Semiotics is the doctrine of signs. Signs take the form of anything that society invests meaning into. Such signs as words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects only become signs when they are interpreted as having meaning (Chandler, 2009). Roland Barthes was a French theorist who had a major contribution to structuralist semiotics. His contribution was to extend the idea of the sign into myth. He later moved towards a post-structuralist view. Barthes began to read culture from a mythic perspective, where myths were seen as connotations. (Bignell, 2002, p58)Ursula, in the film the Little Mermaid, is portrayed as a villain due to her resistance against the discourse of femininity. The discourse of femininity is the social constructions that dictate how women are expected to behave and look. Ursula desires power, which is not considered a conventional feminine trait. This positions the audience to see her as a villain. The film creators have specifically chosen everything about Ursula. The filmmakers are aware of the connotations associated with femininity. They have used this knowledge to create Ursula as a villain. Her image, gender performance and her interaction with animals are all individual signs of her rebellion against femininity.
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Barthes originally adopted Louis Hjelmslev’s notion of orders of signification. (Chandler, 2009) After Barthe had extended the sign he began to read culture through a mythical perspective where he linked myths with connotations and ideologies. The semiotic interpretation of a myth differs to the preexisting definition of a myth being false. Myths help to make sense of experiences within a culture. A myth to Barthes supports ideologies and relates to social realities (Bignell, 2002, p58). A myths function is to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely natural and true reflections of the way things are (Chandler, 2009). Barthes linked myths and ideologies very closely as he also defined ideologies as reinforcing the existing system as appearing natural and acceptable to society (Bignell, 2002, p58). Barthes believed visual signs in media are used to trigger a range of connotations attached to the sign and that connotations came from our social experiences. (Allen, 2003, p42) Barthes believed when signs and connotations were brought together they shaped a particular message. (Bignell, 2002, p58).
Ursula’s image is associated with unfeminine connotations. Every detail of Ursula’s image, from her clothing to her weight represents a desire for power and resistance against femininity. This positions the audience to view Ursula as a villain due to the myth society holds regarding femininity. These myths are automatically accepted by society, as we believe the connotations associated with these signs are true reflections of reality. Parents and authoritative figures encourage young girls from an early age to speak and act in ways which displays their femininity. Behaviour like wearing frilly dresses is a symbol for appearing weaker and less aggressive than boys (Larner, 2009). Ursula wears a black revealing dress, which refers to her strength, aggression, and power that goes against femininity. Ursula has sharp angular features that she highlights with heavy eye make up, which is a symbol of an unnatural woman. (Stoll, 2005) Ursula is an overweight character who shakes her hips and moves in an exaggerated and sluggish manner. She is ‘languid, lacy and floppish’. (Stoll, 2005) Overweight characters in Disney films have negative connotations associated with them. They are considered ugly, unpleasant, lazy and un- married (Towbin, Haddock, Zimmerman, Lund, Tanner, 2004). These connotations come from the myth that attractive women need protection because they are helpless and are therefore more likely to marry. (Towbin, et al., 2004). Ursula’s hair is a disruption to the image of femininity. She has short, bleached and butch hair. (Mallan, 2000) Feminine characters are usually represented as having long, flowing hair that is often seen as sensual. Therefore Ursula’s short hair is associated with resisting the discourse of femininity. Throughout the film, Ursula’s image is associated with suspense and tension. (Stoll, 2005) Each time the viewer sees Ursula they are reminded she is the villain who brings evil upon others. As Barthe suggests the visual signs within The Little Mermaid trigger connotations associated with femininity. These signs and connotations create a message that Ursula is a villain due to her desire for power, which is represented through her image.
Ursula is conveyed as a villain through here gender performance. Gender performance, according to Judith Baxter, is the term that argues that gender norms are constructed by society. She suggests that as much as femininity is about image, femininity is an act and does not automatically come with female genitalia (Frus, P. Williams, C. 2010, p201). Performance is about the repetition of gestures, words, acts and desires. Ursula tries to teach Ariel how to preform woman by bumping her hips through sexual gestures while speaking the words ‘don’t underestimate body language’. Her gestures and words refer to the connotations of sexually perversity and promiscuity, which is controversial to the image of femininity. Ursula’s performance shows the disconnection between the female body of the performer and her masculine persona. Ursula is parallel to John Waters transvestite diva character, “Divine”. Divine was a drag queen that had a monstrous figure and attempted to resemble a female. (Hallam, 2009) This false female who conveyed masculine acts and gestures did not fool the audiences. This is parallel to Ursula’s character whose overly phallic body represents sexual perversity. The fact Ursula is sexually aware displays her masculine traits, as feminine characters in Disney films are often seen as innocent and unaware of sexuality. The ‘innocent female’ ideology is reinforced through The Little Mermaid. This demonstrates Ursula is unacceptable to society because she resists this ideology. Desires are a contributing factor to gender performance. Ursula desires patriarchal authority rather than a marriage, which is an unconventional feminine trait that destabilizes gender. In accordance with Barthes theory of semiotics, and the connotations and signs associated with Ursula’s performance it is evident that Ursula is an unfeminine character, who for this very reason, is portrayed as a villain.
The way animals react and engage with Ursula conveys her villainous behavior and her rebellion against femininity. Wicked women in Disney films are often considered antisocial and are associated with ugly animal helpers who take pleasure in disastrous events. (Bell, Haas, Sells, 1995) Flotsam and Jetsam are Ursula’s assistants. These characters demonstrate Ursula’s desire for power. Her assistants appear to dedicate their life to her and display no evidence of a life of their own. Ursula fails to show gratitude towards her assistants. These two characters do wicked odd jobs Ursula doesn’t want to do. They are inferior characters, yet essential to the portrayal of Ursula. (Stoll, )Ursula steals Ariel’s voice with the help of her accomplices. Ursula attempts to lure the prince into marrying however she fails, as the surrounding animals are not fooled by her false femininity. Her attempt to usurp male power fails and she is punished and humiliated. The animals degrade Ursula in a performance at the altar. Birds fly between her outspread legs, starfish smack her face and the prince’s dog bites her behind (Zuk, 1998). The animal’s hatred towards Ursula is highlighted by their love for Ariel. All women are expected to be caring from birth and desire a family. Ursula displays no caring attributes towards others and is a self indulged woman. Women are subconsciously warned of the negative consequences of stepping outside feminine sex roles as the stereotypical female is expected to be biologically maternal. This myth refers to the expectation that feminine women are expected to care and nurture animals and have an automatic bond with them. The way Ursula treats her assistants, Flotsam and Jetsam is an accurate portrayal of Ursula. The way the animals react around Ursula also highlights her wickedness, as they feel hatred towards her and are also cautious of her power. As Barthe suggests, the signs and connotations associated with Ursula’s interaction with other characters portrays her as a villain.
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Ursula resists the discourse of femininity through her image, gender performance and her interaction with animals. Ursula’s image resists femininity through her Clothing, weight, hair and make up. The connotations associated with each of these reinforce that Ursula is negatively different from the other female characters and is therefore a villain. Gender performance includes gestures, desires and words. Ursula fails at feminine performance due to her sexual awareness, which is demonstrated through her gestures and words. Her desire is to have patriarchal power over the human and underwater world is considered a male and villainous trait. The way animals react to Ursula shows her true villainous nature and unfeminine qualities. Her accomplices Flotsam and Jetsam are essential to the portrayal of Ursula as they add to her wickedness. As Barthe suggests the signs and connotations within Ursula’s image, gender performance and her interaction with animals have shaped the message that Ursula is a villain due to her resistance against femininity.
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