I was at this conference in Seattle talking with a bunch of scholar-moms. All their children were obsessed with the same film. After getting an in-depth description of Frozen, which is apparently about a sister who gets married or something because she is not as mean as her blonde sister, but still wants to help her blonde sister to take off her gloves, or something, we started talking about the Little Mermaid. I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid.
“I always had such a thing for Ursula” I said, “probably some of my earliest sexual urges were Ursula-oriented.” It got quiet and they went back to talking about the future of the Humanities, which I know much less about. I felt very childless and thought, as I have many times before, “turns out that thing you think everyone thinks actually no one thinks but you!” Which could almost be the opening song for a Disney Princess movie. But back to the sea witch.
Ursula is a drag queen. If you didn’t know, she was based on Divine of Pink Flamingos fame, John Waters’ muse, the most beautiful woman in the world (almost). Disney, in its endless queerness, gave Ursula both gender-cards to play, with the vaginal mystery underneath her skirt and the phallic plethora of her tentacles. Ursula is decidedly lilac in hue, and when she convinces Ariel to give up her fin and voice in exchange for legs (and a vag?), she sends a jet of neon light into Ariel’s body, which splits her in half and straightens her spine. Hot.
In some ways, Ursula is a femme-dyke drag queen, dressing up as herself, “owning it” like other plus-size glamazons of the 90s. But like Divine, Ursula is the advocate and usurer (of course there’s an anti-Semitic undercurrent, this is Disney we’re talking about!) for the poor unfortunate souls of the ocean, those malcontents who don’t quite fit in with Sebastian’s shuck-and-jiving imperative that it’s “better down where it’s wetter.” Ariel must head for the s(w)eedy part of town to visit the sea witch. Ursula lives in a dark region lurking beneath the watchful purview of King Triton’s soft aqua area, out of his reach, let alone the legislature of Prince Eric’s blazingly St. Barthes-esque resort beach. Ursula wants to liberate Ariel from her own sheltered fantasies of the patriarchy, much as she also wants to destroy and punish Ariel for these fantasies.
Essentially our attraction to Ursula is about wanting more, about being willing to pay with our very selves for that wanting to be fulfilled, and to let it cost us our responsibility of communication. We would pay with our voice, and be permitted to suffer more completely and silently in the face of the unattainable Eric, silenced and entangled in his royal obligation to keep his procreation human on human. But like all these dark passions, they eventually become out of control and all-consuming. Ursula transitions from being fat and proud, (and unwilling to cover up appropriately!) to a (Kendall) Kardashian-esque boyfriend stealing brunette, who gets between Ariel and her prince via hacking her voice box & undergoing serious body modification. Eventually, the talisman she wears containing Ariel’s voice gets crushed by a dog and she is unmasked as fat, busting up the wedding ceremony while tearing up the floorboards of the wedding ship as she hauls ass across the deck, tentacles akimbo, to literally become a hurricane, her tentacular body transformed to dominate the skyline, creating a whirlpool that sucks the little mermaid all the way down to the bottom of a water tunnel.
It’s all pretty fierce. But her anarcho-naturist power is only one of the things that make Ursula so magnetic. She carries her own bondage equipment wherever she goes trailing ropey tentacles, like she ate Christian Grey for breakfast and his tools for dessert (yes dessert after breakfast, do you have to ask?) It’s her body, the way she can grab Ariel under the chin with one tentacle, while getting handsy with another and mixing a potion with another. She’s an octopus with incredible cleavage, and I’m not the first one to notice the appeal. Tentacle porn is a cross-culturally popular genre (though according to Wikipedia, “mostly in Japan”), which emerged during the Victorian era, and has spawned erotic stories, hentai, anime, and even live action films, which in a nutshell involves octopussss?es? getting it on with human ladies.
In the season finale of Mad Men, Peggy Olsen (something of a Little Mermaid “type,” herself, if you ask me), receives a pornographic Japanese print of an Octopus performing what appears to be everything on a young woman. The moment is heavily symbolic of her entry to the boys club (or departure from it, depending on how you read the show) and the camera lingers on Peggy’s swagger down the hallway as she carries the print to her office, turning the heads of her dad-bod coworkers as she passes. Perhaps because the octopus reminds them all that eight tentacles are better than one… tentacle. Tentacles don’t replace the penis, they multiply it. They aren’t sex organs, they are more like sex toys, that can restrain, as well as penetrate. They promise to realize certain fantasies about little robotic dicks with suction cups on the end to perform the perfect penetration/pussy eating combination.
Lars von Trier is perhaps the director who best understands the appeal of being wrapped up, overpowered by the powerful extremities of something inhumanly hungry for us. In Antichrist Charlotte Gainsbourg gets down to business with the roots of a tree (sort of,) and did anyone else see a lot of similarities between The Little Mermaid and Melancholia? American Girl Doll Kirsten Dunst has the perfect wedding, but the tentacles of Clinical Depression close around her and ultimately creates a sort of hurricane in the sky. Depression feels a lot like Ursula: your voice gets sucked out of your body. Melancholy can feel a lot like sex with an octopus, with multitudes of reasons not to move or feel which you know you could have resisted but forgot to, or never really wanted to, and then the next thing you know you can’t move at all, not even a little bit. Sometimes all you really want is plausible deniability about giving in to the bad stuff: to get so wrapped up you can tell yourself you weren’t ever able to resist.