On feminist icons, let’s start with Disney’s Ursula

On feminist icons, let's start with Disney's Ursula

In a world of Disney princesses, Charley Barnes explains why Disney’s villains might make for better role models, with one particular sea-witch in mind… 

It is a testimony to one’s age and experience when you arrive at a point to say: I relate to Disney’s villains far more than I do the princesses. I was twenty-three when I said this for the first time – in the throes of Doctoral research about misrepresentations of violent women – but I stand by the sentiment these years later. Furthermore, I know it’s an expression many friends – female friends, to be specific – also stand by. Sooner or later, the flaws of the princesses become all too apparent and we’re forced to look elsewhere for “womanly” guidance and inspiration. Where better than the villains?

Disney provides us with ample choice here. Take Cruella De Vil and her desperate need to flay puppies; the Queen of Hearts who – in her distorted body, one way or another – can’t help but order heads to roll wherever she goes; The Evil Queen – because why even name this one – who simply wants to be the most beautiful woman, always.

And then, there’s Ursula…

“There weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch…”

I have a long-standing fascination with Ursula that grows with every listen to Poor Unfortunate Souls. Through The Little Mermaid (1989), we learn little about the iconic villain beyond these basic facts: she is banished from King Triton’s kingdom; she’s been known to use dark magic; and…

There’s very little else to take away from Ursula’s introduction, and yet she remains a fear and a threat throughout the entirety of the film. However, from her own perspective – skewed though it may be – all she truly persists in doing is helping ‘unfortunate merfolk’, ‘poor souls with no one else to turn to’. Ursula even illustrates this for us with two shining beacons of social outcasts from Triton’s picture-perfect kingdom: ‘this one wants to get the girl’, sung in reference to a lank and down-trodden merman; ‘this one longing to be thinner’, sung in reference to a curvaceous merwoman who looks equally down-trodden – because how could a fat woman be anything but?

And then, there’s Ursula again…

“…don’t underestimate the importance of body language”

To address the proverbial elephant in the ocean, it cannot go unnoticed that Ursula is plus-sized. This is made significantly more obvious by the trim figures of the merwomen around her, but also the mermen, who remain perfectly toned well into their old-age if Triton is anything to judge by.

Furthermore, not only is Ursula a plus-sized character but she is also one who appears to be comfortable with her body and her sexuality. If we pause here to consider her sultry introduction to the second-half of Poor Unfortunate Souls, we will find Ursula jutting her hips and dancing provocatively while informing Ariel that she has her looks, and ergo will be equipped enough to make a man fall in love with her.

However, while Ursula may appear comfortable in her plus-size skin, the film provides several opportunities first for mockery and secondly for vilification of overweight individuals. The mockery is apparent through Ursula’s own dialogue: ‘And now look at me, wasted away to practically nothing.’ The vilification is equally apparent through Ursula’s very role in the film. Significantly, she is the only overweight character and retains her status as the ultimate villain in The Little Mermaid universe. This is capitalised on further at a later point in the film when, achieving her goal of gaining ultimate power over the sea, Ursula expands physically in size. The belief here that evil equates to bigger, or rather fatter, is apparent and it sets a dangerous precedent for viewers of the film.

“It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man…”

A problematic element of Ursula’s character is the inherit misogyny that sits within her. This is most apparent in her desire to tear down “the pretty girl” – or rather, the princess. The notion of women turning against women is rooted in the assumption that women are inherently “bitchy”, but it is largely a patriarchal society that has built this assumption and passed it on to women – as evidenced by some of Ursula’s behaviour. She carries with her a violence towards another woman that could be borrowed from the mouth of an embittered man. However, for me, this reinforces the worth of her character by showing this violence, this spite and this anger as something that exists on a gender continuum rather than something that is “male” or “female”.

Admittedly, it’s possible to read Ursula’s rage as being directed towards Ariel’s looks, and perhaps in part it is. However, the more likely reason for this rage is Triton who casts Ursula out of “his ocean” to begin with. Ariel is merely a tool for revenge in the character trope of a woman scorned, which illustrates Ariel in the meek and passive role that Ursula gifts to her through the Poor Unfortunate Souls track.

