I was tempted to open this piece with a spot of virtue signalling, you know. For my more moderate, middle-class readers. The kind who, like me, would be very much at pains to point out that they don’t have a problem in principle with Disney portraying Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid with the casting of a black actress:
But that would be, I think, to play the entirely silly game that the movie’s makers want everyone to play. You are expected to have an opinion: Either you think the casting of a black actress in this role is a wonderful progressive thing, or you are some class of bigoted racist. No other opinions are permitted, and therefore you either express the positive one, or you shut up and pretend that you either have not seen the story, or, in the more sophisticated answer, don’t really care at all.
In recent days, the movie’s trailer accumulated 2.5 million “dislikes” on Youtube – 1.5 million more dislikes than it got views. And so, much like Grand Moff Tarkin dealing with dissent on Alderaan, the tech companies intervened with a big zapper: All comments and dislikes have now been banned. The global progressive media is having a field day reporting that the movie was subject to a “racist backlash”.
Some small portion of the backlash was, probably, racist. But most of it I think was more the equivalent of an exhausted eyeroll. From people who just want to go to the movies to be entertained, rather than preached at about the value and importance of diversity and how all their assumptions must be wrongheaded.
But there’s more to it than that, I think.
Last week, I wrote a piece about how we are cursed to live in the age and era of pretence, in which we are all expected to behave as things which are obviously untrue are in fact the truth. This movie and the controversy around it is a good example of that: We are all expected to profess to believe that the casting of Ms Bailey (who is undoubtedly a fine actress, and blameless here) was just a matter of casually finding the best person for the role, rather than a deliberate choice to pick a black actress in order to stir up precisely the reaction that the movie’s defenders are now railing against. That her casting here is colourblind, rather than a deliberate choice to which her colour was central. Because it was the latter. And we all know it was the latter.
When people say, therefore, that this is Hollywood ramming a political agenda down their throats, they are entirely correct. That is exactly what it is, and what it is intended to be.
Progressivism thrives in cultural conflict – that is the point of the ideology. In order for it to advance, we must constantly be kept unmoored and insecure: constantly be “checking our privilege”, constantly questioning things we always took for granted. The whole architecture of the dominant ideology in the west feeds off this: There must always be new things and new problems to denounce as racist, or bigoted, and there must always be a new frontier. That is why the culture war never ends: Each new thing, in the parlance of movies, is really only a MacGuffin.
The real thing that they wish to change is not the laws about gay rights or abortion or equal pay for women, or whatever the present fight is – those are incidental. They are things against which to rail, in pursuit of the larger cause, which is basically conflict itself for the sake of it. At the core of progressivism is the idea that society at large is responsible for almost all private discontent and suffering, and therefore society itself must be constantly challenged, up to and including all our assumptions about the world. The world must always change to accommodate the progressive desire for justice, or vengeance. And your assumptions must always be tested:
You assumed the Little Mermaid was white, did you? Wrong, racist.
Toss it in there with pronouns: Where once we could simply assume that a fellow in a suit and tie was a “him”, now to do so is un-woke. It is all part of the same conflict – the progressive war on the world as it has always been understood to be. Nothing is safe, everything is potentially racist, or homophobic.
And a growing number of people, this writer included, find it exhausting and sickening. If you always assumed that the Little Mermaid was white, that is not because you are some kind of racist. It is because you understand that Hans Christian Andersen was Danish, white himself, and writing fairy tales for Danish children – mostly white themselves. It’s not something people think much about, but just a default setting that our brain sets to. Just as you assume, I think, that Pocahontas was native American, or that Aladdin was Arabic, or that CúChulainn had red hair and freckles.
To come back to the beginning of the piece, perhaps now is the appropriate time for a spot of virtue signalling: It does not seem to me to really matter as a point of principle whether fictional characters are portrayed by members of one race or the other. But if that’s true, then we should be consistent about it, no? But we will not see, I expect, a rosy-cheeked English lass portraying Pocahontas any time soon, in an expectation-subverting re-interpretation of that particular story. And that is because we live in the era of pretence, when we are expected to believe that these things are colourblind choices, rather than deliberate and calculated provocations, so that progressives can challenge your assumptions, and consider themselves superior to you, you racist.
It’s trolling. And as a result, the movie deserves all the dislikes, and box office failure, that is coming its way.