The Little Mermaid: Our Favorite Gothic Villain

I’ve always hated The Little Mermaid’s Ariel for being one of the weakest female protagonists in Disney’s history. So I was fascinated by this paper written by Stephanie Stott, a student in my sister Kim Magowan’s gothic lit class at Mills College. The assignment according to Stephanie “was to write a 20-page paper on gothic elements in anything.  Books read in class were obvious fodder, but TV shows/teen lit/recent releases were fine so long as we could convincingly argue their association with the gothic.”

Stephanie Stott is a Masters Candidate in English Literature at Mills College.  She double majored in English and Education at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she rediscovered a passion for teaching.  Upon graduating, she hopes to bring feminism, critical race theory, and a love of literature to middle school Language Arts.

I hope you enjoy Stephanie’s paper as much as I did.


The Little Mermaid: Our Favorite Gothic Villain

Stephanie Stott


It’s a common criticism to condemn Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid as the least feminist of the Disney Princesses. The argument goes something like: Ariel is a misogynist patriarchy’s dream girl because she alters her body[1], forsakes her family[2], and gives up her voice for a man she doesn’t know, a man who has the nerve to save her![3] And, without a voice, she can only attract Prince Eric with her appearance[4] and cannot actually give consent to be kissed[5]. However, I argue that the Little Mermaid is among the most feminist of the Disney Princesses because she exerts taboo forms of agency and is ultimately rewarded for these un-princess-like methods. Though cast in the position of damsel in distress, Ariel as a character exhibits all the trappings of a gothic villain (by which I do not mean to suggest that she is evil, but rather active and assertive, as such villains are). In this way, she is the first Disney heroine to have her cake (use her sexual, intellectual, and entrepreneurial agencies) and eat it, too (attain her own happy ending).


Paranormal being

Even before we examine Ariel’s audacious agencies, her potential villainy is immediately obvious in her status as a siren, a paranormal being. Unlike in other Disney Princess movies, where the hero and heroine must overcome gothic forces in order to reach their resolution, this princess is part of that gothic world. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, the Beast and all the castle’s inhabitants shed their gothic forms upon the movie’s resolution. Even more striking, their castle is “madeover” from distinctly Gothic (grey stone, gargoyles, black rooftops) to Rococo (sandstone, angels, red rooftops). This final alteration is unnecessary (they could live happily ever after in a Gothic castle) and seems to imply that all things gothic—the architecture as well as the curse—must be eliminated for a happily ever after. An analogous ending in The Little Mermaid would be tragic, involving the destruction of the mer world and Ariel, as a prime representative of that world.

But why do I say the undersea world is gothic? After all, to Ariel (and to us viewers because we identify with her), it is “all she’s ever known.” I argue the mer world is a gothic space because of its status as feminine and mysterious in relation to the masculine and rational world on land. As Laura Sells points out, Disney renders the mer world in “…sweeping seascapes which resemble Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, rich with the female imagery of sea shells and cave openings” (178). Sells intensifies the undersea world’s “othered” status when she describes its relationship to the human world in terms of mainstream and marginalized systems:

The Little Mermaid establishes the world on land and the world under the sea as two contrasting spaces, one factual and one fictive, one real and the other imaginary. In this dualistic and hierarchical construction, the human world can be aligned with the white male system and the water world situated outside that system. (177)

The opening scene of the film illustrates the gothic status of Ariel’s home. Though the first shot features animals of the sea (seagulls and dolphins) frolicking on the waves, a giant ship soon enters, literally displacing these creatures, and with it comes a hearty sea chanty: “I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue, and it’s hey to the starboard, heave-ho. Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you in mysterious fathoms below.” It is human sailors who set up the story, characterizing the undersea world as “mysterious” and warning a “lad” (Prince Eric? A young sailor?) of dangerous mermaids. Undermining the validity of the mer world from a different angle, Grimsby (uptight fatherly advisor to the prince) tells Eric to “pay no attention to this nautical nonsense.” Both groups—the superstitious sailors and the learned landlubbers—challenge the legitimacy of Ariel’s world, one by emphasizing its dangerousness, the other by writing off its existence entirely.[6] Hers is a mythical, unknowable world.

