Broadway veteran and TV character actor Pat Carroll died last month. She voiced the tentacled sea witch Ursula in Disney’s 1989 adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” The character resembles the legendary Baltimore drag queen Divine, according to LA Times writer Tracy Brown. She says Ursula is an important milestone in Disney’s portrayal of queer characters.
As a whole, “The Little Mermaid” is a story that can resonate with queer audiences, she says. “Underneath it all, this is a story about a girl who doesn't feel at home at her home. And she's longing for something and somewhere to belong. I think it's a yearning that a lot of kids, whether you're queer or not, can relate to as you're growing up.”
She adds that Ursula’s character is gloriously charismatic, confident, and filled with self-love.
“She understands so much [in life] is performance, and even confidence is a performance. All of that is how you negotiate how other people see you,” Brown explains.
Brown says that Carroll based a lot of her performance on Howard Ashman, a producer on the film and a Broadway lyricist and playwright. That includes his facial and hand mannerisms and a few adlibs.
When adding these different layers together, Brown says that it makes sense why Ursula is a gay icon.
“She's brash, and she's big. And she understands performance. She's modeled after a drag performer. So she has that look. But she's also been brought to life by Howard Ashman, who was gay. He was out,” she says.
“In multiple levels of her creation, there were queer people involved in informing how she would look and just her characterization.”