This year has brought us a plethora of new shows and movies, and in them, Black women are having their moment.
Credit: TV Insider
The Little Mermaid. Queen Charlotte. What do these two pieces of media have in common? Apart from one being one of the top-grossing films of 2023 and the other being a highly-rated television series (also from this year), they both happen to star Black women, with Halle Bailey and India Amarteifio playing the leads (respectively). Although the character’s race is not addressed nor is it relevant in terms of the storyline in The Little Mermaid, it’s still amazing to see a Black actress play a princess in a live-action film. Not only is the simultaneous popularity surrounding the two media pieces an almost unprecedented occurrence for Black female-led projects, but the fact that they’re both within genres previously unexplored by Black and POC actors makes it all the more outstanding.
Fantasy and historical romances are genres that (even fictional) have typically contained a full- or majority-white cast. We as black women have time and time again been told that we can’t be royalty, we can’t be mermaids, or anything otherworldly. Although there have been a couple of live-action films portraying Black women as royalty (e.g., Belle - 2013, Cinderella - 1997), these have been few and far between. Until now.
With the diverse casting of shows like Bridgerton, the Netflix series from which Queen Charlotte originated from, representation has started to become better and better for people of color, especially for Black women as of late. What makes The Little Mermaid casting, and subsequent box office success, so special is that it is a remake of a film that previously portrayed its main character Ariel as white. Naturally, this aroused controversy immediately. On social media and beyond people called Disney out for trying to be “woke” or politically correct, with others using the excuse of wanting Ariel to be played by a true redhead, when in reality their criticism came from a place of racism. But why does it matter who plays a mythological creature in a fictional movie made for kids? The answer is simple. Black women just don’t fit into the traditionally Eurocentric concept of fantasy. Because of how we have historically been portrayed on the screen and pigeonholed by society, we apparently cannot be happy, have powers, or be magical beings while also being the lead, even in a made-up story.
Queen Charlotte, on the other hand, is a fictionalized story of real life royals. Despite the fact that the real Charlotte’s racial identity has been speculated throughout time, her African ancestry has been denied by most scholars. However, that did not stop the creators of the Bridgerton from “marrying history and fantasy” by portraying her as Black/biracial. Such a reimagining of history has no negative consequences in the real world and allows for greater representation on the screen, something I think should be applauded. (Foreman)
In addition to the record-breaking Little Mermaid remake and the quickly popularized Queen Charlotte series, The Bear and Swarm are also 2023 productions that have two Black women leading on the screen. Both Ayo Edebiri and Dominique Fishback have received Emmy nominations for their respective performances. And user @selahspades on Twitter has noted how quickly Edebiri in particular has been acknowledged and awarded for her talents. “seeing ayo edebiri career immediately take off after co-leading a hit show has been so refreshing bc this RARELY happens with black actresses…white girls can do one hit role and find immediate success and thats just not the case with black girls so this has been very exciting!”, she says.
So along with the increased representation on screen, these recent occurrences have also led to more opportunities and a faster path to success for Black women in Hollywood. For instance, Edebiri’s breakout role in The Bear premiered just last summer and she’s already involved in other major projects set to be released this year, including the film Bottoms, which she will star in alongside actress Rachel Sennott. This is precisely one of the reasons why representation is so important. Positive representation in the media can “create powerful role models, and even be a source of inspiration.” Representation has also been found to help increase self-esteem amongst minority youth. Seeing someone that looks like you not only be a star on the screen but do something that you do or aspire to do helps people feel seen. Mainstream media has not always portrayed minorities in such a light, and that is why we must take the time to recognize the strides that have been made. (Abbott)
Nevertheless, there is still plenty of work to be done. I was very fortunate to grow up in an age of media where diversity on the screen was being promoted. But the fact remains: white actors still dominate the film and TV industries, accounting for about 60-70% of lead roles. It is up to directors, producers, casting directors, and the rest of Hollywood to create a media industry that is representative of its audience as a whole and one whose diverse casting is so normalized that a black female lead wouldn’t make a single person bat an eye. (Hunt & Ramón)
Hannah Barnes is a second-year Film and Television major and an online writer for Rowdy Magazine. When she's not watching a hockey game or tweeting about it, you can find her binging Seinfeld.