However, a topic no critic seems to want to broach: Ariel is dangerous to mortal men. She possesses a voice that bewitches its hearer. Upon his rescue from the shipwreck, Eric appears principally concerned with the voice of his savior: “a girl…rescued me. She was singing. She had the most beautiful voice.” And in his next scene, again on the beach: “[Sigh], that voice. I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve looked everywhere, Max. Where could she be?” Yes she was attractive, yes she saved his life, but most importantly, she had a pretty voice. We know it is the voice that holds power over him because it instantly bewitches him a second time, despite the fact that it issues from Ursula-as-Vanessa. Of course, the way Disney animates this scene makes it appear that the voice bewitches Eric because it issues from Ursula-as-Vanessa: tendrils of yellow light snake their way out of the sea witch’s nautilus and into Eric’s eyes, as though it were the yellow light—not the siren’s song—that bewitches him. However, Eric’s affections already tended toward whomever possessed the voice: first Ariel when she sings him awake, then Vanessa as she sings along the shore. Yellow light or no yellow light, the fact remains that whoever gets Ariel’s voice seems to get Ariel’s man. This little mermaid has some powerful assets, more powerful than either Disney or critics want to admit.

But Ariel’s status as siren goes beyond her dangerously good singing ability; it also means she’s half a fish—and significantly—from the waist down. As the site of female orgasms, childbirth, and other “unladylike” bodily processes, a woman’s nether regions are mysterious, mythic, dangerous (just as the gothic is sexual and feminine, so female sexuality is gothic). Slapping on a fishtail in place of legs—and, significantly, what lies between those legs—is only replacing one female mystery with another. Mermaids are ultra-gothic because they are ultra-feminine/-mysterious/-mythic/-dangerous.

Of course, the figure of Ursula takes this argument even further. As Elizabeth Bell observes, Ursula’s “octopus tentacles physically manifest the enveloping, consumptive sexuality of the deadly woman” (117). Adding to this, Sells gives us Roberta Trites’s claim that “Embedded in gynophobic imagery,[a] Ursula is a revolting, grotesque image of the smothering maternal figure” (181). If fish fins are an indictment of the dangerous vulva, octopus tentacles most definitely are. Both Ariel and Ursula, if only because of their paranormal bodies, have the makings of gothic villains.


…there are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. Even you must have noticed. Both half-bloods, orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike…

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


Doubling with Ursula

And the fun doesn’t stop there! Ariel further resembles a gothic villain in that she doubles with villainous Ursula in many ways. To begin with, the color palette in which Ariel is animated does not match that of her friends, her father, or her lover—all of which might be expected—but that of the sea witch.[b] The mermaid’s breast shells are the same color as Ursula’s earrings; her hair brings out Ursula’s lips; her fishtail matches Ursula’s eye shadow. I argue that this visual doubling is not mere coincidence but implies kinship and succession, as visual similarities do in the real world. According to Bell, the physical similarities we see in the wicked stepmothers may be read as portents of the princesses’ future; these young ladies will someday be the active, assertive villains who are currently making their lives miserable. After all, bullies are born from being bullied.

To take the matter of succession one step further, Ariel could plausibly be said to have begun the takeover already. If the battle between princess and stepmother resolves itself either through the escape of the young woman (as in Cinderella) or through a kind of matricide (as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid), Ariel’s lack of mother could be read as evidence of an earlier succession. As the seventh and youngest daughter to King Triton, Ariel might have caused the queen’s death through childbirth, and might thus already be guilty of matricide.

While I don’t mean to suggest that Ariel will one day be a voluptuous sea witch herself, I do mean to suggest that villainous (i.e. active, assertive) tendencies are in her blood, are part of her birthright (and, as I will argue shortly, that she has already started cashing in on that birthright).

Another instance of doubling between the sea witch and the mermaid is their common tactic of changing appearance, and those appearances’ commonalities. Ariel “only” gets legs, but Ursula gives herself a full-body makeover, complete with new identity as Vanessa. However, apart from a dye-job and a different parting in her hair, Vanessa could be Ariel.[c] Of course, it’s easy to say that the art department only had one template for “pretty girl” and that the visual doubling was an effort to save money, but a more interesting explanation is that Vanessa’s false exterior calls into question Ariel’s. Disney shows us that Ariel is good by making her beautiful, but Vanessa has the same exact kind of beauty, and she is bad. We viewers find ourselves asking: is Ariel like Vanessa, or is Vanessa like Ariel?

