“Ugly Girl”: Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Ursula is an ugly girl. I like that about her.

I once heard a spoken word poem about Ursula. About being big and beautiful. Plus size and unafraid. I don’t remember the name of the poem or the poet or the word choice. I just remember how that poem made me feel.

Like I could do anything. Like I was important.

Like maybe fat women matter after all.

Ursula never really has a motive in the story. She wants to be queen because, well, why wouldn’t she? Perhaps she wants to be queen because she wants to change things, but we will never know because we learn nothing about her story. Maybe she wished to depose king Triton because she doesn’t believe birth should determine hierarchy. Perhaps she realized he was a terrible king who stood on tradition and pomp rather than rule his kingdom justly. Maybe the taxes necessary to throw giant birthday parties for his endless string of daughters were bankrupting the kingdom. Who knows?

We don’t. That’s the point.

It’s amazing how easy it is to fill in the empty spaces when you don’t know what belongs there. That girl is thin and well-spoken and socially adroit. She must be a bitch. That woman is fat and wears no makeup. She must have no self-esteem. We train our gaze on women, and vilify what we don’t understand. We’re taught to do that. It’s how patriarchy works—we blame women for everything. We don’t need a reason.

The Disney villainesses work because they don’t need a motivation. Women want power they don’t deserve and pursue it by destroying those around them, right?

Ursula is the nightmare patriarchy forgot to wipe out of history. She is fat, unabashedly lazy, content to sit around eating and playing with her pet eels (holy Freudian slip) all day long. She is everything capitalism hates—slothful, self-aggrandizing. Ursula is a selfish woman who wants to experience life as a beautiful young woman with a soulful voice, falling in love with a handsome prince. She wants to take the happy ending Ariel deserves more, because Ariel is the daughter of a king and we all know princesses are the only women who deserve happy endings.

I’m not sure I know enough about Ursula to say if she fascinates me. She has no backstory, no history before encountering Ariel, no raison d’être save to make Ariel’s life miserable and pursue power and cute boys and… okay, maybe I can relate a little.

Because life’s not fair. Girls like Ariel are born into wealth and the beauty that goes along with a life of luxury. Girls like Ursula have to live in a cave at the edge of the kingdom because no one will play with them. Ariel’s voice is beautiful when she sings, but she probably has ten years of voice lessons with an opera superstar behind her. Anyway, what’s so great about a reedy soprano? Why is that the only female voice we worship in Western society? The rock goddesses of the recent past have mostly sung like Kelly Clarkson, loud and proud, baby. We like to hear them so much we pay hideous amounts of money to get our ears blasted in concert. The women who survive long enough to make it to the boardroom mostly look like Ariel, but they sure don’t act like her.

Face it: the fat woman who eats and sleeps all day and tries to steal power that really belongs to white men is a straw woman. The thing you should really fear is the woman who smiles at your face but plays politics behind your back, because what she wants most is a life like Ursula’s minus the fat.

I am a fat woman. I like my body. I am also afraid of other people. Being fat has made me afraid of others. It’s made me want to go hide in a cave somewhere no one can see me, cradle my pets close, and hope no one will ever find me. Being marginalized will teach you how to hate the people in charge of your kingdom. You see them with everything, and you have nothing but your cave and the few small things you need to survive. You might start plotting your revenge, even.

I’m not saying she went about it the right way. But Ursula had a point. When you think about it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ariadne Wolf’s current project, a speculative memoir, is a staunchly environmentalist and powerfully feminist battle cry for the ones this society tends to throw away. This book integrates mermaid mythology, dis/ability, and the impact and usefulness of popular culture and story in disintegrating and reconstructing the self. Her academic work lives at the intersections of Trauma Studies, Whiteness, Disability Studies, Monster Theory, Gender and Performance.

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