Taipei, Taiwan – Hollywood has a China problem.
The world’s second largest economy has become One of the biggest markets for big Hollywood moviesbut the racial backlash against Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is just the latest example of the price a studio can pay if it offends Chinese sensibilities.
Chinese state media and netizens denounced Halle Bailey, who played Princess Ariel, as black – echoing anger among some Americans that the Atlanta-born actress was not like the 1989 animated film Or the light-skinned character expressing anger in the 1837 animated film Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.
In an op-ed last month, the Global Times, an English-language Chinese tabloid known for its nationalist reporting, accused Disney of turning “classic stories into ‘victims’ of political correctness” by casting non-white actors in them. “.
“When the beautiful stories that accompany countless children’s childhoods become the stage for racial conflict, they lose their meaning, become devoid of romance and fantasy, and are replaced by debates about skin color,” the tabloid said, insisting that such casting controversies Not by racism, but by “lazy and irresponsible storytelling”.
The backlash — much of it overtly racist — has also played out among ordinary Chinese moviegoers online.
On social media platforms such as Sina Weibo, some netizens criticized Bailey’s appearance and black facial features.
Other Chinese commentators online left more positive comments, with a poster on the movie website Mayoan saying that Bailey’s appearance had little effect on children and that she represented Princess Ariel’s most basic character trait – bravery The spirit of – hmm.
Yao Zhang, a Chinese-born YouTuber who follows news and culture in China and Taiwan in Canada, said that while China does not have the same racial history or politics as the United States, audiences are still sensitive to the way race is portrayed in Hollywood movies.
Traditional Chinese beauty standards emphasize fair skin and big round eyes, and some viewers and government officials want to see Chinese values reflected on the screen, Zhang said.
“There’s no right way to look at [the film in the US],” Zhang told Al Jazeera. “But in China, there is a 100 percent correct way of understanding it. “
Zhang compared the backlash to the public reaction to supermodel Lu Yan, whose small eyes and high cheekbones were considered unattractive in China but gained fame in the West — despite some Chinese bloggers’ claim Lu Yan’s success is a ploy by the West to make China look bad by boosting its image. “Ugly” women.
Amid negative reports, “The Little Mermaid” underperformed at the box office in China, earning just $3.6 million in 10 days after its May 26 release, according to international film consultancy Artisan Gateway.
Live-action remakes of Disney classics typically gross between $40 million and $85 million in China, according to the consultancy.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Fast and Furious X,” also released in May, have made about $80 million and $120 million, respectively, since their releases.
The failure of “The Little Mermaid” is just the latest example of Hollywood’s struggle to navigate the world’s largest theatrical movie market, which once had an insatiable appetite for American movies.
Competition is especially fierce in China because Chinese censors accept only a few dozen foreign films each year. As of May, only 39 foreign films had been released in 2023, including 18 Hollywood titles. Unlike 20 years ago, Hollywood also has to compete with a booming domestic film industry that produces its own blockbusters.
Studios also face the dilemma of accepting changes to satisfy Chinese censors or risk being shut out of the market.
Sony has been known to alter its 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” in post-production to feature North Korea instead of China invading the United States, costing the studio millions of dollars.
In 2016, a screenwriter for the Marvel action film “Doctor Strange” suggested changing Ancient One’s character’s setting from Tibet to Europe to avoid angering China.
Spider-Man: Homeless, one of the highest-grossing films of all time, was denied a 2021 release in China due to Marvel’s refusal to cut the film’s “patriotic” ending at New York’s Statue of Liberty, news site Puck reported. The studio is estimated to have lost between $170 million and $340 million in sales.
Angering Chinese moviegoers could also have knock-on effects on other films or actors, which could dampen Hollywood’s appetite for resistance to Chinese censorship.
Disney’s 1998 animated film “Mulan” was notoriously delayed in China because of Disney’s backing of Quinton, another film about the Dalai Lama, said Chris Fenton, a former Hollywood executive who also Author of Feed the Dragon: The Trillion-Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & Corporate America.
“They banned everyone involved in a certain film, including the studios involved,” Fenton told Al Jazeera.
“Sometimes the rejection is temporary, like Sony after Red Dawn or Disney after Quinton. Sometimes it’s close to permanent, like [Dalai Lama supporter] Richard Gere or possibly Brad Pitt – though we’ll never know for sure if the actor was banned. Only proof is if the movie they were involved in was never approved. “
Hollywood’s recent resistance to the trend will only work for dollars and cents because the Chinese market is too big to ignore, Fenton said.
“Money drives doing the right thing or the wrong thing, mostly, but the upside is that doing the right thing can be more profitable now,” he said.