“Part of Your (Patriarchal) World”: Gender Performance in Disney’s The Little Mermaid
By: Michelle Cho
This photo essay delves into The Little Mermaid by contrasting the beneficence of protagonist Ariel and the malevolence of villainess Ursula, along with looking at the heterosexual systems of power that alienate a possibly queer Ursula and propagate a heterosexual Ariel to the status of being a royal princess.
Click on the photos to read the analysis.
In the opening scene introducing the marvels of Triton’s Atlantica, Ariel’s six older sisters are seen primping themselves in a posh dressing room for a musical number they are about the perform for their father. Ariel’s six sisters are all stereotypically mapped as feminine with thin silhouettes, mascara-laden lashes, and perfect up-dos, parading around, painting on their makeup and placing finishing touches on their hair. Eventually, the curtain unrolls for their performance and in unison they sing to their father: “Ah, we are the daughters of Triton / Great father who loves us and named us well!” As they continue parading and dancing, Ariel’s older sisters represent the existing expectation that women perform for the pleasure of a male viewer. This scene sets the stage for the further female “performances” the film will indulge. Photo Credit: The Little Mermaid. Ron Clements and John Musker. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc, 1989. Screen capture at 00:24:47.
Iris Marion Young in her piece Lived Body vs. Gender writes, “The discursive rules of normative heterosexuality produce gendered performances that subjects reiterate and cite; the sexing of bodies themselves derives from such performatives” (Young, 413-414). Young’s analysis configures Ariel’s “sexed body” as a medium on which gender can be performed. In conversation with Young, Judith Butler writes that the “discursive rules” that produce gendered performances are often inscribed by “a cultural source figured as ‘external’ to that body” (Young, 413 and Butler, 129). This “external” force in the realm of the film (and in the larger society the film was created in) is male, and this is made clear by Ariel’s main objective in the film – to catch the interest of her heterosexual Prince. It is duly noted that at no point in the film is this reversed at; Prince Eric is never shown trying to dress or behave in a way to attract Ariel. Ariel’s body as an object is one that is deliberately mapped as feminine, as she is animated with a slender waist, full hips, big, innocent blue eyes, and her iconic, voluminous red hair. Although Ariel is merely sixteen years old, her body is sexually mature, as showcased by her seashell bikini and developed breasts (Lacroix, 219). Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:26:56.
Disney animators share that Ariel’s body shape and form was modeled off of live action model Sherri Stoner, a white female known for her delicate 5’2” frame and mere 95-pound weight (Lacroix, 219). Ariel’s physical stature, both her tiny frame and accentuated sexual body parts (full bust and waist), imply that the correct performance of gender includes a fit and sexually mature body. Photo Credit: Sherri Stoner, Live Action Reference Ariel Copy. Digital image. Howard Ashman.
Eric looks at Ariel adoringly. Ariel appears to have performed “woman” successfully; without having spoken a single word (and having only known him for a day), Prince Eric feels compelled to kiss her. Photo Credit: The Little Mermaid. Ron Clements and John Musker. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc, 1989. Screen capture at 00:61:30.
Ariel gives Eric a flirtatious look. Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:61:32.
Sebastian (a male character) imitates and mimics the feminine behavior Ariel must replicate to convincingly perform “woman.” His dramatic way of batting his eyelashes and puckering his lips exemplify that the generally understood “corporeal signs” that signify “attractive woman” are appearance-based and mapped physically on the body (Butler, 136). Even as a male, Sebastian is able to literally perform through his over-gesticulations what actions a mute Ariel must duplicate to appear desirable. Through this scene, audiences are consistently reminded of the openly performative nature of gender that is crucial in carrying this narrative, and what lies at stake should the performance be subpar. Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:56:07.
In the actual animation of her body, a closer examination shows that Ariel’s prominent head is the same width as her slim waist, emphasizing the expectation that women be extremely thin, past the point of anatomical feasibility. This standard of beauty is framed as positive and well-received, with the potential to be rewarded in real life – after all, Ariel is rewarded with her Prince at the end of the film. The repeated rewarding of feminine beauty rehashes “a set of meanings already socially established… ritualized for their legitimation” (Butler, 140). As Butler and Young’s model of gender maintenance, the character of Ariel sends the message to fans that gender performance works, and that appearance mapped on bodies matters. Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:29:56
Ursula’s appearance is in all ways opposite from Ariel’s, and therefore deviant from these norms. Her figure is overflowing and full, suggesting that she is overweight, with the absence of a distinct neck or set of elbows. Observing more bluntly, Mark Pinsky in The Gospel of Disney writes: “she is fat and old, rarely a good combination for a woman in these stories” (Pinsky, 140). In place of a slender, vibrantly green tail (signifying health and fertility), are a number of black, sucker-coated tentacles flailing in a disorderly manner. Ursula’s face is laden with bright turquoise eye shadow contrasting sharply with her bright red lipstick. To complete her look, Ursula has very short white hair, suggesting an older “lesbian” style in juxtaposition with Ariel’s luscious head of long red hair. Martin and Kazyak, researchers of heterosexual romantic love in G-rated films, note that “Disney characters who do not fit into their societies echo the feeling of many gays and lesbians… many characters (especially villains) lend themselves to queer readings because of how they over-perform their gender roles” (Martin and Kazyak, 320). In terms of her makeup (which is a caricature of conventional expectations of beauty), her revealing busty corset (which is implied to be repulsive due to her overweight appearance), and iconic mole as a beauty mark, Ursula certainly satisfies this criteria of “overperforming” the attractive “female.” Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:43:26.
