Ursula and the Comedic Body

The female body is no stranger to extreme objectification and examination. Identifying the parts of the female body that account for this idealization and categorization of comedic grotesqueness and exaggeration are handled interestingly in Judith Butler’s chapter From Interiority to Gender Performance.  Understanding the constructs that support the identification of gender lead to how the performative elements of gender are communicated on a public arena. The first example I thought of when exploring this idea was the “evil” sea-witch Ursula from Disney’s Little Mermaid. Ursula is perhaps the most flamboyant and fantastical character in the film, placing a heavy emphasis on her body and ridiculous attitude.

Butler talks about the performance of gender and how the combined characteristics allow for different perceptions of the classical “male” and “female” roles. Ursula is considered dramatic, and comical, because of her physical presentation. She is a large, glamorized woman who indulges in trickery and magic. Her body is used a vessel in which comedic renderings can take place because she does not fit the status-quo. Butler touches on the idea that individuals are punished if they do not fit into their gender roles within society’s confines, this is proven with Ursula. She lives in a dingy, dark, and quite frankly terrifying, ocean cave surrounded by electric eels on the outside of society. This is a space in which she is allowed to be free within her society. She can be sarcastic, and malicious, without consequences.

In the clip, Ursula’s sass and confidence are keystone elements. Her body allows her to have a presence, one larger than life, as compared to someone like Ariel. Ariel, in turn, would never be comedic because she is the ideal woman in that society: very beautiful, shy, and bashful. Ursula, in comparison, leaves us feeling intimidated. Her power comes from her “otherness” and her non-willingness to conform allows for comedy, because she can break the social constructs placed upon her because she never fit in anyway.


“From Interiority to Gender Performatives .” Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, by Judith Butler, Routledge, 1999.



  1. While Butler’s arguments can be pointed toward Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’, Rowe’s central arguments of female spectacle and the grotesque fit particularly well here. While Ursula is, obviously, grotesque in terms of appearance, she appears prone to “ridicule” in the original bargain with Ariel, but then, ultimately, “demonic or threatening” towards the end of the film.

  2. Finding comedy in Ursula’s deviance from the feminine status-quo is an interesting observation. As you point out, the laughter is to come from a point of punishment for not fitting this status-quo. From this, I wonder how much the ideas of Bergson can be applied to this comic setting? Especially in present day, gender has become a real issue of debate and has created a lot of polarizing opinions that would easily feed into his theory of comedy.

  3. Butler’s writing on how individuals are punished when they do not conform with society’s gender roles is illustrated perfectly through the character of Ursula, as you have explained. Her physical movements and appearance are reminiscent of the drag queen Divine from John Waters’ films. This resemblance is a comment on Butler’s discussion of the performance of gender.

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