When "The Little Mermaid" came out in 1989, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ursula — the sea witch who takes Ariel’s voice in exchange for legs — was evil.
The New York Daily News said she “oozes evil from her octopus-like tentacles.” Film critic Roger Ebert called her “evil” and “diabolical.” And The New York Times called her an “evil sea-witch.” She was the villain, plain and simple, and we all cheered when Eric finally ran her through with the prow of a boat.
But, oh dear, poor Ursula, it turns out we were wrong! Ursula wasn’t the villain; she was a victim of the patriarchy!
Ursula Was Just a Victim
In an article for feministing.com, Chloe Angyal explains how blind we’ve all been. The Little Mermaid, she complains, is about “the triumph of ‘good’ women – young, slender, silent and lovesick – over ‘bad’ women – old, voluptuous, outspoken and sexual.” Ursula wasn’t evil — oh no no no no — she was just misunderstood! It wasn’t her diabolical plots and her penchant for turning people into little gray slug plants growing out of her hallway floor that we were reacting to when we called her evil, it was her age, her weight, and her sexuality.
It wasn’t her diabolical plots we were reacting to when we called her evil, it was her age, weight, and sexuality.
Bustle.com published an article by KT Hawbaker titled "Why Ursula From 'The Little Mermaid' Was Actually The Movie's Hero." It shouldn’t surprise us that modern feminists love Ursula. She’s one of them. Whereas Ariel is after the fulfillment of her dream to be human and her desire to be with the man she loves, Ursula is after power. She doesn’t want to be a wife or a mother; she wants to be the queen of all the ocean — she wants to excel in the world of men.
Whereas Ariel is after the fulfillment of her dream to be human and to be with the man she loves, Ursula is after power.
Moreover, whereas Ariel’s only concern with her body is that it allows her to exist in the place where she wants to live, Ursula is very aware of the power the female body possesses over men.
“You’ve got your looks,” she famously explains, when Ariel asks her how she’s supposed to win Eric’s love without the use of her voice, “your pretty face. And don’t underestimate the power of body language!” In a world dominated by men, Ursula is willing to use whatever she’s got — even her body — to win power for herself. For Ursula, sleeping around is A-okay because men are worthless anyway, so no big deal. Is any of this sounding familiar?
Are Female Villains Really the Good Guys?
Modern feminists love to try to rehabilitate female villains. It’s their femaleness — the theory goes — not their actions that have caused us to think of them as evil. And this must be rectified. Just look at the way Disney is now creating movies — like Maleficent and Cruella — that cast female villains as misunderstood protagonists. ABC’s popular fairy tale show Once Upon A Time, which casts Snow White’s Evil Queen as a victim of a tragic childhood.
In an article for The Atlantic about the 2012 Snow White retelling Mirror Mirror, Elizabeth Greenwood writes that the Evil Queen is “the true feminist heroine of the film because she is dead set on maintaining power, and unfortunately, beauty was her only currency.” Just like Ursula.
Greenwood goes on to say that, “The Queen's struggle to maintain influence over the kingdom . . . is far more compelling than the plight of a waif who cooks and cleans and waits for her prince to come.” They’re not villains; they’re feminists!
The Evil Queen is “The true feminist heroine of the film because she is dead set on maintaining power.”
1989 marked the end of feminism’s second wave. It was also the beginning of Disney’s renaissance. Films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King put Disney — which had long been struggling — back on the map. It also brought Disney princesses back into our lives. The last Disney princess had been Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty) back in 1959 when feminism as we know it was as yet unheard of. Critics and filmmakers looked back on those early princess films and decided that, in this new wave of feminism, things were going to have to change.
Is the Villain Really the Patriarchy?
One of these changes concerned villains directly. After The Little Mermaid, villains in Disney princess films became male (except for Mother Gothel from Tangled). Before that, they’d all been female. But now all those unfortunate, misunderstood female villains were really the victims. It wasn’t their fault they existed within a patriarchal system that turned a desire for ultimate power, an emphasis on sex, and an interest in killing innocent virgins into a bad thing. Well, never again. Now the villains would be men because the real evil in this world is the patriarchy.
But look at what those female villains were promoting! For all the feminist complaints that fairy tale princesses are superficial — obsessed with beauty and finding the most powerful man to marry — their beloved female villains sure have a lot to answer for.
"The Evil Queen is so obsessed with beauty that she’s willing to kill to maintain her status as the “fairest.
The Evil Queen is so obsessed with beauty that she’s willing to kill to maintain her status as the “fairest.” Ursula suggested Ariel use her sex appeal to win a man. Cinderella’s stepfamily is so intimidated by Cinderella’s beauty and grace that they make her a servant. Maleficent was prepared to kill a child because she didn’t get invited to a party. But, yeah, the princesses are the superficial ones. Sure.
When feminists read fairy tales, they willingly cast themselves as the wicked witch. They're the villains, obsessed with power, with beauty, with wielding their sexuality as a weapon to confuse and topple men. And they want us to believe that this — not the pursuit of love, of dreams, of justice — is the real purpose of life. The mask is thrown aside; the spell is broken, the mirror has told the truth: the wicked witch is a feminist. Long live the princesses!