• Fiona Glen

(ESSAY) seawitch, I watch you — a letter to Ursula by Fiona Glen


Dark goth Ursula kidnapping femme Ariel

In this hybrid essay flitting between criticism, poetry and fanfiction, Fiona Glen explores queer awakenings through the figure of Ursula, the antagonist in the classic Disney film The Little Mermaid. At once a dive into the shadowy submarine textures of Ursula's cave, the kinky dynamics of her villainy, her spectacular demise and sometimes-forgotten afterlives, Glen's writing to Ursula is a paean to desiring that which we are told we cannot want, yet is precisely where our identity and pleasure go towards.


When I was very young and Disney films were hand-drawn, I loved them doubly: once for their colourful animal characters (as anthropomorphised or obediently grinning as they often were), once for their affirmation of the world-making power of drawing. It was witchcraft, how those angular-smooth lines stitched shifting universes together. And I loved The Little Mermaid with its companion fish and coral reef vibrancy. Ursula, why would Ariel ever choose land over sea?


To meet you, the little scared mermaid follows your eel allies into the mouth of a dragon’s skeleton: your lair. In its gullet, the green-brown bodies of captured ‘souls’ (together forming a gut-like lining of fibres) stretch out wretchedly to tangle around her wrists. Corkscrews of magenta algae dangle like intestines in your boudoir, a dark wet hostile lady-cave. You drop from the smooth mouth of a giant shell, sashay on loose tentacles to your dressing table, swell your quiff with a thick white cream, and slick your lips scarlet with the pulped inner flesh of a clam. A raw pout – one black beauty spot – four crescents of turquoise eyeshadow. Your stage face is publicly constructed. Crude.

A full-bodied foil to Ariel’s preppy delicacy, you are heavy-jawed; folds blossom across your back when you twist to regard us over your shoulder. Your bust bounces and your flesh flows in soft slopes, neck rounding into décolletage, arms curving out and downward. All a deadly-nightshade lilac, opposing the little mermaid’s peachy skin and russet mane, her heart-shaped face with its lips permanently parted in innocent shock or glee. She squirms from your touch. You lift her dainty chin with one devilishly pointed finger.


Ursula's dungeon or lair

Sea-witch, I watch you for the first time with adult eyes, fractured into online clips and sutured into tributes, and I understand: an unwed un-mother is a lonely hunter, an octopus. Revelling in your own expansiveness, innuendos roll off your tongue and suggestions swing in your hips. Against the teal, sealed mermaid tails, your tentacles flail in vaudeville skirt flicks; they crown an orifice liberally, speaking a leakiness.


Ursula, before your final incarnation, you were imagined as a spiny lionfish, a shark, and a manta ray. But your creators chose your animal side for its death-grip. Chuckling around sketches of you, now a curvaceous octo-matron, they saw a mystical resemblance – for Divine, the proudly profane phoenix who rose to unapologetic prowess as America’s first mainstream drag star, was an inspiration for your form. She rose on the same arts scene as one of your animators. [1] Ursula, I believe you were crafted with some love – a respect for the performer who revelled in wicked disrespectability. Self-enchanted shapeshifter, if you can take any figure, this one must mean home to you.



Daughter of Poseidon, with your naturally clambering tendencies, you struggled to rule against your brother, the new King of the Sea, and were banished by him to lower layers (lairs) of the ocean. Like cellars, basements, shadow alleys, off-grid grottos, secret apartments, illegal venues, underground clubs. It’s glaringly clear now – in your vampy purples, your nightlife-neon pinks popping from sucker cups, your soft and shameless bigness, a subcultural sexuality sits roundly. Swathed in a body-gown so dark it seems black, you were designed to signal sin. An uncontainable animal-woman, a hybrid. ‘All the monsters are mixtures.’ [2]


I’ll admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty. They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch... Greeting Ariel with a warning song, your gravelly voice, insinuating a maybe-masculinity, soars in dame-like loops. Bobbing rumpily to the Broadway-burlesque melody, your tentacles swishing, an extravagant fan – and I fortunately know a little magic – you pluck apparitions of a spindly merman and plump merwoman from a cauldron – I use it on behalf of the miserable, lonely and depressed – you treble the breadth of the man’s chest and shrink the woman to a slinky fraction of her former self – but it’s happened once or twice, someone couldn’t pay the price – then you singe them into clutching, dismayed worms. Love in vain, or vanity.


