Criminals in the media have always been associated with groups, cultures, and behaviors that are seen as outside the “norm” of society, and since the early days of cinema this has often been the villain given the queer code. the form of a male villain who is portrayed as feminine, dandy, and deceitful. This trend as a whole has been deemed offensive and out of date, trying to associate LGBT+ people with crime and criminals in the minds of the audience. However, every once in a while, a character that is oddly coded is not only accepted by the LGBT+ community, but becomes iconic, one example being Ursula from John Musker And Ron Clements’ Animated powerhouse 1989 Little Mermaid. The sea witch is as steeped in queer code as most Renaissance-era Disney villains, but far more memorable than the likes of Pocahontas’ Governor Ratcliffe or live-action The beauty and the Beastthis is LeFou. So what makes Ursula different, and why does her queer coding make her feel timeless instead of regressive?


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Ursula Has LGBT History All Over Her Body


Even aside from his beloved villain, Little Mermaid is a film with a lot of queer elements, returning to the original story on which the film was based. Hans Christian Anderson speculated to have written the tale as a love letter to Edward Collin, and metaphors can be read from there; a gay man who imagines himself living in a different world than the one he loves, can’t really reach it. The original story ended in tragedy, with the prince marrying another woman and the little mermaid becoming seafoam instead of having a happy ending – a fate that was considered bleak for a gay man in the early 19th century and a hard sell for a successful children’s film. pleasant.

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More than the story it’s based on, it has another prominent gay man in the making, the creature Little Mermaid late composer, the legendary Howard Asman. Ashman’s influence on Little Mermaid so great that while his own title of composer is a myth, it barely scratches the surface. Taking on the role of producer as well as writer for lyrics and dialogue, it was Ashman’s influence and tenacity that kept “Part of Your World” in the film, despite bosses wanting the now iconic song to be taken off the soundtrack. . Ashman may also be Ursula’s savior – looking at a series of sea witch concept art designs, he chooses one that reminds him of a certain person: the drag queen Divine.

Unlike other queer-coded villains who are based on a potpourri of a gay or transgender “idea”, Ursula is specifically based on the drag queen Divine. Tree of John Waters movies like icons forever Pink Flamingo And Women’s Problems, Divine attraction represents overconfidence paired with a trashy attitude and personality. While Divine sadly passed in 1988, shortly after its release Hair spray (arguably Waters and Divine’s greatest mainstream success), People’s Magazine immortalized her with the title “transvestite of the century.” The divine influence on the character is immediately apparent when a line is drawn between the two, with their broad bodies, hair tall as fire, and growling voices. Ursula, the late voice actress Pat Carroll, even told to lower the register to match the growl Divine is known for; he delivers a performance with an almost Shakespearean level of drama, feeling perfectly suited to ’80s drag.

Ursula immediately felt less insulting as a coded queer character because she was designed with queer culture in mind. Crucial to this story is the fact that Howard Ashman is a gay man, perhaps the most respected we know of in Disney history. Although this was not publicly known (at least to fellow Disney co-workers) at the time Little Mermaid developments, there is no doubt that his position and experience within the LGBT+ community influenced many of his decisions regarding the film. The subtext of songs like “Part of your World” is inextricably linked with gay and trans people’s struggles to fit in and be accepted by the world, thanks in large part to Ashman’s involvement and obvious passion for them. Ursula is no exception; while comparisons to Divine could easily lead to characters being shallow and offensive, there’s little doubt that Ashman ushered them into even more iconic status in the final product. Divine is no joke to Ashman. As fellow gay men from Baltimore, there’s no doubt a sense of family and connection radiating from the character.

Ursula Appears Like a Drag Queen


While Ursula’s design undoubtedly conjures up images of Divinity as soon as those comparisons are made, it’s the reverence and deeper attention to detail that really makes her stand out. Ursula isn’t animated like nearly every other character in the film, there’s an extra dimension to nearly every movement and line delivery the character puts forward. While cowardice is a defining trait of the worst coded queer criminals, Ursula doesn’t seem to have a drop in her. In its place is a strong and all-consuming belief.

One of the reasons Ursula works is because while it initially has a lot of negative tropes, none of them are really given the same definitions or portrayals as they usually are. Ursula was quite large, but she was never portrayed as truly greedy or too lazy. He may be too laid back in some scenes but this comes across as more dramatic and campy than his true character traits. He’s certainly coded weird, but he’s not particularly lecherous or creepy of any character. Ursula’s defining feature wasn’t that she was fat or hideous or any of the usual features, but that she was confident. He’s a con man, a con man who sings a self-pleasing song and spares little to actually brag to his henchman how effectively he’s con someone. It’s not just an icon, it’s tabernacle.

Drag shows usually employ high-emotional numbers, as their form usually relies on lip-syncing songs that allow the performer to really say the word and perform the piece usually standing out from the crowd. Ursula’s beloved villain song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” feels heavily inspired by this history; early in the song, she is vividly depicted with the kind of slow dance moves that would accompany a drag lip sync number, with her eel minions Flotsam and Jetsam coming together to form a long boa in her arms as she “prances” underwater, an obvious nod to feathers. boas became a long staple and the LGBT+ community in general. Songs that do well with drag also tend to favor over-the-top instrumentation and lyrics because they mesh well with the over-the-top nature of drag itself; it’s not quiet, it’s an amazing, big show. With this in mind, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” stands as the perfect drag number, high on confidence and big on emotion. Growing as the song goes on until the score is filled with loud horns, Ursula sings loudly as she rises with the song herself.

Ursula Continues Inseparable From Drag

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula in 'The Little Mermaid' 2023
Image via The Walt Disney Company

With the announcement and release of a new live-action remake from Little Mermaidthere is an unavoidable worry that every new release Little Mermaid maybe removing parts of the film that made it so revolutionary. Howard Ashman tragically died of AIDS shortly before release The beauty and the Beast, Musker and Clements are still alive to help with the project, but without Ashman, new releases could be left rudderless without someone to campaign certain aspects of. Will Ursula’s character be turned into a regressive stereotype rather than an icon? Or worse, completely stripped of any connection to drag?

Thankfully these fears were somewhat dispelled by a recent interview with new actress Urusla Melissa McCarthy, who is quite open about her performance inspiration not only coming from Divine but also from other transvestites. McCarthy actually had her own drag personality, a rich, gold-robed socialite named Miss Y which she would portray while doing stand-up comedy and performing in nightclubs. McCarthy said that the character of Miss Y gave her a tremendous amount of confidence, and more than anything, the mention of confidence as a key feature of the character suggests that Ursula may be in good hands. It’s that respect for community and the enormous confidence that the character exudes that made Ursula such a legend, a history that was first given to her by Howard Ashman and continued in modern depictions. It’s not just a fun fact that Ursula has connections to draw from, they’re the foundation of the whole character, and the old witch wouldn’t be the same without them.

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