As a little girl, I loved Ariel. Wish-fulfillment, maybe, since I was a quiet child and Ariel was a go-getter; or perhaps it was the associations I had of my father picking me up and singing "Kiss the Girl." For whatever reason, Ariel was my girl.
As an adult though, things have shifted to a different cavern of wonders. Where to my toddler eyes, sea witch Ursula was clearly the villain of The Little Mermaid, now I watch the movie and wonder what her place was in the world before. "We had fantastical feasts when I lived in the palace," Ursula complains — a significant aside. It's unclear, of course, what happened in that past, but somehow, Ursula was in control. Her conflict in The Little Mermaid is never with Ariel — it is a power struggle between her and King Triton. "She may be the key to Triton's undoing," Ursula remarks when she first sees Ariel. Thwarting one unlikely love affair between a mermaid and a human is never her endgame; it's the first move in her coup.
In looking back on the movie, we remember that Ursula makes Ariel give up her voice in exchange for a pair of legs so the lusty teenager can pursue Prince Eric. But we forget that, in fact, Ariel's father is the first person to silence her. "Not another word," he tells Ariel, just after he tells her, "As long as you live under my ocean, you obey my rules." Not under my roof. Under my ocean. Had Ursula not been waiting disruptively in the background, there would be no negotiation of his terms.
Though her intention is disruptive, Ursula is ultimately a realist: She understands the expectations imposed on women. "It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man," she tells Ariel as she convinces the teen to give up her voice, and we are meant to forget that the movie proves Ursula is right: Eric does fall in love with a silent Ariel.
Granted, Ursula is the predatory subprime magic lender of the sea, but what's elided is that the "poor unfortunate souls" she preys on have been systematically downtrodden not by the sea witch, but by Triton's world: The examples Ursula gives of her fixer-uppers are a scrawny, effeminate merman and an overweight mermaid, two individuals whose bodies do not live up to the ideals of their genders. Much like Ursula enables a desperate Ariel's assimilation into a different patriarchal society, she transforms these non-ideal bodies into bodies that conform to the ideal. Ursula believes there is no escape for most people: You adapt to the standards of the world; you don't try to challenge them. It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man.
And yet Ursula herself is not a tongue-holder, which is her downfall. She clearly did something to get herself "banished" from the halls of power; she attempts to enter into a sham marriage to an enchanted Eric; she stages a coup; she says, at one point, "The sea and all its spoils bow to my power." She is overweight in a world that doesn't like overweight women. "And now look at me — wasted away to practically nothing," she says, which means she is unapologetically fat. And that, of course, is the most unruly kind of fat.
She doesn't take "no" for an answer. When Triton finds the contract Ariel signed, he unsuccessfully attempts to destroy it. "The contract's legal, binding, and completely unbreakable," she tells him. "Even for you." In an ocean where Triton makes all the rules, Ursula makes him follow hers. Of course, she is not a good person. She makes deals with people because she expects to profit when those deals are broken. And she wasn't pleased to live in a world where the last line in The Little Mermaid is Ariel's whisper of "I love you, Daddy." She wanted a world where her own outrageous desires were the final word.
And also where she could sit in her vagina chair in peace.