When Disney released the first footage of Halle Bailey as Ariel in 2023’s The Little Mermaid live-action movie on Sept. 9, fans on Twitter celebrated the win for diversity. Further illustrating just how much representation matters, parents also shared heartwarming TikTok videos of their young daughters’ reactions to seeing a Black mermaid for the first time. On the flip side, however, there was also plenty of racist backlash to Bailey’s casting as a mythical character that some believe should only be portrayed by a white woman.
The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, for one, isn’t here for the backlash, and, true to form, he had a hilarious clapback during the Sept. 15 episode of his Comedy Central show. “We’re doing this again?” the Emmy winner asked during one segment before continuing, “Once again, a bunch of internet racists are upset that a fictional character is being played by a Black person.”
Explaining that he doesn’t know “what the big deal is,” he cracked a joke about another beloved Disney movie: 2003’s Finding Nemo. “You guys realize that Nemo was Black, too, right?” he quipped, comparing the animated clownfish’s search for his dad to his own father abandoning him as a child. Before the audience could groan too much, though, he pointed out that his father is white. “So who’s the racist now?” Noah joked.
What else was “so ridiculous” about the controversy? “First of all, of course the Lil Mermaid is Black,” he added. “Everyone whose name starts with ‘Lil’ is Black: Lil Wayne, Lil Nas X, Lil’ Kim. Honestly, if you heard that there was a woman named ‘Lil Mermaid,’ you just assume that she’s on a track with Cardi B.” And, yes, there was also a “wet ass flippers” joke, referencing Cardi B’s “WAP,” featuring Megan Thee Stallion.
Encouraging the trolls to “stop being ridiculous” about an “imaginary” being, Noah went on to point out another years-long debate: that The Little Mermaid’s story actually is problematic from a feminist standpoint. “I hope this scandal doesn’t overshadow the rest of the movie,” the comedian said. “The Little Mermaid is a beautiful story about a young woman changing her core identity to please a man. Let’s not forget about that, people.”
When The Daily Show shared the clip to their official Instagram account on Sept. 16, Ellen Pompeo, for one, was among those who applauded Noah’s take: The Grey’s Anatomy star quickly commented with six gold trophy emojis.
On a more serious note, Bailey has been dealing with racist backlash about the role as far back as 2019 — long before Disney dropped the first official Little Mermaid teaser. Ahead of the sneak peek’s premiere at Disney’s D23 event on Sept. 9, however, the actor-singer highlighted the positive, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the most magical part of the experience was knowing that “somebody like [her]” was given the opportunity.
“The fact that I get to represent all of these little young Black and brown boys and girls who are to come is really special to me because I know that if I had that when I was younger, it would have changed my whole perspective on life,” she said.
In an earlier interview for Variety’s 2022 Power of Young Hollywood issue in August, Bailey addressed early racist criticism of her casting on social media, sharing that her grandparents reminded her how impactful her portrayal of a Black Disney princess would be to an entire generation. “It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to hear their words of encouragement, telling me, ‘You don’t understand what this is doing for us, for our community, for all the little Black and brown girls who are going to see themselves in you,’” the Grammy nominee explained.
Hopefully that wisdom helps Bailey to continue drowning out the noise. If nothing else, Noah — and many others — have her back.