Which is where the mirror device comes in. To reassure viewers that “what you see is what you get,” Vanessa’s true identity (Ursula) may be seen in the young woman’s reflection.[d] However, this mirror scene mirrors another, earlier on in the movie. When Ariel first meets Ursula, she sees her (Ursula) in a mirror.[e] If mirrors reveal one’s true identity, then on some level Ariel is Ursula. What we see, then, in the later mirror scene is not actually reassuring, but reminds us of the earlier instance of doubling, and that this Ariel look-alike is, on some level, actually like Ariel.


Monstrous Agency

All this is mere circumstantial evidence, however, to my argument that Ariel is a gothic villain in the role of Disney damsel. What makes her truly villainous is not what she looks like, but how she acts. And that she acts. Earlier Disney Princesses fulfilled the feminine ideal of silent victim, what Coventry Patmore christened “the Angel in the House.” Gilbert and Gubar describe how this is done: “…it is the surrender of her self—of her personal comfort, her personal desires, or both—that is the beautiful angel-woman’s key act, while it is precisely this sacrifice which dooms her to both death and heaven” (25). Though Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella could each be described as such a selfless martyr, Ariel in no way fits this description. The little mermaid tirelessly chases her dreams, from her very first scene. Indeed, Ariel appears to represent the opposite of the Angel in the House:

a witch or monster, a magical creature of the lower world […] is a kind of antithetical mirror image of an angel. […] as a representative of otherness, she incarnates the damning otherness of the flesh rather than the inspiring otherness of the spirit, expressing what—to use Anne Finch’s words—men consider her own “presumptuous” desires rather than the angelic humility and “dullness” for which she was designed” (Gilbert 28).

Ariel unashamedly indulges her desires, for which “presumption” she is more monster/villain than angel. And she shares this penchant with other villains: “the Queen [in “Little Snow White”], as we come to see more clearly in the course of the story, is a plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist, an impersonator, a woman of almost infinite creative energy, witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are” (Gilbert 39). Like other Disney villains, Ariel is a mover and shaker, not a moved and shaken.



If agency is inherently villainous, sexual agency most certainly is. It makes sense, then, that Disney has thus far only depicted “the vain, active, and wicked woman of folktales [as] the femme fatale, the ‘deadly woman’ of silent film and of Hollywood classic film” (Bell 115). According to Colette, such a woman is “characterized by décolleté, a ‘clinging black velvet dress,’ and weaponry. She catches the spectator in her gaze, ‘sinuously turns her serpent’s neck…and—having first revealed enormously wide eyes, she slowly veils them with soft lids’ (qtd in Bell 115). As the most sexually agentic of the evil stepmothers, it makes sense that (officially, at least) Ursula was modeled on Sunset Boulevard’s femme fatale, Norma Desmond.[7]

That Ariel has plenty of sexual agency has not escaped notice. The most popular explanation for this unexpected expertise is that she got it from Ursula:

In Ursula’s drag scene,[8] Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize woman, she performs woman. Ursula uses a camp drag queen performance to teach Ariel to use makeup, to “never underestimate the importance of body language,” to use the artifices and trappings of gendered behavior” (Sells 183).

However, Ariel was “performing woman” before she ever met Ursula. (And is this really surprising, when she has six older sisters?) The morning after Ariel saves Eric from the shipwreck, her sister Andrina announces that Ariel has been in the bathroom “all morning.” When Ariel emerges, she grooms herself in front of the mirror, and in the next scene, tucks a flower in her hair; stereotypical feminine mooning.

But more than understanding sexuality as performance, Ariel is distinctly sexually agentic in her interactions with Eric (and his effigy). She objectifies Eric (and in so doing, subject-ifies herself) after saving him from the shipwreck and again later when she sees his statue. After the rescue, she takes the liberty of stroking his unconscious face, saying wonderingly, “He’s so beautiful.” It does not appear to occur to her that he is also a human being who can think and talk and that he hasn’t given her permission to touch him in that way. (This may remind viewers of Ursula’s presumptuously stroking Triton’s trident later on.[f]) Just then, he’s only a pretty face. Ariel becomes the sexual subject, the admirer, giver, doer; Eric becomes the sexual object, the admired, receiver, done-to.

