While Ariel barters her art for romance, Ursula remains witchy and creative. As she sings her story-song in the film, she conjures images of what she’s describing above her cauldron as all writers long to be able to do with their writing. She’s capable of creative magic, of making something exist out of nothingness.
In contrast to the voiceless Ariel, Ursula’s the first Disney villain to get her own song. Ursula belts out the phenomenal “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in that unforgettable husky Pat Carroll half-growl, shaking that lavish animated bosom in our faces, bursting the screen with the sheer fact of herself. In her wildness, she evades all attempts at definition.
Ursula doesn’t even have quite enough tentacles to make her an official octopus hybrid (because that would have been too hard to animate), but this makes her even more so her own entity entirely. If the monster has long been read as the merger between human and animal or even multiple animals, Ursula isn’t even a legible monster, and that’s just how I liked her.
Even the bodies of the sea witch and the little mermaid were so different. I remember figuring that Ursula could probably stow the entire Ariel in her brassiere and nobody would be the wiser. It was difficult to comprehend how that little mermaid, an almost invisible slip of a fish who hovers in the background while the sea witch sings, could ever ponder giving up still more of herself.
We can see the wildly divergent gender and sexuality messaging behind Ursula and Ariel in their animators’ inspiration. For Ariel they looked to standard American male masturbation material, Alyssa Milano in Who’s the Boss, and for Ursula they looked to Harris Milstead, a.k.a the drag performer Divine from such John Waters’ films as the 1972 Pink Flamingos. It’s only fitting since all Divine wanted as a young boy was to be a Disney Villain.
John Waters bestowed upon him his moniker, Divine, and his satirical tagline: “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” This use of Divine, a drag performer who upends traditional notions of gender and sexuality, as a model fits the campy, powerful, genre-defying Ursula quite nicely. The choice also resonates with the fact that Anderson sent his Little Mermaid fairy tale to an unrequited male love interest. In keeping with this renegade gender and sexuality lineage, Ursula directly opposes Ariel, who serves as a paean to heterosexual male desire.
I can still recall wondering what it would look like if Ariel and Ursula just forgot about the prince and married each other. I figured there would be a lot of bickering and breaking things, but at least nobody would have to give up either their tail or their tale. Then again, Ursula would probably get bored of that relationship pretty fast.
With her sauciness and subversive subtext, Ursula has more panache in a single tentacle than Ariel, but, I was assured, it was Ariel in her practical nonexistence that was just the thing to turn boys’ heads, and didn’t I want to turn heads? I thought so, and yet I wanted to access Ursula’s subversive power in my creative life, and the two desires seemed to be at odds with one another.
It struck me that both the creative and the monstrous lived beyond the borders of what is considered to be thinkable, and that was exactly where I wanted to go. I felt my writing to be a dark art brewing in some cauldron inside of me for which I didn’t yet have words. I sensed that my creative force was buried deep down in my own private sea witch bower.
When I got bored in class, I would imagine alternative realities for that little mermaid in which she got to be more like the sea witch. In these waking dreams, Ariel sometimes took over Ursula’s body, letting her fingers glide over hew newfound expansiveness, palming a tentacle, singing all the while, making infinite potions.
I had a strange sense, though, that these two sea creations Ursula and Ariel were somehow more correlated than they first seemed. I later learned that mermaids have long been linked to sirens, who more closely resemble the sea witch. The word mermaid is lexically similar to the Old English term merewīf or water-witch. In The Odyssey, another sea witch, Circe, tells Odysseus of the sirens, “There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them,” and in the Little Mermaid fairy tale, the sea witch’s lair is “built with the bones of shipwrecked human beings.”
Sirens famously drew sailors to shipwreck, so that image of Ariel rescuing Prince Eric is a reversal of this. If the mermaid is the sea witch defanged, then the warning was this: if you don’t watch your manners, if you don’t mutilate yourself into the perfect mermaid, you will end up as the sea witch—alone and ultimately destroyed for the gender “safety” of our society, to ensure that our romance factory just keeps right on chugging. And so now I understand why successfully turning into a “woman” felt like losing my tail.
I remember when I was little, I would joyously lift up my shirt to show my little boy friends that I was just like them, that we were the same, and back then we were. And then we weren’t. It all felt like some outside force overtaking my body. As a teenager I felt like I was being pranked by some playful sprite who got her kicks by playing fast and loose with humans.
I suppose the mermaid monster appealed to me because who hasn’t felt at least the littlest bit hybrid, part whatever this is and part something other, perhaps most vividly in adolescence when you truly are in the process of transforming from this to that.
Although softened to standard grade mean girls for the 1953 Disney movie, unlike Ariel, and in true sea witch fashion, the mermaids in J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter Pan are truly dangerous. “A sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon” haunts the book, and at one point, “a mermaid caught Wendy by the feet, and began pulling her softly into the water.”
I was starting to see that I was in danger of acquiring some sort of Peter Pan syndrome myself if growing up meant I had to stop being the sea witch and instead become the boring, obedient little mermaid who can’t feel complete without a man. And so I decided at the age of seven not to marry, to grow old and fat all alone in my fish bower, just writing all through the night, taking breaks only to howl at the moon.
This is part Two. You can read Part One here.