For those of you that don’t know, Ursula is the main antagonist of the 1989 film, The Little Mermaid. Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the film centres around the efforts of its watery protagonist to become human. She’s helped and hindered by the film’s villain: the sea witch, Ursula. The film has become an animated classic, widely credited with kicking off the Disney Renaissance, and Ursula herself has become an iconic and instantly recognisable character.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I will be looking at The Little Mermaid’s interpretation of this character only – I’ll be sticking to the Disney animated canon.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Ursula isn’t completely in control of her own destiny, but that’s not from lack of trying. In the film it’s made clear that King Triton (Ariel’s father) banished her from the palace some time before the film started, but like any good villain Ursula doesn’t let this get her down. Although someone else put her in her current situation, she’s not planning to stay there. For however many years, Ursula has been building up her powers and accumulating weird squiggly merfolk souls –
– in order to try and take back the throne. She’s been plotting to take Triton down for quite some time, and when she sees an opportunity she takes it. When Ariel looks as though she might manage to hold up her end of the bargain (and thereby ruin Ursula’s plans) Ursula casts a spell on Prince Eric to make sure that this won’t happen. She succeeds (but only for the last twenty minutes of the film) and ultimately, this is what leads to her downfall. She might not be completely in control of her own destiny all throughout the film, but she certainly has her moments and she’s continually working to take charge of her life. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see an awful lot of Ursula’s hobbies, but we do see her taking a lot of care over her physical appearance. We also see her eating live seafood – something which merfolk apparently don’t do on a regular basis – so clearly, she has some tastes and preferences that mark her out from the rest of the characters.
Her goals and beliefs are much more well-established, even though like many other characters they’re pretty closely linked. She wants to overthrow King Triton and rule the seas, just as she used to before the movie started, and she believes that it’s pretty much her birthright. She also sees herself as blameless in all the deals she made – she makes a point of telling Ariel that she always upheld her end of the bargain – and has absolutely no qualms about extracting her payment.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part, Ursula’s character is very consistent. She’s shown to be a power-hungry, ambitious, manipulative witch with a tendency to excuse her own behaviour, but she’s also very flamboyant, is clearly comfortable in her own skin, and has a very sassy sense of humour. She’s also consistently shown to be an extremely skilled manipulator, a fantastic liar and a very powerful witch – and also an incredible singer.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A sassy, power-hungry sea witch uses manipulation and magic in order to get what she wants – the throne.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Ursula doesn’t really have a love life. She casts a spell on Prince Eric to make him fall in love with herself in human form, but this isn’t really because she feels anything for him. The only reason she does this is because she wants to keep him away from Ariel – if Ariel can’t fulfil her end of the bargain, she’ll be able to use her to get to King Triton. This is what’s really motivating Ursula: her desire to bring down Triton and become supreme ruler of the ocean.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Not really. Throughout the movie Ursula remains a relatively static character. She doesn’t learn anything, she doesn’t indulge a fatal flaw, and she doesn’t really change.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Ursula doesn’t have many weaknesses. By and large, most of her personality traits help her through the story – her fluid approach to contracts, for example, actually helps her pursue her goals, rather than holding her back. The closest she comes to having a flaw is her terrible temper. This often causes her to make mistakes and impairs her judgement, but this is usually played as more of a reaction than an inherent character trait. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Ursula drives the plot forward at every turn. She uses every opportunity to pursue her own ends – she doesn’t just sit there passively when Ariel makes her deal with her; she goes to great lengths to make sure that she won’t be able to hold up her end of the bargain. She’s a real force on the plot all throughout the film, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Ursula is a really interesting character in terms of gender stereotypes. The character was inspired by traditional depictions of witches in European folklore and the famous drag queen, Divine – quite a mix of influences.
Much like traditional European witches, Ursula lives alone in a cave with only her familiars for company. She’s drawn with a kind of vampy ugliness that you see in the likes of Cruella De Vil and the Queen of Hearts – her features are exaggerated to the point of being grotesque. This is all in line with traditional beliefs about witches, who were said to be both hideously ugly and beautiful seductresses (and often by the same people – those monks could never make up their minds). But what’s remarkable about Ursula is that all throughout the film she’s consistently shown to be someone who’s very feminine, comfortable in her own skin, and willing to engage in the kind of sexuality that the Disney princesses would never even dream of. The viewer may well see Ursula as ugly, but it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t see herself that way.
Ursula is powerful, feminine, funny, angry, dangerous and ruthless – and this combination isn’t usually a personality we see for standard female villains. She’s comfortable in her own skin and clearly feels beautiful while attempting to take over the world – and really, what more could any woman ask for?
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
We don’t actually see Ursula relate to any other female character apart from Ariel, although we know she’s had dealings with other mermaids in the past. However, her relationship with Ariel is pretty complex. She feels nothing but contempt for her, mocking her dreams behind her back, yet when she comes to her for help she’s all smiles. She underestimates her – or rather, her ability to make out with Prince Eric – and so Ursula is forced to revise her plan in order to bring her down. What’s really interesting about their relationship was that in the original concept for the story (and in the Broadway musical), Ursula was Ariel’s aunt – now that’s a family reunion I’d want to avoid. However, for all its complexities this is only one relationship, so I’ll give her half a point.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Ursula is scheming, manipulative, always working towards her goals and a real force on the plot. She’s consistent, she relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way and her role in the story isn’t completely dependent on her love life. She may not develop over the course of the film – or have many complex relationships with other female characters – but she’s certainly passed my test!
So what have I learned from Villain Month? Well, what’s unique about all the villains that I’ve looked at so far is that every single one of them has passed my test. All the villainesses I’ve looked at this month have been very different characters – some of them manipulative, some of them ruthless, most of them homicidal maniacs – but they all stand up to detailed analysis. What’s more, they all had very complex character arcs, some really weighty character development and conveyed a range of different personality types and interests.
This is really where I think villainesses come into their own. Traditionally, heroines have always been likeable characters first and foremost. They’re often shown to be kind, gentle, understanding characters who are there to support the hero. This becomes more apparent when you look at older stories, when traditionally ‘good’ women were also seen to be fundamentally passive characters.
Villainesses have none of that. They’re not made to be likeable, so writers don’t have to worry about their actions being palatable to their audience. If traditional heroines are passive, traditional villainesses are active – they go after the things they want and engage with the rest of the characters in a much more direct and emphatic way. Villainesses are the characters that allow writers to take risks, to try new things, and to portray some truly ground-breaking characters.
Of course, as the stories we tell each other have become more sophisticated, this doesn’t always apply to every story. Now that we’ve moved away from the dichotomy of passive heroine/active villainess, there are far more complex and morally ambiguous heroines, too. But villainesses still occupy their own little piece of ground-breaking territory. Often, they are the characters writers use to test their capabilities, and every time they’re on the page, on the stage, or on the screen they seize their audience’s attention with an almost magnetic force. After all, who’s really the more memorable character: whiny little Ariel pining after a guy she’s never even spoken to, or Ursula, with her thick, coiling tentacles and incredible quiff?
Next week, I’ll be going back to the heroines and looking at a movie that revolutionised the early 2000s. Trinity, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.