Ursula daydreaming

Ursula, are you reaping vengeance against punishing beauty ideals? Against the fetish for a thin-fit ‘perfect’ body? Or against the muscular ocean god-patriarch, brother Triton all silver-bearded honour and wisdom?


You toy with those poor unfortunate souls’ desperation for love, beauty, children, continuity. You refuse to truly tend anyone except those two wonky eels (MY BABIES!). You have made your own family, like so many queer ‘others’. You are not really alone.

In the original Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Little Mermaid dies on the morning after her Prince’s wedding to a different (human) princess. She is transformed into seafoam and discovers her new body under the warmth of a rising sun.


I can’t work out if we’re supposed to feel sorry for you, Ursula. You are not sorry for yourself, creeping the seafloor. My bias turns to your side – the indulgent, the bad. The kind Disney denotes with toothy leers and cool colours.



AT LAST, IT’S MINE!

You seize the King’s phallic trident, take aim at the breathless prince

and Ariel launches herself at you –

YOU, YOU MONSTER!

she skews your shot.

The cloud of furious black ink billows all around you as you swell into a colossus –

I AM THE RULER OF ALL THE OCEAN

THE WAVES OBEY MY EVERY WHIM

Lit grotesquely from below, you tower over your stirred-up storm and a spinning fleet –

SO MUCH FOR TRUE LOVE!

The Prince spins the galleon’s wheel

drives the pointed prow straight through your bulging stomach

a headland impaled.

You scream crackling with lightning melting deflating a carnival castle

the great woman-monster is fallen bulging

eyes and chest

boiling bubble-gum blood oozes across the surface of the sea

a great vomited pop-pink oil spill

the bile of a slain monster

a fallen woman.



Ursula, it’s the era of the villain. There is space for you here, now; Maleficent, The Wicked Witch of the West, and The Joker have had their turns.


Ursula, your name was once best known for the fourth century saint who was martyred by Huns (with eleven thousand fellow virgins) on her way to her wedding. Ironic, isn’t it? But the name comes from the Latin for bear, ursa. Ursula: she-bear or Great Bear, slightly sweetened. This little lady bear kept her claws. A soft-padding predator.

Ursula, I daydream: ur for origin, su for sea or she, la, the feminine lick that seals your name in our open mouths. Ursula, I am romanticising you, obsessing, seduced.


Maleficient and Ursula sharing a lesbian kiss
Maleficent and Ursula by Caroline Kaplan (J. Caress Studio)

Descending in a pulpit of animate indigo tentacles, Queen Latifa is

(playing) you live on Broadway and I watch her

revelling in you/herself

that masterful cackle –

plume of platinum hair like a smoke column –

(she is on fire)

sculpted cheekbones disappear into your temples –

bronze arms glow back lilac light, lifted in a flamenco-flamboyant stance

now swirled to the side

now ripping open the bodice (the audience

screams) to shed the great limb-puppet body

strutting free in a vinyl-shiny gown –

ON THE WHOLE I’VE BEEN A SAINT–

a scatter of pink glitter death –

one tentacle slung casual as a shawl around elbows

and now tight around a doe-eyed Ariel

and now rubbed against lower thighs as –

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF

BODY LANGUAGE –

tossing a model tongue into the sparking pit

language cooks, a bit of body

or voice seized and deployed, twisted

tongue, reclaimed song

ravishing.



References:


[1] Chris Dart, ‘Read This: How Divine inspired Ursula The Sea Witch’, AVClub, 19 January 2016 [online]

[2] Tom Tyler (2008) qtd. in Jody Berland, Virtual Menageries (London: MIT Press, 2019), p.207 [print]


~


Text: Fiona Glen

Published: 22/02/22