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Black Mermaids and Nikkei Superheroes

The recent uproar over Halle Bailey, a Black actress, playing the Little Mermaid brought back a painful memory of mine from eight years ago. I was attending the annual Carnival parade in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the theme that year was “Comic Book Capers.” So I decided to go as my favorite comic book superhero: Spider-Man. 

At the parade, I noticed this young boy who was also dressed as Spider-Man and, when he first saw me from across the street, I could see his expression change from surprise to astonishment to awe. He was at that age when he truly believed that comic book characters were real. His parents thought it was a hoot and took numerous photos of the two of us together. His father even asked me if I did birthday parties because he would pay me to come to his son’s next birthday celebration.

The boy’s older sister was also there, and I could tell she was envious of all the attention he was getting. She kept putting him down, mocking his size, scornfully saying that the muscles were drawn on his costume because he didn’t have any. I gathered that she was used to being the center of attention in the family and she didn’t much like being upstaged by her younger brother. I ignored her and kept on talking with the boy, telling him not to let other people get him down and that he’d continue growing, becoming taller and stronger. He seemed to really take my words to heart. After all, this was Spider-Man giving him advice!

The weather was beautiful that day and we were all soaking up the warm sunshine as we watched a parade of people dressed as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other assorted superheroes. Then was even a guy made up as the Silver Surfer, with a surfboard and his body spray painted in metallic gray. We were having such fun, but then I made a fatal mistake.

It was such a hot August day and I was having trouble breathing through my mask so I removed it. The young boy looked at me, pointed an accusing finger at my face, and said, “You’re not Spider-Man!” He looked both crushed and angry. And, worse, he started crying.

I’m not sure if he was expecting Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, or maybe he was just expecting a White man under my mask. Anyway, I felt like a total jerk, as if I had purposely deceived him by pretending to be something that I wasn’t. In the boy’s eyes, I was a complete fraud, and he felt utterly betrayed. I was so embarrassed, humiliated really, and didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to quickly slink away somewhere.

Thankfully his parents were there to save the day. They told their son, “It’s like Christmas time, when there are lots of Santa Clauses in the malls. So there’s not just one Santa Claus, right? And there’s not just one Spider-Man either.” Thank god for parents like that, and their quick thinking helped soften the boy’s utter disappointment. Soon, he and I were buddies again, although things had changed between us, with his initial enthusiasm and excitement considerably diminished.

When I reflect back on that day, I’m still pained by the reaction of that boy, who might now be in high school. And, actually, I’m still not exactly sure what had upset him to tears. Was it because, by removing my mask, I was no longer a superhero but a mere mortal? Or was it something more—that I’m Asian and Spider-Man is “supposed” to be white. Part of me fears that it might have been the latter, which brings me back to Halle Bailey playing the character of Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

The pushback against her casting has been sad and disheartening, to say the least. I was appalled that someone had actually modified the movie trailer by using AI tools to digitally lighten Bailey’s skin and alter her facial features. That video was then shared on social media with the claim that the Little Mermaid had been “fixed.” I suppose that, by now, we should be accustomed to racist trolls on the Internet, but some of the vitriol spewed against Bailey, such a talented young actress and gifted singer, was truly vile and disgusting beyond words.

Ironically, those who have been most critical of Bailey’s casting probably do not even know the true origin of The Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Andersen wrote the fairy tale to express his heartbreak over his unrequited and repressed love for another man. In essence, the story is a powerful lesson about someone who, longing for happiness, undergoes considerable pain to transform herself to become something she’s not, only to discover that it was all for naught. LGBTQ individuals and racial minorities might view The Little Mermaid as a metaphor for their struggles to fit in; it’s also a cautionary tale for those who might lose themselves in the process. I believe that such struggles were all too familiar for Japanese Americans during and after World War II, as we sought to find our place within various communities throughout the U.S.

Given all that, the backlash against Bailey’s casting is, as far as I’m concerned, particularly repugnant. Seriously, if my generation had to grow up with Charlie Chans being played by white actors and if we had to suffer through Mickey Rooney’s outrageous caricature as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then I truly believe that this generation of children can certainly deal with a Black mermaid. And, on a personal level, I would be elated if ever an Asian actor is cast as the next Spider-Man. I had wished that my Yonsei nephews could have seen that day when they were young kids, but I’m still hopeful that maybe their future children will experience the joy of a Spider-Man who looks like they do. Representation does matter and, really, wouldn’t the world be a better place with kids growing up believing that they can be whatever they want, irrespective of their race, gender, or sexual orientation?


© 2022 Alden M. Hayashi

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