When Ariel protests against losing her voice, Ursula soon reassures her that human men are ‘not all that impressed with conversation’. It is at this point during Ursula’s anthem that her fierce feminism and uncomfortable awareness of the patriarchy becomes fully realised. She continues with, ‘they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn’ to allude to the urban myth of men being more attracted to women who appear unavailable, or at the very disinterested in them. An additional interpretation of this small but mighty line could be that men on land are thought to be less interested in women who possess determination towards achieving personal goals (thereby creating a challenge for the men around them should these personal goals be realised). A withdrawn woman will not only be less challenging to a man, but she is also likely to be less experienced – in many ways – and, ones assumes, more subservient.

To that end, it is Ursula’s patent awareness of these rules ‘on land’ where ‘it’s preferred for ladies not to say a word’ that loads her feminist standing as she not only shows an impressive awareness for the patriarchal construct of the human world, but she uses it entirely to her advantage to aid her revenge plot.

“I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day…”

Insofar as using things to her advantage, Ursula’s entrepreneurial endeavours are another element of her character that illustrate this. Despite being outcast for her use of powerful magic, she now uses these abilities to barter for whatever she trophy she desires from one individual to the next. Through the chilling shot of her previous “customers”, now confined to a life in the sea-witch’s cave, it seems a safe assumption to make that business has been booming.

Far from cast down by Triton’s tirade against her, Ursula demonstrates the ability, wherewithal and determination to have made something from her skills, to the extent that it supports her standard of living. Arguably, yas, Ursula wants for some things – namely, more power and revenge – however as a businesswoman she has certainly done a fine job of building a company with a unique selling point that undercuts others in a similar area to her; for example, those in need of magical assistance are much more likely to go to Ursula to barter than they are to go to Triton and beg for the help they need.

“It won’t cost much, just your voice!”

Significantly, of all the things that are taken from Ursula in the off-screen narrative of The Little Mermaid her voice is not one of them. Rather than trading her right to speak for the chance of human love – something that warrants another discussion entirely – Ursula instead acquires a second voice in Ariel’s, giving her a mouthpiece that those around her are much more likely to listen to.

However, the element I find most attractive about the character of Ursula is the intersectional feminist theory that can be pinned to her. A strong woman of colour – note that she is the only non-white merwoman featured in the film – who shows strong business skills and a high level of intellect despite, one assumes, not having the same advantages that the likes of Triton – the patriarchal figure of the piece – likely had himself. Furthermore, although her age is not disclosed she has greyed, unlike the female characters around her, thereby implying Ursula is of an age significantly older than her fellow castmates. There is even an opportunity to bring in the discussion of language and culture through Ursula’s standing, as she introduces an element of the occult – through her reliance on witchcraft – and shows an awareness for a tongue other than American-English (consider the incantation used to strip Ariel of her voice in the first instance).

A multi-layered character if ever there was one, Ursula stands out as an iconic Disney villain for the reasons already outlined – and more! There is potential here to write an entire thesis around Ursula and how she, rather than Ariel herself, shows a level of ingenuity and ambition that viewers should aspire to.

However, rather than continue in this vein for another fifteen-hundred words – which I truly believe I could – I’m intrigued to know what readers think might be additional points worth adding to the discussion of Ursula. I’m aware this one essay is by no means exhaustive of the topic of whether Ursula is a feminist icon, intersectionalist or otherwise, but I’d welcome responses in the following areas from anyone who’d like to submit their thoughts:

  1. In response to points raised in this discussion, whether you would like to lend agreement or dispute
  2. In addition to points raised in this discussion, whether you’d like to share your own affinity with the character
  3. To complement some ideas raised in this discussion, whether you’d like to submit your own (feminist) study of another Disney villain

All pitches can be made directly to me, Charley, by emailing me at [email protected].