Disney’s Taboo (Rethinking The Little Mermaid): Ursula and the Death of Female Power

Posted: July 13, 2013 in Essays, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Why was Ursula the sea witch banished from the Kingdom of Atlantica in Disney’s retelling of The Little Mermaid (1989)? The original fairy tale, written in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen, never even mentions this aspect of the story. In fact, the unnamed sea witch’s role is reduced considerably, and shows her as an advisor to the mermaid rather than a villainess, even though the mermaid states that she has “always been very much afraid” of the witch (19). Still, the function of the sea witch in Andersen’s tale is to help the mermaid obtain an immortal soul by marrying a mortal man, since only humans have everlasting souls, whereas the function of Ursula in the movie version is as a foil to Ariel (the mermaid) achieving her dream of marrying Prince Eric. And at the forefront of the action Ursula wants revenge for being exiled.

A comparison of the two versions brings us closer to developing a reason for Ursula’s banishment, but it does not attack the main source. I want to propose that Ursula’s banishment comes from a need of a contemporary patriarchal society to control women in all aspects of life, ranging from their very individualistic physical appearances to more group-orientated social and political spheres. Thus, Ursula is banished from the Kingdom of Atlantica not because she uses magic, but because she challenges patriarchal values, and possesses ambition, power, and vocality, all characteristics that a Western male-dominated society attempts to smother when associated with women.

As mention briefly above, Ursula is an invention of a new character for a retelling of this classic fairy tale. Film critic Susan White, too, echoes this point in her essay “Split Skins: Female Agency and Bodily Mutilation in The Little Mermaid”: “Ursula seems to have absorbed all the older female characters figuring in the story” (189). The grandmother and the “beautiful princess” in whom the prince marries instead of the mermaid in Andersen’s story have been discarded and instead combined into Ursula. These seem like minor changes, however they dramatically alter the temperament of the witch, for it is the grandmother that tells the mermaid about an eternal soul in Andersen’s version, rather than Ursula tricking Ariel into signing a contract. Similarly, by turning Ursula into the “beautiful princess”, the sea witch becomes a vindictive character, someone that she was not in the original. Interestingly the witch warns the mermaid against trading her fins for feet in Andersen’s version: “It is very foolish of you! All the same you shall have your way, because it will lead you into misfortune, my fine princess” (20). These revisions redesign the sea witch into the central character of malevolence throughout the story, which she readily accepts:  “I’d admit in the past I’ve been a nasty” (The Little Mermaid).

Yet the metamorphosis of the sea witch does not end here. Moreover, she transforms from a basically featureless witch with black blood and an “unsightly bosom” to an obese, white- haired, purple-skinned, half-octopus woman with a propensity for stealing souls. In Andersen’s version the witch only wants a trade of wares (the mermaid’s voice in turn for the witch piercing her bosom to make a magic potion that grants legs) while in Disney’s version Ursula wants Ariel’s voice so she can use it to steal Prince Eric away from the mermaid and capture her soul for eternity. Early on in the movie, when Ursula monologues about her banishment and exile from the palace, she states her means of revenge on Ariel’s father King Triton: “She [Ariel] may be the key to Triton’s undoing” (The Little Mermaid). Ursula has alternative motives in helping Ariel, although in Andersen’s version this motive is not present.

But why have these corrections occurred? The answer at its simplest form is socialization. Yet this is not to say that Andersen’s version is devoid of this facet. Jack Zipes claims in his essay “Hans Christian Andersen and the Discourse of the Dominated” that Andersen’s tales always present “socializing elements” that promote the dominate culture: “From the dominant class point of view his tales were deemed useful and worthy enough for rearing children of all classes, and they became a literary stable in Western culture” (81). The socialization in Andersen’s story comes from the conflict of the class structure—the mermaids represent the lower class with their finite existence while humans represent the upper class with their infinite existence (83). Thus, with his Protestant roots, Andersen’s version displays “salvation through emulation of the upper classes even when “act[ing] as a dominated subject within the dominant social circles” (Zipes 87). In other words, it is better to be slave in a higher class than be a leader in the lower class.

And although Disney’s adaptation comes from a different angle, focusing less on religion and class struggles, it, too, works at socializing the youth. White believes that the movie involves a type of “cannibalism [that] is indirectly aimed at the female body” (193). She argues this by comparing the features of Ariel and Ursula: “The film implicitly vilifies any body that does not fit the paradigm it presents: youth, abundant hair, white teeth, voluptuous breasts (or beefy biceps), and, for women, slenderness” (189). Clearly these characteristics do not represent Ursula. Still, I think that we can go beyond this example by showing how the change in the sea witch’s features from the two versions add to this idea. In addition, the prince’s chef, the other villain of the story, is overweight, which seems to connect evil and body type; the thinner (or buffer) a person is, the better their values.

