In early July 2019, Haile Bailey’s casting as main character Ariel in a live-action reboot of Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid caused controversy on social media, sparking a meme about another person of color having appeared in the original animated television series from the early 1990s.
In the meme linked above, what appears to be a screenshot of The Little Mermaid is overlaid with the following text:
Just so we’re clear, there are racists right now trying to use science to prove that mermaids, non-existent mythological characters, are white.
By the way, meet Gabriella from the 1992 cartoon.
The meme referenced various commenters on social media using pseudoscience to “prove” that mermaids — which by all accounts do not actually exist — can only be white, a number of tweets and other posts took exception to the selection of Bailey, who is a black woman, portraying Ariel. One argument held:
My opinion on why mermaids are white is that they live so deep underwater that sunlight hardly reaches them, thus the lack of melanin. It doesn’t matter what ocean they’re from cos they could’ve been migrating seasonally like fishes. But maybe im thinking too much.
Mermaids live in ocean. Underwater = limited sunlight. Limited sunlight = less melanin. Less melanin = lighter skin color. Because they live underwater, which has no access to light beyond a certain depth, Ariel and every other mermaid in existence would be albino
But a number of claims about Ariel’s purported canonical whiteness rested on the canon in Disney’s original The Little Mermaid, appealing to the purported lack of diversity in movies and shows produced by the company throughout the 1990s. In turn, memes appeared describing the purported existence of Gabriella, a friend of Ariel’s in the series.
Prior to the announcement of Bailey’s casting as Ariel, a short video about Gabriella circulated on Facebook in March 2019:
Gabriella was also mentioned in a December 2017 article, where she was described as deaf and Latina:
For little girls of the 90s, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” was more than a box office sensation. It was an adventure into an another world, an introduction to romance, and an important lesson on why as women we need our voices. Yeah, ICYMI: “The Little Mermaid” was hopped up on all types of feminism.
It was a huge deal. So much so that the studios launched a television series of the same name in 1993 that deep-dove even further into the adventures of Ariel’s life and lessons on girl power. Most importantly, the show introduced the production giant’s coolest representation of intersectional feminism of ALL time.
In the television series “The Little Mermaid,” Gabriella was Ariel’s deaf Latina mermaid friend, AKA: Disney’s great educator of diversity.
Gabriella’s entry on the Disney Fandom Wiki noted she appeared in the television version of The Little Mermaid in 1992:
Gabriella is a recurring character in Disney’s 1992-93 television series The Little Mermaid. She is a deaf Latina mermaid who communicates in sign language; her friend Ollie, an octopus, serves as her interpreter. The character of Gabriella was based off of a girl who was a fan of the show but had died during the show’s first season.
As mentioned in several of the above links, the character of Gabriella was modeled after a young fan of The Little Mermaid who died of leukemia:
When 2-year-old Gabriella Angelina Bommino died of leukemia [in November 1992], her parents despaired that “we would never know what our daughter would look like when she was older,” her mother, Antonietta Bommino, said.
Through the work of Disney animators, however, the Bommino family, along with a national television audience, on Saturday will see an artist’s impression of what Gabriella would have looked like as a teen-ager. The studio combined plans to introduce a hearing-impaired character in its CBS cartoon series “The Little Mermaid” with a tribute to the little girl who may have been mermaid Ariel’s biggest fan.
“We didn’t have a name or a face for the character, and when we heard about Gabriella, it all fit together,” “Little Mermaid” writer and producer Patsy Cameron said.
For five months [in 1992], while she endured painful bone-marrow tests and treatments, Gabriella watched the 1989 animated “The Little Mermaid” feature three or four times a day. It so happened that she was being treated at Children’s Hospital in San Diego and that Cameron had done volunteer work there as a teen-ager. Late last October, Cameron decided to visit the hospital and called the Child-Life Program offering to bring copies of a children’s book she’d written and “Little Mermaid” mementos … Cameron and her partners, Tedd Anasti and Jamie Mitchell, were so moved by Gabriella’s story and her affection for “The Little Mermaid” that they decided, with the Bomminos’ permission, to incorporate her in their series.
In a sequence from the show, Ariel and Gabriella dance:
The memes about Gabriella’s canonical appearance in 1992’s television The Little Mermaid are accurate. The character of Gabriella was a Latina mermaid modeled after a young fan of the film who died while the show was being developed, and despite the input from numerous self-styled internet pundits, living under the sea did not affect the melanin content of her skin.