film in oblique ways.

Both types of racist objections have attached to these new adaptations. The Little Mermaid trailer comments are currently wall-to-wall with haters making fun of people who like the trailer, using a variant of a copy/paste meme to mock the idea of liking the movie at all. The meme, like so many politically motivated memes, masks the real racist agenda behind it.

The repetitive nature of all these forms of discourse, Prescott points out, is part of the system.

“The same people who were angry about a Black Queen and a South Asian Viscountess on Bridgerton are the same people who are now angry about BIPOC elves, witches, and mermaids,” Prescott told me in an email. “You can copy and paste racist comments about diverse period dramas onto the racist comments about these fantasy franchises. There are people in period drama fandom who watch these series because they don’t want to see Black or POC characters, and it’s the same trend in speculative fiction.”

Prescott said she believes a driving theme of these campaigns is obfuscation — the use of some other argument to mask the real one. With historical dramas, it’s the argument for “historical accuracy.” With fantasy and science fiction adaptations, it’s the argument for preserving whatever version of the franchise you grew up with. “Racists weaponize childhood nostalgia to oppose diverse casting in these sci-fi/fantasy series because they cannot rely on whitewashed history to oppose diverse casting,” Prescott wrote.

Here, again, though, these arguments prove facile and flimsy. After all, generations of Disney fans who grew up with the beloved 1997 version of Cinderella, a.k.a. “the Brandy Cinderella,” didn’t subsequently have meltdowns over later adaptations that cast Cinderella as white. Instead, last year’s Cinderella saw Billy Porter’s genderless fairy godmother facing — sigh — transphobic backlash, because if there’s one thing fairies are famous for, it’s their rigid gender binary.

In other words, the backlash only ever works in one direction, and it only ever has one ultimate aim: erasing and threatening difference and deviance.

Prescott doesn’t have much hope that it will stop anytime soon.

“I believe racists are going to attack ANY series that they believe should have been 100% white,” Prescott wrote. “Racists are going to get mad at the next superhero or horror show that racebends a character, and they’ll be outraged over whatever the next Bridgerton is. Their goal is to stop all efforts to diversify Hollywood.”




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