The New Racebending: Why Changing the Race of Fictional Characters Matters

With the release of the new live-action movies The Little Mermaid, played by Halle Bailey, and most recently Peter Pan & Wendy starring Yara Shahidi, addressing the controversial topic of racebending fictional characters is more important than ever. At first, this conversation topic made me pretty angry. Obviously, due to the nature of the internet and small-minded thinking, the comments on this topic leaned toward sounding wildly racist. The backlash Yara and Halle have received for taking on these roles is more than undeserved. However, feeling disappointed about racebending is justifiable, if you’re disappointed for the right reasons.

Let me be very clear about what exactly the issue is at hand. The need to see characters of color on screen is a consistent urgency. Growing up as a woman of color in a predominantly white country wasn’t easy. I rarely saw people who looked like me on screen, in high positions, or even simply as a manager at H&M. Watching cartoons was one of my favorite pastimes but at an early age, I started realizing I had no one to relate to. None of the princesses I loved looked like me and my young mind quickly associated that with popularity and recognition. This was the real issue and it wasn’t just in cartoons.

Over the years, we have seen more and more representation of POCs in every area, as we should. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that diversifying has become somewhat of a ‘money scheme’ for big corporations. With the intent of making money, ‘diversity’ has now also become a way to reach a new market with a certain product, therefore, for commercial purposes only. The smartest PR move for a company known for racism scandals is to advertise black characters and celebrities, maybe even hire a few. When we look back to just a few years ago, underrepresentation is extremely prevalent and we still have a lot of work to do. That is not to say I’m not glad that there is more representation now, even if it’s for commercial purposes.

So, let’s talk about this increase in “new representation”. What I find outrageous is that companies become so obvious with their intent to diversify by lazily changing the race of old characters to check off their ‘Black representation’. What would have been truly meaningful would be to include a black princess in the original lineup. However, since that’s not the case, they should be creating all new characters with a storyline just as good and passionately written as the old ones, maybe also without turning them into frogs. Even though I love the movies Soul and The Princess and the Frog, I can’t help but be disappointed that the racially ambiguous prince was a frog for the majority of the movie. Hiding the character’s race but reminding us of their ethnicity through their dialect and mannerisms promotes stereotypes. Same goes for the protagonist of Soul. And the crab in Little Mermaid. And the dragon in Mulan. And, yes, donkey in Shrek.

I will, however, also give credit where credit is due. When you do change an old character, you better make it as good as Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse. And just to emphasize my point, let me adhere to the fact that this movie worked so well because Miles Morales had his own story. The new HBO rendering of Velma was also a huge flop. This dangerously promotes people to get angry about the wrong things.

Get angry about underrepresentation. People of color have been angry about the whitewashing of characters for generations and it was never addressed this heavily. Refocus the attention on creating characters for the new generation that they can genuinely be excited about and relate to. Characters where when they go to the toy store to buy the original doll of that character, the doll is originally black or brown. 

Additionally, don’t immediately knock new representation to the curb. If it’s a good movie, see it as that. If not, that’s fine too. A bad movie is a bad movie. But if you’re going to be mad, be mad about racebending furthering the consistent underrepresentation of original diverse characters.