Racism and fantasy: why are some fans upset about Black characters in Rings of Power, and The Little Mermaid?

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon have both faced a racist backlash for having diverse casts

It’s not the 1970s anymore and some people clearly can’t handle that.

Two of the biggest fantasy shows to come out this year - The Rings of Power, and House of the Dragon have both been released to relatively mixed reviews.

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Last week the new trailer for The Little Mermaid was released and received a barrage of criticism.

A healthy critique of these productions is of course fine - the problem comes when the criticism is levelled at the shows or films for the supposed crime of being ‘too diverse’.

Lenny Henry, Halle Bailey, and Steve ToussaintLenny Henry, Halle Bailey, and Steve Toussaint
Lenny Henry, Halle Bailey, and Steve Toussaint | Amazon Prime/Disney/HBO

Which fantasy shows and films have had a racist backlash?

Pretty much every one which dares to feature a prominent Black cast member, but there are three productions catching the most flak - The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, and The Little Mermaid.

Tolkien fans flipped out about Middle Earth becoming more diverse in the Lord of the Rings prequel series, with Sir Lenny Henry among the stars of the new show.

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Some criticised the casting of Black actors to play Elves, Hobbits, and Dwarves, believing that author J.R.R. Tolkien was racist and so it would be disrespectful to subvert his vision, as if that is a strong argument.

The same logic would mean producers should not have cast Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because Roald Dahl was an anti-semite. Clearly this is ludicrous logic.

Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little MermaidHalle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid
Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid | YouTube/ Disney

The Little Mermaid has really touched a nerve with insecure fans of children’s movies. It’s not even six months away from being released and the racists are already foaming at the mouth.

The trailer which was released on YouTube on 10 September has reportedly received more than 2 million dislikes (against just over 700,000 likes), presumably because the lead actress, Halle Bailey, is Black.

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Meanwhile, young Black Disney fans were overjoyed to see such representation on screen.

There are 12 official Disney princesses - seven of them are traditionally represented as white, while only one is Black.

Steve Toussaint as  Corlys Velaryon in House of the DragonSteve Toussaint as  Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon
Steve Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon | © 2022 Home Box Office, Inc. Al

House of the Dragon also features a major Black character, Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, a wealthy lord who sits on King Viserys I’s small council as Master of Ships. He is played by Steve Toussaint in the show.

Corlys is only described as having white hair in George R.R. Martin’s novel, but no mention is made of his skin tone, so the casting is book-accurate, but some viewers still got upset about it.

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Plenty of negative comments have found their way onto the internet left by fans complaining about a Black actor playing a character who they had chosen to imagine as white.

What have the Black stars said about this backlash?

Sir Lenny Henry spoke on Good Morning Britain about the racist response to Rings of Power, saying:”Everybody can be in that world if they want to be. It’s not for some man in his pants in his room eating Hobnobs to say bad things about people.

“The people who are thinking creatively and humanly are going to win on this.”

Halle Bailey responded to backlash she faced way back in 2019 after she had been cast as Ariel, telling Variety:“I feel like I’m dreaming and I’m just grateful and I don’t pay attention to the negativity.”

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She continued to ignore the trolls, instead she took to Twitter to respond to a video of young Black fans watching the trailer, writing “this means the world to me.”

Steve Toussaint, who plays Corlys, told Men’s Health: “It seems to be very hard for people to swallow.

“They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.

“What has been wonderful is for every toxic person that has somehow found their way into my timeline, there have been so many others who have been so supportive.”

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Can mermaids and Elves be Black?

No more than they can be white, in that they don’t actually exist. Nor do dragons, The Terminator, or (spoiler alert) Father Christmas, and yet Tim Allen did not face criticism for his role in The Santa Clause.

The character of Ariel was originally created by Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish author who wrote The Little Mermaid in 1837.

The story is set in the fictional kingdom of Atlantica which is believed to be off the coast of Denmark.

Yes, most Danes are white, but no Danes are merpeople, and Atlantica is a fictional fantasy world, so the actual demographic makeup of the kingdom is irrelevant.

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Lenny Henry as harfoot Sadoc Burrows in The Rings of PowerLenny Henry as harfoot Sadoc Burrows in The Rings of Power
Lenny Henry as harfoot Sadoc Burrows in The Rings of Power | Amazon Prime Video

Equally, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is full of fantasy creatures and it is no more of a stretch to imagine that Elves and Hobbits exist in this world than to imagine that some of them are also Black.

I would hope that this is common knowledge, but dwarves actually do exist, though not as the fantasy beings that Tolkien created. And in the real world dwarves can be of any ethnicity, obviously.

As for House of the Dragon, Westeros is already known as a place of migration, and many Black characters have featured in the original Game of Thrones series, so Corlys’ casting really shouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Unless your problem isn’t really about accuracy and is actually coming from a place of insecurity about your own outdated worldview being challenged.

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