Written by Brigit McCone as part of our theme week on Unlikable Women.
A Bitch Flicks review of the film Bridesmaids analyzes it using Maureen Murdock’s model of psychological descent and confrontation with the dark feminine. In Bridesmaids, it is Melissa McCarthy’s “dark feminine” mentor who must literally slap sense into Kristen Wiig’s heroine. She must bite Wiig in the ass, to symbolize life biting her ass and provoke her to fight back.
Such unruly mentors are more commonly male. The Empire Strikes Back‘s Yoda is a beloved mentor, yet pushes Luke to his physical limits and forces him to confront his deepest fears. The Lion King‘s Rafiki beats Simba’s head with a stick, to teach him to learn from pain. Dodgeball‘s Rip Torn targets defenceless adolescents while bellowing, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!” Yet, if any elder woman endangers our heroine’s naivete or passivity, she is usually a villain. Tough love isn’t likable. Our Fairy Godmothers offer a change of wardrobe, not trials by fire. Outside the Buffyverse, the right to “have every square inch of your ass kicked” is an under-appreciated male privilege. After all, Cinderella is a woman enslaved in a house she could leave. She doesn’t need a new dress; she needs a new attitude. Cinderella needs a Fairy Godmother who will bite her ass to save her soul. Instead, she gets slippers. What is it with women and shoes, am I right?
In a recent post, I used the model of “Manawee,” from Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book of storytelling and Jungian psychology, Women Who Run With the Wolves. I now look to Estés model of female initiation in “Vasalisa the Wise.” In her reading, Estés takes the Baba Yaga, the sinister witch of Russian folklore, and examines her as Crone mother and initiator into wisdom. It is Estés’ belief that feminine teaching tales are often distorted by patriarchal disapproval; our mentors are rewritten as our villains, our role models as our cautionary tales.
Ursula the Sea Witch, from The Little Mermaid, seems a prime candidate to reclaim as tough love mentor, as directors Ron Clements and John Musker did themselves with Mama Odie; what other villains make “evil” schemes so perfectly tailored to help “victims” confront mental obstacles and achieve personal growth? Ursula actually shares many qualities with McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids: she is sexually assertive, shameless, and models fat acceptance. She positively oozes anarchic vitality. We are drawn to these qualities in McCarthy but, as young girls, we learn through Ursula that they are grotesque and associated with evil. Theoretically. We’re not told why Ursula was banished from Triton’s palace, but she embodies “dark feminine” qualities that are routinely suppressed or mocked by our own culture. Ursula’s show-stopper, “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” presents case studies of mermen and mermaids made miserable by culture. What this song really teaches is that internalizing cultural messages is a fatal weakness, and rejecting cultural conditioning is a source of great power. Small wonder that Ursula had to die the most gruesome onscreen death in all of Disney.
The punishment for failing Ursula is harsh: transformation into a worm-creature. As her victims are shriveled and rooted to the spot, the process resembles grotesquely accelerated aging. But, just as McCarthy yells, “I’m life!” before biting Wiig’s ass, challenging Wiig to fight for her “shitty life,” so we can read a darker version of that challenge in Ursula’s threat: “I’m life. I will wither your flesh and steal your beauty. I will hunch your back and shrink your body. I will drain your power and tie you down. Face me. Fight me. For I am life. Now, make your choice.” Ursula confronts “victims” with a stark choice indeed: dig a little deeper or surrender all power. Yet, in the slow creep of everyday aging, we face that same choice without noticing. We choose wrongly, because we are not made conscious that we are choosing at all. Ursula challenges that inertia, demands that we define our desires, and face ourselves honestly. Ursula mercilessly punishes self-pity. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. But what is worth fighting for? Always let your Conch-wench be your guide:
Lesson 1: Your Voice Is a Terrible Thing to Waste[caption id="attachment_19047" align="aligncenter" width="500"] “Your silence will not protect you” – Audre Lorde[/caption]
The Little Mermaid has been described as an anti-feminist film, in which a girl must sacrifice her voice to get a man. Not so. Not only does Eric love Ariel’s voice, but it is by Ursula’s bargain that the mermaid learns to appreciate it herself. When we meet Ariel, she is conducting extensive research into the human world, yet never shares her findings or seriously challenges Triton’s bigotry. She has “the most beautiful voice,” but skips rehearsals and concerts to sing in solitude. She falls in love with a man, but confesses that love only to his statue. Ariel is a character wasting her voice in every possible way. Her first honest outburst: “Daddy, I love him!” is the catalyst for her descent to the Crone Octomother, to face Ursula’s trials.
Ursula sings mockingly to Ariel that her voice is a “trifle, never miss it,” and sneers “it’s she who holds her tongue that gets her man.” She dares to voice (ha!) a cultural message that gains power from being unspoken. Ariel has been rewarded for her princess status and “pretty face” all her life, but discouraged from voicing her opinions. She has chosen silent rebellion over self-expression. She has chosen wrongly, because she was not made conscious she was choosing at all. Surrendering her voice teaches its value, climaxing when Ursula seduces Eric with that same voice. Ariel’s happy ending can only come after she fights to regain her voice, exposing her true feelings in the process. Lesson learned.
