Disney's Freeform, the original voice of "The Little Mermaid" and other actors defend casting a black actress as Ariel

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

Disney is creating a new live-action version of their animated classic "The Little Mermaid" movie, and Halle Bailey has been chosen to play Ariel. Some fans criticized Disney for casting a black actress in the lead role. Disney's rebuttal? Mermaids aren't one race or another – they aren't even real.

Disney's teen-centric cable channel, Freeform, defended its parent company's casting decision."Yes. The original author of 'The Little Mermaid' was Danish. Ariel…is a mermaid," Freeform posted on Instagram. "She lives in an underwater kingdom in international waters and can legit swim wherever she wants (even though that often upsets King Triton, absolute zaddy)."

View this post on Instagram

An open letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls: ______ #TheLittleMermaid #Ariel #MyAriel

A post shared by Freeform (@freeform) on

Although the long post had some tongue-in-cheek elements, Freeform was making a statement to critics. "But for the sake of argument, let's say that Ariel, too, is Danish. Danish mermaids can be black because Danish *people* can be black," Freeform's post continued. "Ariel can sneak up to the surface at any time with her pals Scuttle and the *ahem* Jamaican crab Sebastian (sorry, Flounder!) and keep that bronze base tight. Black Danish people, and this mer-folk, can also *genetically* (!!!) have red hair."

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Freeform then stated the obvious – sarcastically calling it a "spoil alert." "The character of Ariel is a work of fiction," the post continues. "So after all this is said and done, and you still cannot get past the idea that choosing the incredible, sensational, highly-talented, gorgeous Halle Bailey is anything other than the INSPIRED casting that it is because she 'doesn't look like the cartoon one,' oh boy, do I have some news for you…about you."

19-year-old Bailey, one half of the singing duo Chloe x Halle, received support from several celebrities – including Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in Disney's 1989 animated "The Little Mermaid."

While speaking at the Florida Supercon convention, Benson defended Disney's casting choice. "The most important thing is to tell the story," she said, according to Comicbook.com. "As a family, we have raised our children, and for ourselves, that we don't see anything that's different on the outside."

"I think that the spirit of a character is what really matters," Benson continued. "What you bring to the table in a character as far as their heart, and their spirit, is what really counts."

The singer and actress then said she could have been judged as well. "Let's face it, I'm really, really old — and so when I'm singing 'Part of Your World,' if you were to judge me on the way that I look on the outside, it might change the way that you interpret the song," she said. "But if you close your eyes, you can still hear the spirit of Ariel."

Another woman familiar with playing a princess came to Bailey's defense. Keke Palmer, who played Broadway's first black Cinderella, hit back at the critics, saying they're "scared because Hollywood is making an effort to be more diverse in the people that they show on screen."

"But let me ask you this: why can't a mermaid be black?" Palmer said during an appearance on Strahan and Sara on Monday. "Why is that too unrealistic for you – because you do know she's friends with a talking crab, and I know you're not the sharpest people, but crabs can't talk. In fact, the entire thing is fiction!"

In case you needed a reminder… Halles get it DONE. Congratulations @chloexhalle on this amazing opportunity, we can’t wait to see what you do! #TheLittleMermaid #HalleBailey pic.twitter.com/z0Rik2nxRe

— Halle Berry (@halleberry) July 3, 2019

Ariel’s Dad!!!! 🧜‍♀️ #ArielsGotTerry #AmericasGotTerry pic.twitter.com/OMEXfmpWPE

— terry crews (@terrycrews) July 6, 2019

Several other stars were excited about Bailey's casting. Zendaya congratulated the singer on Twitter, and Terry Crews suggested he could play King Triton alongside her.

And of course, Halle Berry responded when some people confused her with the young actress, Bailey. "In case you needed a reminder… Halles get it DONE," Berry tweeted.

In response to the news that she would be playing Ariel, Bailey posted a Instagram photo of herself with red hair, as well as drawing of a herself as a mermaid next to the original animated Ariel. "Proud," she simply captioned the post on the Chloe x Halle account.

View this post on Instagram

Proud.

A post shared by Chloe and Halle (@chloexhallebailey) on

First published on July 9, 2019 / 9:54 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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