How Drag Culture Influenced Ursula
Villainy in media has always been connected with groups, cultures and behaviors that are considered outside “the norm” of society, and since the early days of cinema, this has often taken the form of villains being “queer-coded.” This often takes the form of male villains being depicted as feminine, foppish and deceitful. The trend is overall considered offensive and outdated, attempting to associate LGBT+ people with evil and villainy in the minds of audiences. However, every once in a while, a character that’s queer-coded is not just accepted by the LGBT+ community, but becomes iconic. One such example is Ursula from John Musker and Ron Clements’ 1989 animated powerhouse The Little Mermaid. The sea witch is steeped in queer-coding the same as most of the villains from Disney’s Renaissance era, but is considerably better remembered than the likes of Pocahontas’ Governor Ratcliffe or the live-action Beauty and The Beast’s LeFou. So what makes Ursula different, and why has her queer coding made her feel timeless rather than regressive?
Ursula Has LGBT History All Over Her
Even aside from its beloved villain, The Little Mermaid is a movie with a lot of queer elements, going all the way back to the original story the film is based on. Hans Christian Andersen is speculated to have written the fairy tale as a love letter to Edvard Collin, and the metaphor can be read from there; a gay man imagining himself as living in a different world from the one he loves, unable to truly reach him. The original story ends in tragedy, with the prince marrying another woman and the little mermaid becoming seafoam rather than having her happy ending – a grim presumed fate for a gay man in the early 19th century and a hard sell for a fun kids’ movie.
More than just the story it was based on, the film had another prominent gay man involved in its creation, that being The Little Mermaid’s late composer, the legendary Howard Ashman. Ashman’s influence on The Little Mermaid is so large that while his title of composer is mythical in of itself, it barely scratches the surface. Taking on a role of a producer as well as a writer for both lyrics and dialogue, it’s because of Ashman’s influence and tenacity that “Part of Your World” remained in the film, despite higher-ups wanting the now iconic song struck from the soundtrack. Ashman is likely also the savior of Ursula – seeing a set of concept art designs of the sea witch, he chose one that reminded him of a specific person: the drag queen Divine.
Unlike other queer-coded villains that are based on a pastiche of the “idea” of a gay person or a drag queen, Ursula is very specifically based on the drag queen Divine. A staple of John Waters movies like the forever iconic Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, Divine’s drag typified over-the-top confidence paired with a trashy demeanor and persona. While Divine unfortunately passed in 1988, shortly following the release of Hairspray (debatably Waters’ and Divine’s biggest mainstream success), People Magazine immortalized her with the title “the drag queen of the century.” Divine’s influence on the character is immediately apparent when the line is drawn between the two, with her wide frame, tall flame-like hair and growling voice. Ursula’s voice actor, the late Pat Caroll, was even told to lower her register to match the growls that Divine was known for; she delivers the performance with an almost Shakespearean level of drama, feeling incredibly well-matched with the styling of ’80s drag.
Ursula immediately feels less insulting as a queer-coded character because she was designed with respect for queer culture in mind. Of special importance to this story is the fact that Howard Ashman was a gay man, probably the most venerated we know of in Disney’s history. While this wasn’t publicly known (at least to his fellow Disney coworkers) at the time of The Little Mermaid’s development, it’s unquestionable that his position and experience in the LGBT+ community influenced many of his decisions in regard to the movie. The subtext of songs such as “Part of your World” are inextricably linked to gay and trans struggles to fit in and be accepted by the world, largely thanks to Ashman’s involvement and clear passion for them. Ursula is no exception; while the comparison to Divine could’ve easily led to a shallow and offensive character, there’s little doubt that Ashman shepherded them to the more iconic status they became in the finalized product. Divine wasn’t a joke to Ashman. As a fellow gay man from Baltimore, there was undoubtedly a sense of kinship and relatability that shone through with the character.
Ursula Performs Like A Drag Queen
While Ursula’s design undoubtedly brings forth images of Divine as soon as that comparison is made, it’s the deeper respect and attention to detail that really brings it across. Ursula isn’t animated like almost any other character in the movie, there’s an extra dimension to almost every movement and line delivery that the character puts forward. While cowardice is the defining trait of the worst queer-coded villains, Ursula seems to have not a drop of it in her. In its place is a powerful and all-consuming confidence.
Part of the reason that Ursula works is that despite initially having a lot of negative tropes, not a single one of them is really given the same definition or portrayal that they usually get. Ursula is quite large, but she’s never portrayed as truly gluttonous or overly lazy. She might overly recline in a few scenes but this comes off more as overly dramatic and campy rather than an actual character trait. She’s undeniably queer-coded, but she’s not especially lecherous or creepy towards any characters. Ursula’s defining trait isn’t that she’s fat or creepy or any of the other usual traits, it’s that she’s confident. She’s a con man, a trickster that sings a self-aggrandising song and takes a small aside to literally brag to her henchman at how effectively she’s tricking somebody. It’s not just iconic, it’s camp.
Drag performances usually go for high-emotion numbers, since the form usually relies on lip-syncing songs that allow the performer to really enunciate and perform the piece usually stand out from the crowd. Ursula’s beloved villain song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” feels incredibly inspired by this history; early in the song, she’s clearly depicted with the kind of slow dance moves that would accompany a drag lip sync number, with her eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam coming together to form a long boa shape across her arm as she “prances” underwater, a clear nod to feather boas being a long staple of drag and the LGBT+ community in general. Songs that work well with drag also tend to favor over-the-top instrumentation and lyrics since it melds well with the over-the-top nature of drag itself; it’s not quiet, it’s high bombast and big performances. With this in mind, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” stands as a perfect drag number, it’s high confidence and it’s big emotions. Growing as the song progresses until the score is filled with loud crashing horns, Ursula loudly sings as she rises with the song itself.
Ursula Continues To Be Inseparable From Drag
With the announcement and upcoming release of the new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, there is an unavoidable worry that any new release of The Little Mermaid might remove parts of the movie that made it so revolutionary. Howard Ashman tragically passed from AIDs not long before the release of Beauty and The Beast, Musker and Clements are still alive to assist with the project, but without Ashman, the new release could be left rudderless without someone to campaign for certain aspects. Would the character of Ursula be turned into a regressive stereotype rather than an icon? Or worse, entirely stripped of any connection to drag?
Thankfully these fears have been somewhat quashed by a recent interview with Urusla’s new actress Melissa McCarthy, who has been quite open about the inspirations for her performance coming not just from Divine but from other drag queens as well. McCarthy actually has a drag persona of her own, a wealthy gold-robed-wearing socialite named Miss Y that she would perform while doing stand-up comedy and appearing in nightclubs. McCarthy said that the character of Miss Y gave her immense confidence, and more than anything else, the mention of confidence as a key feature of the character suggests that Ursula may be in good hands. It’s the respect for the community and the immense confidence that the character exudes that has made Ursula a legend, the history given first by Howard Ashman and continued in modern portrayals. It’s not just a fun fact that Ursula has connections to drag, it’s the foundation of the entire character, and the old witch wouldn’t be the same without it.