The Stories We Tell

So, I was in the midst of writing The Spanish Princess, finale recap last week when two things happened. The first is that the gorgeous Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the live-action production of The Little Mermaid. The second is that someone gave a speech in which they implied that there were airports during the Revolutionary War. The result of these events was that #NotMyAriel and #RevolutionaryWarAirportStories both began trending on Twitter…and that seems like an interesting snapshot of America right now.

Artist credit: Dylan Bonner, @dylanbonner90

What do either of these things have to do with The Spanish Princess? Well, they both address a huge theme of the show and it’s writing: who is allowed to tell history. Who is allowed to tell certain versions of certain events and get away with it?

Now, granted, the idea of airports in the eighteenth century is unlikely to become accepted historical fact (although who really knows anymore). And we also know that The Little Mermaid, as originally told by Hans Christian Anderson and then adapted by the Disney juggernaut, is fiction and not actual history. But here’s my point: when people attempt to tell a different version of a story- a version that possibly makes other people feel uncomfortable- that version is often deemed unacceptable. Why is it that the retelling (however unintentional) of the Revolutionary War is treated as more or less a joke, while the casting of a black actress for an entirely fictional universe creates an enormous backlash? I’ll give you one guess.

Mermaids, presumably, are mythical creatures. Logically, if they are half-fish and half-human it stands to reason that they could be any color of half-human in the world. There is no canon or precedent for mermaid race, other than “imaginary.” The likeness of Disney’s Ariel was based on actress Alyssa Milano and given red hair to make her colors “pop” against the blues and greens of the ocean and her tail. And, yes, the original story is Danish, but the ocean and seascape of the animated movie are amalgams of Atlantic locales, with tropical fish and a Jamaican crab, sailors dressed in Breton stripes, and an English-accented manservant. Even if the movie was definitively set in Denmark, we all know that race and nationality are different and not mutually exclusive…right?

But, in the words of Sebastian, this human world of ours? Well, it’s a mess. Despite all the reasoning I’ve laid out to why there is no racial canon for Ariel, a ridiculous number of people are taking offense at Bailey’s casting. And that leads us back to The Spanish Princess.

In an opposite sort of outrage, some viewers of The Spanish Princess took issue with Catherine of Aragon being portrayed as fair-skinned with red hair and blue eyes, despite evidence that she actually did look this way:

There was a fair amount of social media pushback with the casting of Charlotte Hope, as many viewers felt that Catherine should have a darker complexion…despite the obvious observation that Spanish citizens, like mermaids, come in all colors.

Why the outrage? Well, as the show took aims to show through the reactions of the English characters- most notably Margaret Beaufort- Catherine’s “otherness” was a vital part of the story and her identity. As an immigrant, her exoticism was attractive to some but dangerous to others. She’s different…and because she is different some viewers wanted her to look different, too. In the same way some people want Ariel to stay white, people also wanted Catherine to be less white.

The introduction of people of color into the Tudor story was also met with significant criticism, as many accused the writers of striving for intentional wokeness rather than historical accuracy. The fact is people of color lived freely in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, earning wages and even circulating at Court. But the resistance to those stories is very telling; keeping those stories out of the common narrative amounts to little more than historical segregation. The message: for some viewers, people of color don’t belong in certain spaces. It doesn’t matter if that space is a fictional sea kingdom or a non-fictional English one.

So let’s circle all this back around to the season finale of The Spanish Princess, which was quite honestly one of the most satisfying hours of television I’ve seen in a very long time. The finale dealt with quite a few themes…conflicting emotions, figurative and literal hauntings, and the continued exploration of how much free will we exert over our own destiny. But another huge narrative running through the season was the concept of faith, and how much we can keep our faith when what we believe to be true is questioned. How much are we willing to grow when presented with an alternate history? When are our unshakeable beliefs a strength…and when are they a weakness?

We can grow. We can do better. We know that the telling of different stories is not a zero sum game. We can open our hearts to a different version a well-known tale, and we will be the better for it.

Artist credit: Dylan Bonner, @dylanbonner90


Screengrabs: STARZ, Disney

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