Is race swapping in Hollywood just pandering in the name of representation?

The lack of roles for people of colour in Hollywood has been widely criticised, but is a solution so simple?

Shanjida Nowshin Chowdhury
Published : 15 May 2023, 01:26 PM
Updated : 15 May 2023, 01:26 PM

In recent years, the lack of roles for people of colour in Hollywood has drawn heavy criticism. In response, many studios and productions have tried to diversify their casts through race blind casting or diversity quotas that ensure more actors from underrepresented minority groups. Another tactic has been race swapping, which is when an actor is cast as a character originally portrayed as someone of a different ethnicity.

Superhero adaptations have several notable examples, like Zendaya taking on the role of Mary Jane Watson in the MCU’s Spider-Man series, or Keiynan Lonsdale and Candis Patton playing Wally and Iris West in the CW’s The Flash. But the announcement that Halle Baily would be cast in the iconic role of Ariel in Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid drew fresh attention to these casting decisions last year.

Like many media outlets, I initially embraced the choice as a sign of progressiveness and inclusivity. Many videos started cropping up online of little girls delighted at the representation of a black Ariel, which seemed to justify the decision.

But, I couldn’t put aside certain nagging misgivings. At the time, I didn’t speak about it more openly over concerns I would be drawn into arguments about political correctness. But I kept wondering – if Disney wanted to give roles to actors from minority groups, why couldn’t they make stories with new characters and content that accurately depicted the experiences of people from those groups?

It’s not like they haven’t made such movies before. Pocahontas, Moana, and The Princess and the Frog have their issues with representation, but they are also stories centred on non-white characters. But a remake that no one asked for expecting praise for simply swapping the race of its lead character feels incredibly disingenuous and even exploitative.

It’s no secret that Disney’s recent trend to live action adaptations of classics has been extremely financially successful, but heavily criticised by fans for their weak storytelling. Still, they are the House of Mouse’s ultimate cash cow, bringing in high returns for low effort.

As audiences are already sold on nostalgia, these movies have rarely felt the need to tell good stories. Instead, they are rushed, sloppily made films that try to pander to a specific audience by carefully crafting their marketing.

As such, one can’t help but question Disney’s decision to cast a black actress in the role of a previously white character. Was it motivated by the filmmakers’ attempt to make the best movie possible, or was it another decision by the company to burnish its politically progressive image while labelling any criticism directed at the film ‘racist propaganda’?

To learn more, I decided to delve further into the views of the people who are the perceived target audience for this decision – black people. What I found was that there was no clear consensus on the way people felt.

Take Patience Xina, for example, a black woman who has her own YouTube channel. In a video titled ‘Why Does Hollywood Keep Doing This?’, she urges members of her community to ‘demand more from filmmakers’ and not celebrate Disney’s choice to ‘recycle already pre-existing characters just so they can do their performative pandering.’

J Peekay, who blogs on Medium, presented a similar perspective in his post ‘I Don’t Want a Black Ariel’. Peekay says that black people should recognise that they are getting the short end of the stick.

“Representation is not something that should just be visual, i.e through seeing a black face in place of another on screen; it should be through diverse stories, characters, settings as well as the casting. Changing the race of Ariel is nothing but cheap, second-hand representation that I’m not backing,” he said.

Similar ideas were shared in Twitter threads and Reddit posts, where members of the black community stated they saw the casting of Ariel as an insincere marketing ploy. Several people who claimed to be parents said they were against showing the new movie to their children because they worried it would teach them to settle for less or be grateful for the bare minimum.

Researching this topic has made it clear that race swapping isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, nor is it a clear positive for members of marginalised communities. While many children and adults view the casting of Halle Bailey as the representation they have longed for, others disapprove of the way Disney has seemingly used the casting to market the film and push their political message.

Representation isn’t a simple binary issue. Sometimes we have to ask whether celebrating the mere idea of diverse representation can end with us silencing the voices of the very people these depictions claim to represent.

This article is part of Stripe,'s special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.