The #NotMyAriel backlash is part of the wave of white nostalgia that Donald Trump used to win the presidency by appealing to white, working-class Americans who feel marginalized by the country’s growing diversity. In Trump’s America, it’s possible to return to a “simpler” past characterized by upward economic mobility and straight, white male cultural and political dominance.
That bygone era of exclusively white children’s characters was not so long ago. Take 1989. The top-grossing children’s films were “The Little Mermaid,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” none of which featured a nonwhite character (except purple-skinned Ursula, the sea witch). Diverse characters simply didn’t appear in children’s everyday media worlds or in their Disney princess fantasies. Today, these die-hard Disney fans want Hollywood to continue whitewashing the film industry — as well as their childhoods.
But cultural traditions and folklore have always adapted to changing social values and demographics, because representation matters for children. What children see on the screen or read in books shapes what they imagine to be possible. So the question the #NotMyAriel crowd should be asking themselves is: Whose childhood memories and viewing experiences matter most? Their own or those of today’s children?
It has been proved that underrepresentation, especially combined with discrimination, takes a toll on children of color. Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated implicit bias and feelings of racial and gender inferiority begin early in childhood. In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted psychological experiments known as the Doll Test to assess the impact of discrimination and segregation on African American children’s racial perceptions. When presented with dolls of varying skin tones, the majority of children preferred the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks’ findings played an important role in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which resulted in the desegregation of U.S. schools.