She objectifies him a second time when she applies the same logic to him that she applies to all the other objects in her cavern. She reasons that her artifacts’ delightful appearances must indicate that they come from a delightful world, that appearance equals reality: “I just don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things, could be bad.” Similarly, she decides that the ludicrous statue of Eric (featuring him in the stereotypical knight-in-shining-role, striding upward, one metal-clad arm in front as if to shield him from onslaught, the other arm grasping a sword) “looks just like him!” whereas both Eric and his dog Max are rather nonplussed when the first see his statue. Ariel objectifies him by substituting the statue’s outward appearance (a knight in shining armor) with Eric’s inward reality. As Ariel puts her man in the role of object, she puts herself in the role of subject. And if part of the femme fatales’ allure is their “living and thinking only for themselves as sexual subjects, not sexual objects” (Bell 116), then Ariel falls into this category, even before meeting Ursula.

In enacting a romantic encounter with Eric’s statue, she again displays her sexual agency. Hands clasped, feigning surprise, she says to his effigy, “Why Eric, run away with you?” Then, leaning her head on his shoulder, lowering her eyelids and dropping her voice, she murmurs, “This is all so, so sudden…” Ariel doesn’t just know the moves, she could write the book!

Of course, it is after she has lost her voice and swapped her fins for legs that everyone remarks upon her sexual agency. Bell cites her sexy poses in “sailcloth rage” to Scuttle’s “accompanying wolf whistle” as evidence of her feminine wiles (114). No one misses, either, the grin she throws her fellow conspirators, upon stumbling and “falling” into Eric’s arms. Though moments before she had even us viewers fooled, the sidelong smile lets us know her “damsel in distress” is an act.

What are less often cited are the even cleverer stunts the mermaid pulls in her efforts to lure Eric in. Ariel allows him to “catch” her watching him from the palace window, managing thus to communicate both her admiration and modesty as she shyly ducks back into her room. In letting him see her in the window, Ariel takes on the role of the good queen from “Little Snow White,” the Angel in the House who begins that story “framed by a window” (the next, bad queen will also be framed by glass, but hers will be a mirror) (Gilbert 37). In Andersen’s version, the little mermaid actually is an Angel in the House: “Many a night she stood by her open window and looked up through the dark blue water where the fish waved their fins and tails” (Andersen). Though Ariel is much more a monster/villain, she frequently takes advantage of the angel/damsel cliché in her efforts to win her prince.

Ariel again feigns innocence to attract Eric, this time when the two are in a rowboat together. Ariel claims not to hear her fellow conspirators’ pointed song encouraging Eric to appreciate her beauty and kiss her, when—if he can hear it—she certainly can. In doing so, she manipulates him into believing the lyrics are his internal thoughts, and pretends an innocence she does not have. This pretending in order to get her man points to her understanding of and her willingness to use her sexuality.

Evidently the rowboat scene is the site of her greatest sexual agency for it is here, too, that she throws Eric her sultry look. As he leans in for the kiss, Ariel gives him a sly, come hither glance from beneath her lashes, a look reminiscent of Ursula-as-Vanessa’s sly, self-satisfied smile when the sea witch’s engagement to Eric is announced.[g] The two sea women have more in common than we might at first think, certainly in terms of sexual agency.



While Ursula gets credit for being masterfully manipulative (and rightly so!), Ariel deserves a share in that glory. It is undeniable that the sea witch is a slippery salesman—for one thing, she was conceived as such: “Pat Carroll, Ursula’s voice actress, envisioned the character as ‘part Shakespearean actress, with all the flair, flamboyance and theatricality, and part used-car salesman with a touch of con artist’” (italics imposed) (“Ursula”). The lyrics to her musical number employ all the patented, Psych 101 techniques: “I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day” (Scarcity of Time), “It won’t cost much—just your voice!” (Low-Balling), “I admit that in the past I’ve been a nasty” (Establishing Credibility). Like the best of femme fatales, Ursula manipulates the victim into digging their own grave.

