Have you had enough of the gross misuse of the phrase “woke” yet? Well, brace yourselves if so, as there is more destruction of the term on its way, and this time, over Disney’s next live-action release, Peter Pan & Wendy. In case you weren’t sick of hearing about some Disney fans complaining about Ariel’s casting choice in the upcoming The Little Mermaid film, it seems some audiences have a new axe to grind, now coming after everyone’s favorite mischievous fairy, Tinker Bell.
While a light-skinned, fair-haired illustration has always portrayed the animated role of Tinker Bell, some fans are struggling with the casting choice of Yara Shahidi as the pixie-dusted sidekick. Even though some are calling out Disney for something referred to as “woke race-swapping” (say that ten times fast; I dare you!), others like myself are left wondering what exactly the problem is. I thought this might be an excellent opportunity to break down some of this drama and work out what is really upsetting for some people – if that is even possible.
“Woke,” a term that refers to being culturally and socially aware, rarely makes sense when uttered in the colloquial style that has become popular. Like any buzzword, people have lost sight of its actual meaning somewhere along the line, forgetting that being ‘woke’ is and will always be a good thing, as opposed to being asleep to cultural and social sensitivities. So, as such, let’s leave this phrase on the sidelines for the moment and move on. “Race-swapping,” on the other hand, is the label being used for Disney’s creative interpretation of character appearances, choosing to cast them in a different ethnicity from their original being where appropriate. Now, while I can see where this might become problematic, these two examples don’t even come close to qualifying.
Disney isn’t offending the cultural traditions and appearances of all mermaids, or fairies for that matter; no rule says that they need to be pale with brightly colored hair, precisely the same as their former iterations. If Disney were to take a character whose storyline was based on the cultural heritage of that specific ethnicity or species, then I can see an issue. For example, Lady and the Tramp shouldn’t be replaced by cats because the story is literally about the fact they are two dogs. Characters like Tiana, Mulan, or Pocahontas have stories that are, again, literally about their cultural backgrounds, something that shouldn’t be messed with. 101 Dalmations shouldn’t be remade with Golden Retrievers because the whole movie is about the fact that they are Dalmation Puppies. On the other hand, Ariel’s mermaidian lifestyle is not jeopardized by her skin color; in fact, short of making Ariel into Centaur, there isn’t much aesthetically they can go wrong with to compromise the fact that she is a mermaid. Repeat sentence; replace mermaid with fairy; replace centaur with bee.
Come to think of it, I don’t recall any global outcry when Tramp showed up in the live-action remake a much darker shade of grey with white lower legs. You might not like it, but it wasn’t ‘woke,’ was it? Back to Peter Pan & Wendy, race-swapping doesn’t apply since Tinker Bell’s cultural identity is technically still fairy, and Ariel, well, she is a mermaid either way.
Another item on the outcry agenda seems to be that there are what appear to be two female-looking children that have joined The Lost Boys in the trailer. I’ve taken a deep breath for this one, as the delicacy of these topics isn’t lost on me. Could one say that it seems hypocritical when, for years, it has been acceptable to refer to a group of people by saying “hey, guys” even when some of them are female, and yet, for The Lost Boys to actually have a few girls amongst them is unacceptable? Come on, are we really that fragile? It’s not as though a series of robots or meerkats are portraying them; they are just kids! Honestly, I would be way more concerned about the loss of Captain Hook’s iconic red hat and signature coat than anything else. Even new Ariel got to keep her purple seashells!
I’m looking forward to all of the live-action remakes, regardless of skin or hat color, and encourage Disney to keep pushing their creative boundaries within their culturally respectful limits until audiences are able to let go of all the irrelevant stereotypes that don’t affect the storytelling.
Give Shahidi a chance; she might just be the best Tinker Bell you’ve ever seen.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
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