Animators based the design for Ursula off of the popular Hollywood drag queen Divine, known for being a transvestite (Martin and Kazyak, 320 and Pinksy, 140). Ursula’s pronounced masculine physique, with her wide, broad shoulders and muscular frame, seem to disconcertingly map female on to a stereotypically male body – a deceptively female “illusion” (McNeal, 354 and Verta et. al, 2123). Drawing on this performative imitation – which Butler argues sustains the system of gender normativity – McNeal explains: “Because the drag queen is a double mimesis- that is, an imitation of an imitation – s/he is in a perfect position to point out, criticize, and call attention to the fragility and difficulty of performing femininity by heterosexual, anatomical women” (McNeal, 360). Ursula, as a subversive character who disrupts the traditional expectations of gender, may destabilize the ritualized understandings of performing “female.” Thus, within the narrative, she is punished for stepping outside of this realm and challenging these norms (Verta et. al, 2123). Ursula is punished multiple times: initially, through ex-communication in Atlantica, and later through her death at the end of the film (Butler, 129). In other words, Ursula’s “bad” physical appearance and unattractively mapped body are attributed to her “bad” personality. As a drag queen with heightened male qualities, Ursula is framed as problematic because of her “double inversion” as a figure who is female, yet somehow masculine (Butler, 137). Everything about Ursula is presented as dangerous throughout the course of the narrative; whether it is her black, form-fitting outfit that shows all of her unflattering curves, her husky masculine voice, or her distant, eerie, and abandoned residence, Ursula is a creature who is distinctly and physically deviant to conventional “woman,” and she is treated as such. Photo Credit: I Am Divine. Digital image. Jeffrey Schwarz.
Before transforming into a human, Ariel affectionately nestles a human statue that strikingly resembles Prince Eric. For Ariel, there is a noticeable lack in her life: as she sings in “Part of Your World Reprise”, it becomes clear that what she misses is the ability to experience the human world, and discover human, heterosexual love. The love Ariel desires is a love that is “not ordinary or mundane but, rather powerful, exceptional, and magical” (Martin and Kazyak, 316). The kiss she must win before the third evening is her only means of securing her personal fulfillment, and Ariel demonstrates that her “desire, choice, and empowerment are closely linked to catching and loving handsome men” (Giroux, 71). Ariel’s “goals in the film seem limited to ‘becoming part of (his) world,’” and her solution to her dissatisfaction with underwater life comes through the form of marrying a man and leaving her troublesome situation behind completely, rather than rectifying the problem itself (Lacroix, 223 and Bell et al, 1995). The movie therefore suggests that marriage is an escape for other problems, and that the successful performance of gender can make this escape a feasible reality. Stressed heterosexuality as a solution to life’s problems falls in conversation with Butler’s idea of politically gendered bodies, and the idea that “femininity is associated with desiring and attracting men (male erotic object choice), and masculinity [… as] desiring and attracting women (female erotic object choice)” (McNeal, 350). Photo Credit: The Little Mermaid. Ron Clements and John Musker. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc, 1989. Screen capture at 00:34:58.
Ursula is presented as a character marked with rugged independence and personal autonomy – the type of person the movie suggests can neither find genuinely true nor heterosexual love. As explored previously, with Ursula’s possibly queer identity in relation to her over-performance of female in drag, and her shorter, masculine hair, Ursula is never portrayed as capable of romantic love until she is temporarily transformed into her guise as the beautiful brunette Vanessa. Ursula’s quick and seamless ability to enchant the Prince (with her convincing performance of gender as Vanessa) demonstrates that she has fully gained an understanding of how gendered binaries of power operate. Besides the fact that she carries Ursula’s husky and deep masculine voice, Vanessa’s outer appearance satisfies the proper gender performance of female in a similar manner to Ariel; she has long, flowing brown hair, light purple eyes, and a sexually mature physical body. Only when Ursula has taken on the physical appearance and performance of a politicized body does she please the male gaze, rewarded with the prospect of marrying the prince herself. Ursula’s own natural body is deviant, but with her sorcery and transformative ability, she shows that she understands how to re-map her body to gain leverage over men (in this case, the human Prince Eric). While Ursula’s sexual orientation is unclear, she is aware of the power structure that rewards heterosexual love, and temporarily plays into this system with a convincingly attractive performance of “woman”; if Ariel can use only her appearance this persuasively in a matter of two days, Vanessa proves that she can also do this within a matter of hours. Ursula’s conscious decision to continue behaving and appearing the way she does naturally empowers her as a feminist figure: she deliberately choses to behave outside typical gender roles, also understanding the consequences of doing so. Photo Credit: Ibid. Screen capture at 00:64:50.
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The Little Mermaid. Ron Clements and John Musker. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc, 1989.
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