However, Ariel, too, proves adept at manipulation. In her very first scene, she uses good old peer pressure and fear mongering to goad Flounder into accompanying her onto the sunken ship. When her fish friend asks if they can leave now they’ve glimpsed the vessel, Ariel grabs his retreating back, saying (not unmenacingly), “You’re not getting cold fins now, are you?” leaving Flounder with two options: appear cowardly by admitting he wants to leave or save face by continuing on. Which of course he does, until they reach a porthole, at which point Ariel must use a new strategy to induce him to enter: “Alright. I’m going inside. You can just, stay here and, watch for sharks.” By implying that sharks lurk outside the vessel, she makes entering the ship appear the safest option. And finally, after having used the possibility of sharks as a device for inspiring fear, she makes fun of her fish friend for believing such tales: “Flounder, don’t be such a guppy” which only makes him want to prove: “I’m not a guppy!” Like her villainous aunt, Ariel is good at controlling others.


Coveting a Crown

Though by no means the most important way in which Ariel is villainous, it bears mentioning that both she and Ursula have similar ambitions. Ariel is after the love of a human, but as Ursula says, “not just any human—a prince!” Very little is made of this fact in the movie, but Ariel is effectively gunning to be queen (because Eric, without any parents, is arguably king) of a world not hers. Which is precisely what Ursula wants, too.



Unlike Snow White’s need to clean, Aurora’s knack for picking berries, or Cinderella’s mouse clothing line, Ariel’s hobby is somewhat unsettling. Like gothic villain Egaeus in Poe’s “Berenice” or the duke in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” Ariel is a fetishistic collector. She is a possessor of forbidden knowledge, like the controlling patriarch (the Beast) in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Hers is not a preoccupation, but an obsession. She has created a shrine for her fascination like a religious fanatic, and her crowning piece—the ultimate site of her mania—is the statue of Eric, which she is thrilled to “have.” Mingled with the awe that viewers experience upon first seeing this sixteen-year-old’s cavern is a sense of trepidation at the unwavering commitment that such a collection must have required over the years.



In addition to her sexuality, manipulation, ambition, and mania, Ariel is an unusual princess in that she is a risk-taker. Unlike other Disney heroines who end up in their tricky situations out of bad luck (Snow White’s father marries the wrong woman, Cinderella’s father marries the wrong woman, Aurora’s father messes with the wrong woman, Belle’s father messes with the man who messed with the wrong woman), Ariel seeks out this wrong woman.

And we know all along she will because, unlike other princesses (but very like other villains), she warns the viewer that she will do whatever it takes to get what she wants: “Watch and you’ll see, someday I’ll be part of your world.” Compare her definitive announcement with Belle’s “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell.” There are many “I want” statements but no “I will’s.” However, villains from the Wicked Witch of the West (“I’ll get you, my pretty!”) to Ursula (“Well, I’ll give them something to celebrate soon enough.”) to Gaston (“Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife.”) have been making definitive action plans (“I will” statements) for decades.

Once there, in Ursula’s cave, Ariel again exercises her agency and (questionable) decision-making ability. However inadvisable it might seem, Ariel signs the contract with the sea witch knowing full well the terms and conditions and, what’s more, that she need not go through with it. We know she has considered her options because she reasons aloud, “If I become human, I’ll never be with my family or sisters again.” Unlike other Disney heroines, she knowingly and intentionally deals with the devil.

And I want to emphasize that her contract with Ursula is a deal, a gamble; it is not a straight-up gift or “sacrifice.” She is not losing her voice forever; she is losing it until she wins Eric. According to Sebastian, “she [Ariel] won’t say a word, and she won’t say a word until you [Eric] kiss the girl”. The little mermaid goes double or nothing on her own ingenuity, and this points to a fount of inner strength the likes of which we have not seen in previous princesses. Ariel gambles her voice on her own ability to achieve self-fulfillment, a move no angel/damsel would attempt, but which a gothic villain would be more than capable of (“Common Criticisms”).



We don’t like to say it, but I think everyone can agree that the little mermaid is a bit of a stalker. She watches Eric every chance she gets: on his ship, on the beach, beneath her window. It is one of the wonderful qualities in her that reminds us of aunt Ursula, who, of course, is watching Ariel watch Eric.[h] It is the two sea women’s unabashed gazes that remind us of their status as dangerous women. Before Ariel came along,

The evil women of Disney films [were] the only female characters rendered in close-ups. Moreover, they [were] the only characters who address[ed] the camera directly, both advancing the narrative diegesis and confronting the spectator’s gaze with their own. But Disney enlarge[d] the cinematic code for the face of the femme fatale with a special effect: the face and background fade to black and the eyes are painted as gold, glowing orbs, narrowing tightly on the intended victim/heroine.”[i] (Bell 116)

Though Ariel does not get a fade-to-black with glowing eyes like Ursula does, she is the first princess to gaze directly into the camera, the glowing going on around her.[j] This new, direct-address gaze is evidence of a new, agentic, watching heroine. Ariel lusts after Eric just as Ursula hankers after Ariel (and just as we viewers have always yearned after all the Disney Princesses).



