Disney’s latest live-action feature, The Little Mermaid, is facing a significant backlash characterized by racial tensions from both Chinese state media and social media users. As China has become one of the largest markets for Hollywood films, this racially-charged criticism serves as a stark reminder of the consequences film studios may face when they inadvertently offend Chinese sensibilities.
The specific point of contention revolves around the casting of Halle Bailey, an accomplished Black actress, as Princess Ariel. The backlash from both Chinese state media and netizens echoes the sentiments of some Americans who expressed disappointment, asserting that Bailey does not resemble the light-skinned character depicted in the 1989 animated film or the original 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
The Global Times, an English-language Chinese tabloid known for its nationalistic coverage, published an op-ed last month accusing Disney of transforming “classic tales into ‘sacrificial lambs’ for political correctness” by casting non-white actors in iconic roles. The tabloid argued that such controversies regarding casting were not rooted in racism but rather in “lazy and irresponsible storytelling,” stating that the conflicts over skin color detract from the enchanting and fantastical essence of these cherished childhood stories.
While some Chinese film-goers have left positive reviews, emphasizing that Bailey’s appearance matters little to children and applauding her portrayal of Princess Ariel’s essential character trait—a brave spirit—others have taken to social media platforms like Sina Weibo to criticize Bailey’s physical appearance and her Black facial features.
The divergent reactions underscore a nuanced landscape, where China, with its distinctive racial history and political context, maintains its own sensitivities regarding race portrayal in Hollywood films. Traditional Chinese beauty standards have long emphasized pale skin and large round eyes, which may shape certain viewers’ expectations. Furthermore, there is a desire among some Chinese commentators and even government officials to see Chinese values authentically represented on the silver screen.
This backlash against The Little Mermaid has had a tangible impact on the film’s box office performance in China. Since its release on May 26, the movie has only garnered $3.6 million, according to Artisan Gateway, an international film advisory. This is in stark contrast to the typical box office success of live-action remakes of Disney classics in China, which often earn between $40 million to $85 million. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 and Fast and Furious X, both released in May, have accumulated approximately $80 million and $120 million, respectively, in the same timeframe.
The challenges presented by the Chinese market have made it increasingly difficult for Hollywood to navigate this lucrative theatrical landscape. China’s strict annual quota on foreign films, allowing only a limited number to be released each year, adds an additional layer of competition. Out of the 39 foreign films released in China in 2023 thus far, only 18 are Hollywood productions. Moreover, Hollywood must contend with a thriving domestic film industry that produces its own blockbusters.
Studios find themselves grappling with a dilemma: either accepting changes to meet the demands of Chinese censors or risking being blacklisted from the market. A prominent example of this predicament occurred when Sony Pictures Entertainment modified the 2012 remake of Red Dawn during post-production to depict a North Korean invasion instead of a Chinese one, incurring significant financial losses.
Similarly, Marvel Studios encountered a predicament while producing the action film Doctor Strange in 2016. To avoid upsetting Chinese audiences, the character known as the Ancient One underwent a background change from Tibetan to European. These instances illustrate how studios are compelled to navigate sensitivities to ensure a smooth release in the Chinese market.
The repercussions of angering Chinese film-goers extend beyond individual films or actors, potentially affecting the industry at large. The delayed release of Disney’s animated film Mulan in China, attributed to the studio’s support for the film Kundun about the Dalai Lama, exemplifies the far-reaching consequences. Chris Fenton, a former Hollywood executive and author, notes that individuals involved in such films may face blacklisting. This has led to temporary or even long-term exclusion from the Chinese market for studios, directors, and actors.
However, the recent pushback from Hollywood against these challenges is contingent upon financial considerations, given the immense size and potential profitability of the Chinese market. Fenton suggests that monetary factors predominantly influence decisions, but he acknowledges that doing the right thing can often be more profitable now. As the industry grapples with this delicate balancing act, it remains to be seen how Hollywood will navigate these complexities and continue its engagement with the Chinese market.
Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle