This month’s theme is BIPOC representation in the arts and media.
We all know the representation matters. Unfortunately, there still remains immense backlash when major companies like Walt Disney work to improve racial representation in their productions. Outrage from the right wing about non-white, male, cis/het casting could be seen as far back as 2009 when attempts to write BIPOC leading roles were first made by the company in The Princess and the Frog. More recent examples include Disney casting Daisy Ridley, a woman, as the lead in the latest Star Wars trilogy in 2015, along with BIPOC costars John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran. All three actors received an incalculable amount of online hate simply for reading their scripts, prompting them to deactivate social media for a period of time.
Disney’s latest push for representation comes in the form of a live action remake for The Little Mermaid, releasing May 26. Black singer and actress Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel, whose original depiction in literature and in the 1994 animated film was as a pale Danish girl. This led to a firestorm on social media – 2 million dislikes on Youtube and comments claiming white erasure from right-wing extremists? But it’s the implications of this movie on the next generation of young Black people that matter most. The representation of diverse identities in media is crucial for promoting inclusivity and understanding in the real world.
The emergence of Rap in the late 80s and early 90s and Hip-hop music in the late 90s have significant players in BIPOC artists being able to express themselves and be heard by other communities. The genres began as a response to the lack of representation and positive portrayal of Black and Latino communities in mainstream media, and provide a platform for artists to share their lived experiences from their perspectives. The influence of hip-hop has expanded beyond just music, and has become a cultural phenomenon that has had a real impact on shaping the representation of BIPOC identities globally, for the better.
However, casting a Black actress as a historically white character does not relay the BIPOC experience as clearly as in music, especially when the film is written and directed by white people. In the case of The Little Mermaid, though, that is not really the point. Critics claim Bailey’s casting was an unnecessary change to appeal to a liberal audience, and while you can’t put that past Disney, there’s no doubt that she appears to fit the role well. In the case of fantasy genres, casting should prioritize actors who can best fit the character, not the character’s appearance. Unnecessary outrage about a BIPOC actor being cast in a historically white role in fantasy genres is baseless and ultimately counterproductive to promoting diversity and inclusivity in media.
It would also be absurd to not acknowledge the modern critical dogma, or belief, of the fairytale as an allegory for the struggles of queerness in Denmark when the story was first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1836. Not including research into the author’s personal life and letters, it tells the story of a character forcefully separated from the rest of humanity which she desperately wants to be a part of. She’s put in a position in which she has to hide her true self to be accepted, and eventually dies because she’s not able to bridge the divide. If this reading is as intended, then it’s the 1994 adaptation that strays further from the source material than the 2023 remake does from its own.
In a recent series of interviews VT PoC conducted, Vermont based BIPOC artists were asked to share their thoughts on the subject of media representation of artists and actors of color. Poet, speaker, and activist Rajnii Eddins urged the BIPOC community to take the higher ground. He commented:
“We [as BIPOC] play a pivotal role in modeling what true humanity can look like. By humanizing, sensitizing, and holding space for even those who don’t respect us… [Critic’s] insecurity keeps us from having our true contributions being shown. It stops us from having representation in any capacity. ”
The spotlight article for the month of May also focuses on Bennington-based visual artist Ahmad Yassir, who emphasized the importance of resilience in the face of discrimination. Ahmad stated: “It’s important to approach any challenges or barriers with a sense of resilience and determination. As a BIPOC individual, it may be necessary to advocate for oneself and seek out opportunities that may not be immediately apparent. However, by building strong relationships with the local community and actively pursuing one’s goals, it is possible to thrive and make a positive impact in Vermont.” You can read more on our conversation with Ahmad in our upcoming spotlight article on him and his work.
VT PoC is organizing a screening of The Little Mermaid remake on May 26, 2023. You can register for the event at this link!
About the Author
Dylan Rhymaun moved to Chittenden county in 2017 and now resides in Winooski. He’s a writer and artist who professionally works in Investments for education and disability savings. Dylan has also worked with the VT PoC Network briefly via the VT Health Equity Initiative and looks forward to continuing to support the organization. View more of their work at dylanrhymaun.com.
This month, we are spotlighting Ahmad Yassir, an artist and media specialist based in Bennington, VT who relocated from Lebanon to attend school at Bennington College. Although the lack of public transportation was difficult initially, Ahmad finds that the support he has received in his time in VT, as well as the deep friendships he has made, have been a critical part of his time living here. As an artist, he is “…hoping to prove to everyone that artists are capable of doing pretty much anything, with an extra spark of creativity…” and hopes that leadership positions and continued collaborations within the community will help him to achieve that. Learn more about Ahmad in the full transcript of his interview with us!
Resources & Updates
VT PoC Monthly Financial Literacy Series (Virtual, May 4)
This month’s workshop is on Understanding Your Personal Finances: Credit Mitigation & Pre-Qualification with Jonathan Goffe. Bring your questions and concerns for Jonathan this Thursday from 6:00pm – 7:30pm! Click here to register.
The Little Mermaid Screening – May 26!
VT PoC is excited to announce our movie screening of The Little Mermaid!! This screening will be held at Essex Cinema on Friday, May 26, at 7:30pm. Check-in begins at 6:00pm and ends at 7:25pm. Click here for more info.
VBSR Annual Conference
The Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) is hosting its 33rd Annual Conference at HULA from 9am-6pm on May 11. This year’s agenda focuses on humane workplaces, personal impact, and economic equity. Special speakers include Christal Brown, Myra Flynn, and Ashley LaPorte! FREE CONFERENCE TICKETS for BIPOC community members, with Mulu’s Kitchen catering (additional $25 per person). Spaces are filling quick! Click here to register.
Soul Food Sundays (In-Person, April 9)
Every second Sunday of the month, join The Roots Social Justice Center for a soul food potluck in a BIPOC affinity space! Bring a dish to share; all ages welcome. Click here for more info.
The Vermont Council on World Affairs is urgently seeking individuals and families that are willing to open their homes to high schoolers and adult mentors from Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador from May 10th – 20th. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with interest or visit this link to learn more.
5VT college grads can get $5K if they stay in VT
Vermont is trying to entice graduating college students to stay in the state by offering $5,000 off their student loans.”This is free money on the table,” says one of the administrators of a program aimed at growing the VT workforce. Learn more and apply here.
Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin reflects on career after winning MacDowell Medal
For decades, Indigenous people have often been the subject of documentaries — but haven’t had much say in how they are represented in those films. Find more at this link.
57 Businesses ranked as Best Places to Work in VT 2023
VermontBiz and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce revealed the rankings at a ceremony on March 29th at the DoubleTree Hotel. Read more at this link.
StartUp Rutland Series
The Entrepreneurial Legal Lab is a new resource that, when coupled with other offerings unique to the Green Mountain state, makes Vermont ever friendlier to those who wish to deliver innovation to the economic ecosystem from the great state of Vermont. Click here for more info.
Rutland non-profit gives asylum seekers a lifeline
Bridge to Rutland’s work highlights the challenges asylum-seekers face every day in Vermont. Read more at VTDigger.
2023 Vermont Legislative Guide
Find what you need to know to follow the ins and outs of the session, whether you’re a #vtpoli newbie or an avid Statehouse watcher. Click here for more.