That The Little Mermaid features a protagonist who not only gets away with exerting her agency, but gets rewarded for it, would seem to be excellent news for subsequent Disney Princesses. However, while Ariel may be said to have inspired greater agency in her younger peers, none are really femme fatales like she is. They are definitely active and assertive, but gone is the sexual agency. Disney has largely ceased production of Norma Desmonds in favor of Joan of Arcs—and that’s okay, because it has simultaneously reinvented its existing Norma Desmonds to be protagonists in their own right. Frozen and Maleficent are obvious examples of this shift in perspective, each telling the story of an agentic femme fatale with whom the viewers can identify, and who gets a happy ending! The previously opposite tropes of angelic heroine and monstrous villain are gradually colliding to form a new, stronger, more realistic leading lady.

[1] Because I won’t actually touch on this point in my argument, I will set the record straight here: Ariel does not, in fact, seek to alter her body for the prince (though Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid does). Ariel wanted to have human legs before she met Eric, and upon meeting him, replaces that goal with simply wanting see him again, legs or no legs. It is Ursula who insists that to do one, she must do the other: “The only way to get what you want is to become human yourself.” (“The Little Mermaid is a Feminist Film”)

[2] As I said in the above footnote, Ariel was ready and willing to see Eric again with fins still attached (thus remaining a part of the undersea world). What ultimately forced Ariel to choose between the world of her family and that of her desire was her father’s explosive reaction to her previous encounter with said human. If anything, Ariel’s resorting to more dangerous means should be read as an indictment of Triton’s parenting; if he had not dismissed her out of hand, she would not have gone behind his back (“Common Criticisms”).

[3] Eric does save Ariel, but Ariel also saves Eric. In fact, the score stays even: first Ariel saves him from drowning, then Eric saves her from being pitchforked, then Ariel saves him from being blasted, then Eric saves her from being blasted.

[4] I do not mean to downplay the importance of speech in building a relationship, but Ariel does, in fact, get pretty far with body language, and for good reason: though the live action models for previous princesses were classical ballerinas, Ariel’s model, Sherri Stoner, “ was a member of the Los Angeles improvisational group, the Groundlings [and was] chosen from the group for her expressive face and small frame” (italics imposed) (“Somatexts”). Ariel might not be able to get into philosophical discussions without a voice, but she can emote a personality.

[5] No rebuttal—Eric should not have assumed he could kiss her without her consent, mimed or otherwise.

[6] And were this a more traditional gothic fairy tale (along the lines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, or Beauty and the Beast), Ariel and her world would be the opponents requiring conquering and Eric (the handsome orphaned princeling) would be the protagonist. This scene would mark his introduction to the possibility of sirens, and a brief glimpse during his birthday celebrations would serve as his first encounter with the dangerous maidens. Soon, he would come across a naked, speechless woman on the shore and begin to wonder at her dark secret.

[7] Unofficially, and “according to the directing animator, Ruben Acquine, Ursula was modeled on the drag queen Divine” (Sells 182).

[8] “During her song about body language, Ursula stages a camp drag show about being a woman in the white male system, beginning ‘backstage’ with hair mousse and lipstick. She shimmies and wiggles in an exaggerated style while her eels swirl around her, forming a feather boa. This performance is a masquerade, a drag show starring Ursula as an ironic figure” (Sells 182).

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Works Cited


“100 Disney Things #5: Common Criticisms of the Little Mermaid.” Chachusa. 11

Oct. 2012. Web. <>.


Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.” Trans. Jean Hersholt. HC

Andersen Centret. 8 Oct. 2013. Web. <>


Bell, Elizabeth. “Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of

Women’s Animated Bodies.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 107-122. Print.


Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female

Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer in the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale U, 2000. 1-44. Print.


Sells, Laura. “‘Where Do the Mermaids Stand?’ Voice and Body in the Little

Mermaid.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 175-90. Print.


