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

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.