Even so, this movie aims to destroy more than the tangible female body. It attempts to destroy female autonomy. When Ursula sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” to goad Ariel into handing over her voice, the socialization aspect of the movie is brought to the forefront:

The men up there don’t like a lot of blather. They think the woman that gossips is a bore. Yet on land it’s much preferred that a lady doesn’t say a word, and after all dear, what is idol prattle my dear for…. They’re not all that impressed with idol conversation. True gentlemen avoid it when they can. But they dote and swoon and fawn on a lady who’s withdrawn. It’s she who holds her tongue that gets a man. (The Little Mermaid)

In the above lines, Ursula explains to Ariel that a woman must be subservient in order to “get her man.” The woman with a voice is worthless in the land above. It should come at no surprise then that these sentiments come from the only female character with strength, because she has been banished for her outspokenness.  White is accurate in assuming that the film offers up Ursula as a “bad mirror” to teach young girls of the dangers of aggressiveness in women. Act like Ursula and eventually you will become a “fat, flamboyant, wicked, and power hungry” octopus-woman that no man will want to marry (187).

On that account, the death of Ursula—a dramatic change from Andersen’s version, since the sea witch stays alive and fades away from the foreground of the story anticlimactically—fits the story arch perfectly. The colossal Ursula, swollen with her new powers, finds her life ended by Prince Eric, by a man, as he steers a broken mast somewhat like a phallic symbol right into her womb, paralleling the destruction of feminine power. Ursula’s gigantic form hints at an uncivilized being that must be controlled. When Ursula is in power the world becomes chaos—turbulent seas, rainy skies, and thunder and lighting; but when King Triton is back in power the world returns to sunshine and rainbows. Perhaps Western civilization constricts its people in all dimensions. Those whom do not adhere to a certain set of values created by the dominant culture will be forcibly extinguished.

 Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993.

The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements; John Musker. Perf. Rene Auberjonois, Christopher Daniel Barnes, and Jodi

Benson. Walt Disney Feature Animation, 1989.

White, Susan. “Split Skins: Female Agency and Bodily Mutilation in The Little Mermaid.” Jim Collins; Hilary Radner;

Ava Collins. Film Theory Goes To The Movies. Ed. London: Routledge, 1993.

Zipes, Jack David. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and

                the Process of Civilization. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.

  1. Sherley says:

    This is a great reading of the film. I would also mention that the film frames a woman getting a man as the supreme and most legitimate goal for a woman.

  2. liz says:

    I seriously thought this Disney movie “the little mermaid” was a kids movie…all this explanation makes me wonder if I should or shouldn’t let my
    4y old niece watch it when I’m babysitting ….don’t make political statements about women being less then woman or man having more power…its just a movie with a fantacy for girls to have hope that if u want something you should fight for it even if it had concecuences…but at the end u canake your dream come true n love is big beautifull and forgiving….

    • bejamin4 says:

      The movie is about that from a plot level. But from another level it is about much more. Thanks for visiting, commenting and reading. I’m sure it is still safe to show a 4 year old, although the subliminal messages might still come through. I think the deeper reading is something we see when we watch it adults, and children probably don’t pick up on those ideas. Though a few might.

  3. Ciara Darren says:

    An excellent post. Thoroughly enjoyed the work and research you put into this, especially the section on class. I have to echo Liz and say that I’m not so certain I’ll be showing my kids this right off when it first comes out. I’ll probably reach for Brave first.

  4. V.E.G. says:

    Ursula is based on Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead).

  5. Brandon says:

    I think it’s okay for young girls to watch films like this, but I think it’s also important for their mothers (and fathers) to use it as a chance to open up a dialogue about what women need and what many roles (not just bride) can be attained for women in this world.

  6. Indigo says:

    I think you may have gotten the lyrics to Poor Unfortunate Souls wrong. They actually go like this:

    The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
    They think a girl who gossips is a bore!
    Yet on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word
    And after all dear, what is idle babble for?
    Come on, they’re not all that impressed with conversation
    True gentlemen avoid it when they can
    But they dote and swoon and fawn
    On a lady who’s withdrawn
    It’s she who holds her tongue who get’s a man

  7. Zap says:

    If it is seen that the various male patriarchal control theories constructed by a multitude of Feminist critiques (and specifically the one put forth here) are found to be not true, i.e. the epidemiology of the violence (for that is what is being proposed) towards female is not located in a specific “male” variety of control, how do you think that would change your critique?

    • bejamin4 says:

      Perhaps that would change the critique drastically in an overall sense in regards to a universal claim. However, when it came to actual content as within the movie, the critique would stay the same as the constructs have no overall influence on what the words promote or say. Though male patriarchal control as a less than powerful idea is a very interesting idea. And sometimes certain ideas are only held or promoted to keep us away from the truth of the actual real ideas.

    • bejamin4 says:

      Thanks for commenting. Much to think about in what you said.

  8. cmrsyk1985 says:

    Nice analysis, brother! This makes me want to post some of my research from college. Thanks for the encouragement! I enjoyed two years of studying sociology before I switched majors as a matter of preference. This brings me back – the critical analysis, as well as the content. Bravo!

  9. Heartafire says:

    very fine and intriguing critique of this popular tale…thank you!

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