We Need To Talk About Gabriella

I've shared my love of Disney's animated Little Mermaid series on here many times in the past. My favorite episode of the show is called "Wish Upon a Starfish." In it, Ariel meets a deaf mermaid named Gabriella, and they go on a quest together to find a magic wishing starfish so Ariel can have legs to dance and Gabriella can have a voice to sing. The episode contained one of the best songs from the series, "Daring to Dance," and has a fascinating backstory behind it. Gabriella was not selected at random to give Ariel another mermaid to be friends with. She was actually based on a two-year-old girl, who was one of the show's biggest fans, named Gabriella Angelina Bommino. When the episode went into production, Gabriella was dying of leukemia. Through the Make a Wish Foundation, the Disney animators designed a mermaid based on Gabriella's image to show her family what she would have looked like if she hadn't passed away so tragically young. This episode was a beautiful tribute to Gabriella, her family, and all the sick children in the world who love princesses.

Why am I bringing this up now? I wish it was simply to share my memories of this episode with you and pay tribute to this tragic story and how it demonstrates the power of the princess spirit, caring about those in need, and providing representation for disabled characters. However, that's not the reason I am making this post today. Three years ago, when Halle Bailey was announced as the lead actress in the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid, it created a hailstorm of online negativity and hate, almost all of which was undeserved. Then the hype died down, and the world was at peace for a while. Unfortunately, that was only the calm before the story. After the trailer was released at the D23 Expo a few weeks ago, the negativity ramped again with countless videos, essays, and flame wars about whether or not it was okay to change a Disney Princess's race. Initially, I was going to ignore all of this because I had already said my piece three years ago, and the only thing I'm concerned about now is seeing how the movie turns out. However, when the drama resurfaced in the form a viral meme on social media making a bunch of false claims about a character based on a real little girl's tragic story, I knew it was time to intervene again.

Image of Ariel and Gabriella containing the following misinformation: "In The Little Mermaid (1991), Ariel meets an African mermaid from the Ivory Coast. This is because mermaids are fictional and can be black."

When Gabriella passed away and her visage was featured in the animated Little Mermaid series, her race had nothing to do with the tribute. However, now it seems that's all people can talk about. Not only was Gabriella's family Italian, she was also a sick little girl who was used for positive disability representation, something that was unusual on a series like this in the '90s. Recently, this incredibly disrespectful meme has been spreading all over the internet about how "Ariel meets an African mermaid from the Ivory Coast because mermaids are fictional and can be black." Not only does it fail to mention that Gabriella was a real little girl who loved mermaids so much that she became one after passing away at a tragically young age, but it also misrepresents her race as a Latina. She is being used as a tool to promote "the message" instead of the respectful tribute she was created as to show her family what their daughter would have looked like if she had survived past the age of two.

I recently reviewed Jodi Benson's book, Part of My World, and in it, she talks about a close relative named Kylie who passed away from cancer at the age of twelve. She thought Kyle was recovering and had a big plan to put her on stage in a Broadway production similar to the way Gabriella was placed in an episode of her series, but Kylie never made it. Jodi discusses this as one of the darkest periods of her life and the only time she ever truly questioned her faith. This shows us that it would be equally important to Jodi to see other children who passed on before their time to be presented faithfully and not to have their identity stripped and altered to support some sort of political agenda. Not that it matters, but Jodi completely supports Halle Bailey as the next Ariel as do I because that has nothing to do with this issue.

If you seen this meme on social media, I implore you to share a link to Gabriella's story and do everything in your power to stop the spread of misinformation. These tactics are incredibly disrespectful to the Bommino family and go against everything princesses stand for. I'm hoping to mentor a little girl myself one day, and it would break my heart to see her image reduced to a meme that focuses entirely on the color of her skin as opposed to what's in her heart. Not only is this an insult to Gabriella's family, but it is also insulting to the deaf community as the meme erases her disability that was celebrated so beautifully in the episode's finale. Can we please be adults about this and respect the children who were moved by these princesses up until their final days on Earth? After all, isn't that what brought us together to celebrate princesses in the first place?

Update: After I shared this post, the Facebook page called CineMarvellous changed the caption on an image of Ariel and Gabriella to say " Gabriella's appearance in '92 #TheLittleMermaid series might have no meaning, but the new remake hails African folklore tiny.one/mamiwata"


I thought the episode was pretty good, but with this information, I have more appreciation for it now.
Sugar said…
I wonder if maybe people selfishly believe that the true inspiration of the character doesn't matter as long as they're championing a good cause like fighting racism.
I always mention discoveries of princess books and when I saw Mermaids I remembered a retelling of the little mermaid that I read recently, it's darker than others it's called "To Kill a Kingdom" by Alexandra Christo.
It draws from the ancient tradition of Mermaids as sailor killers, and Lyra is nothing like Ariel, but it has many traditional fairy tale elements: An evil queen, the princess who discovers herself, the fight of good against evil(the fight scene of the prince and Lyra vs the evil sea witch queen is somewhat reminiscent of a more mature version of Disney)let's not forget the Easter eggs like Lyra is redheaded and the sea witches are Cecaelias (Mermaids with tentacles) also the protagonist couple are both capable warriors neither sits down to wait for the other to do everything and I like that, the prince does not it's useless.
Lisa Dawn said…
Yes, they definitely believe that because people were arguing with me even after I revealed that the actual person was a different race than the meme and was depicted to be that race in the series, rendering the meme false.

That book reminds me of A.M. Marshall's retelling of The Little Mermaid from the Villain's Ever After series. I believe it was called The Prince and the Sea Witch. Mermaids were evil in that one as well, especially the little mermaid.

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