Lesson 2: Power Is Not Given, But Taken[caption id="attachment_19048" align="aligncenter" width="500"] “Power can be taken but not given” – Gloria Steinem[/caption]
Ursula believes in her own power to rule. She does not wait for permission or recognition; her confidence is absolute and she bends life to her will. With tactical skill, she forces Triton to surrender his power to her. Of course, rule by Ursula’s matriarch would be dictatorship, as unjust as that of Triton’s patriarch. But it is society’s attempts to banish Ursula that make fairer power-sharing impossible. The more she is opposed, the larger she swells and the more violent the storms that prove her power. Recall Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Ursula is a born agitator; hear her waters’ awful roar as she smashes King Triton’s patriarchy. After all, our heroine Ariel is not granted her dream by Triton either, until she has dared to defy his rule and seize it independently. The lesson is clear: power must be taken before it will be given.
Lesson 3: It’s Patriarchy Or Your Daughter[caption id="attachment_19049" align="aligncenter" width="500"] “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem[/caption]
King Triton is a patriarch trapped in traditions that crush Ariel’s dreams and silence her voice. He chooses his own power as ruler over the happiness of his beloved daughter. He chooses it, because he is not made conscious that he is choosing at all. Octomother Ursula confronts him with that choice in the harshest terms. Ariel is literally trapped, withering in accelerated aging. Her freedom is incompatible with Triton’s power as king. Which is more important? When faced with the conscious choice, and his daughter’s visible disempowerment, Triton realizes that his own life and power mean less to him than hers. When he regains his power at the film’s end, he uses that power to liberate Ariel and support her choices. The idea that patriarchs must sacrifice female freedom to uphold tradition is another cultural message that gains power from being unspoken. Confronting his choice has a profound effect on Triton, transforming him into a just ruler.
Lesson 4: Screw Body Policing[caption id="attachment_19050" align="aligncenter" width="500"] “Dare to be as physically robust and varied as you always were” – Susie Orbach[/caption]
Hopefully, as research shows fat-shaming leads to weight gain, we can finally abandon our mumbling about health concerns and admit that it is simply another bullying tactic to enforce social hierarchy. Among Ursula’s “poor, unfortunate souls” are an obese mermaid and a puny merman, both obviously depressed and self-conscious. She sings, “This one longing to be thinner, that one wants to get the girl,” then Ursula transforms them into conventionally beautiful specimens and they fall in love. Of course, they could have fallen in love just as well in their original forms, but the same culture that taught them to despise themselves has also taught them to disdain each other. We are never told the price for which Ursula “rakes them across the coals,” but we can see that their love is made weak by being conditional on external approval – they have literally surrendered control over their self-image. Dreamworks’ Shrek offered a longer critique of such conditional “romance,” but Ursula’s “paaathetic!” said it all.
Ursula is by far the most sexual and confident woman in the film. She applies lipstick with relish, gyrates and flaunts her curves without shame. Later, she takes the form of a slender beauty to trick the human world–meaning that Ursula had the power to appear thin any time, but understood it was irrelevant to her self-esteem and enjoyment of her body. Thin Ursula still loves the fat lady in the mirror. With an image inspired by drag legend Divine, not since Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter has there been such a defiantly flamboyant villain/liberator.
Lesson 5: Don’t Dream It, Be It[caption id="attachment_19051" align="aligncenter" width="500"] “Men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims” – Betty Friedan[/caption]
I’ve discussed my objections to Ursula violating Eric by brainwashing him. It is totally out of character with her previous bargains and their dependence on free will. It also misses a much more interesting chance–to confront Eric with a choice between the substance of his dream girl and the surface of his dream. Prince Eric is introduced as a commitmentphobe, who dreams of an ideal woman he has never met. He claims he will recognize her when he finds her, then fails to recognize Ariel as “the one” without her singing voice. Instead, he pines over a singing girl that he barely glimpsed (paaathetic!). So, Eric hesitates. He requires entire animal orchestras to nudge him into action. He chooses to miss his opportunity for love, because he is not made conscious that he is choosing at all. After waking up to how Ursula has enslaved him with the false allure of his own fantasy, Eric finally confronts its hollowness. He is forced to stop hesitating and choose: lose Ariel forever or fight for the girl who is right before his eyes. The commitmentphobe must commit (ha!) to saving Ariel at any cost, diving into the ocean where he almost drowned and piloting the ship where he almost burned. It is a Zen principle of enlightenment that one must kill the Buddha, empowering no master to limit your independent development and self-discovery. As Ariel and Eric unite to kill Ursula, their enlightenment seems complete.
Ursula’s trident sinks through the water, setting her captives free. We can interpret this as the final will of the Sea Witch, at the end of her pupils’ trials. Perhaps now, the mermaid who longs to be thinner, and the merman who longs for the girl, can learn to long for each other as they always were. Certainly, our king has learned to use his power to liberate, our prince has learned that real love is choice and struggle, and our heroine has learned to treasure her voice and opinions. Yes, Ursula the Fairy Octomother has had the odd complaint but, on the whole, she has been a saint to those poor, unfortunate souls.
Somebody, please introduce Ursula to Cinderella
Brigit McCone adored The Little Mermaid growing up (but weirdly overidentified with Sebastian the reggae crab), writes and directs short films and radio dramas and is the author of “The Erotic Adventures of Vivica” under her cabaret pseudonym Voluptua von Temptitillatrix. Her hobbies include doodling and bad karaoke.