“The Little Mermaid is a Feminist Film.” The Black Ram. 24 June 2013. Web.



“Ursula.” DisneyWiki. Web. <>.

5 thoughts on “The Little Mermaid: Our Favorite Gothic Villain

  1. This was epic! When you see Ariel’s “villain” potential it is a lot easier to see how the movie is feminist. Her agency is what made her traditionally a “villain” (as in “bad role model,” which people have been saying since the movie came out). While perhaps she is a bad role model, she’s not a simpering victim and her active choices are what made her a hero for me as a child.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Margot. What a fun read! I’ve never thought about the potential to read Ariel as a young villain, but the author makes a strong case for it. If she expanded it a bit to draw more upon the scholarly literature (probably with a specific literature review section added towards the beginning, reviewing both the scholarship on what constitutes something that is gothic, and on other scholars’ publications on The Little Mermaid), it would be very much publishable in an academic journal or scholarly anthology. (If I were her paper’s blind peer reviewer, I would recommend publication with that addition.)

    Actually, it’s too bad this wasn’t already written when I was soliciting essays for a new scholarly anthology I co-edited, called “Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Identities and Imaginations.” It’s being released in a few weeks, and this piece would have been a great fit!

    Kudos to the author.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      Those are great suggestions, I see a book here! And yes, too bad Stephanie isn’t in the anthology but I can’t wait to read it, sounds really good.


  3. This is certainly fascinating. I had never thought of it in this way.

    Although I know this is focused on the gothic element of the argument, it also doesn’t escape my notice that two masculine suggestive metaphors appear in the film, both of potential significance. One is the infamous phallic castle, in the above land, which Ariel wishes not merely to be subjected to, but to actually attain citizenship in (a metaphor of escaping the forced role of the subjugated and attaining a partnership in an existence of power), and also the symbolism of her father’s trident, which he actually uses to destroy the icons of her dream (a metaphor not only of the subjugation of the female and of the attempt to ‘put her in her place’, but perhaps also of rape?).

    I’ll really have to ponder this more. Thanks for posting!

    • Hiya –

      I recently saw Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” – my fav of all the Disney movies – on the big screen and with live music at the Hollywood Bowl in LA. After revisiting it in this way, after reading this response and remembering my own use of Aerial and Ursula in a British Gothic Lit course I took as a senior in college (awesome coincidence and overlap, by the way…) and after such a long absence from seeing the movie, I had the same thought as you. Namely, that King Triton’s unwilling entrance into Aerial’s private, secret cavern can most certainly be read as a rape. She even screams, “Daddy, no!” as he points his trident at Eric’s statue with the object of destroying it.

      This destruction all occurs after a conversation in which the king reprimands his daughter for missing her concert, which, presumably can be supposed to be her “coming out” party, her big introduction and entrance into the mer world. In this conversation Aerial asserts, “I’m sixteen years old. I’m not a little girl any more.” Could this reminder to her father be Aerial’s undoing? Could Triton’s response to his youngest, fairest and favorite daughter’s secret cave be a reaction to his own supposed impotence to control his daughter (and thus his kingdom)?

      And, of course, as the damsel in distress in British Gothic lit is supposed to, Aerial “dies”. Both physically (she immediately seeks the sea witch to gain legs and leave the underwater world) and sexually (as we can read the tearing of her fish tail into two legs as the tearing of the virginal hymen). Her dad already destroyed her cavern. Now she just needed the comfort of a woman. Interestingly, Aerial does not turn to her many sisters, but instead seeks out Ursula, really, the only Woman. Her sisters, we can assume because they are all “out” and still living at home, unmarried cannot help her at this point. They are still girls; they have no sexual experience. But Ursula, a woman who lives without men to shelter her, who owns her own business, who lives how she wants to, and who obtains the power of Woman, the power of sexual control, that’s who Aerial seeks.

      So.. Triton enters his daughter cavern, is disgusted by what he see there and then destroys it all with his phallic trident. Sure. He turns and has a look of deep regret on his face. It’s not enough. The damage is done. No wonder Aerial immediately seeks comfort in the Sea Witch, Ursula – her father already turned her into the same kind of villainous (i.e. sexually experienced and thus to be feared), agentic woman.

      Thanks for the stimulating discussion and thoughts. Still more to think on…

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