Sunday, February 12, 2023

Ursula is a Drag Queen Inspired Name

Growing up, I never questioned the name of the sea witch in Disney's The Little Mermaid. Ursula always made sense to me, an ugly old-fashioned name for a witch, like Dolores, Mildred, or Gruntilda.
Ursula the sea witch from Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989)
So imagine my surprise when I was reading old baby name books from the 70s and 80s (pre-Mermaid) and every entry for Ursula reads something like “this name brings to mind a hot, sexy, alluring European woman”. That really doesn't seem like a good name for a sea witch. The predominant Ursula association before 1989 was Ursula Andress, the sexy European bond girl from the first James Bond movie Dr. No (1962), who played roles like Aphrodite in Clash of the Titans (1981).

Ursula Andress in Loaded Guns (1975)
Why would they give an old sea witch a name that most adults watching with their kids would associate with a Hollywood sex symbol? I didn’t find anything specific on the internet about why the Disney creators chose Ursula for the sea witch but I did find that her character design was based on the drag queen Divine. And who do drag queens like to emulate and name themselves after? Sexy Hollywood icons, like Ursula Andress!

Andress in the movie She (1965)
Ursula is a drag queen inspired name! Just look at Andress in a fancy headdress! It makes total sense. To be fair, I think it also works as an old fashioned European name, which makes it a clever choice by the creators.
All of this went completely over my head as a kid, as it probably did for a whole generation who grew up watching The Little Mermaid and who didn't know about Andress. So now for me the name Ursula is associated with an evil witch, and the name itself sounds ugly and old fashioned with no attractive associations in popular culture like it used to have. 
You can see the change happen with the character Ursula Buffay, twin sister of Phoebe Buffay on the tv show Friends. She was originally just an absent-minded blond waiter in the second season of Mad About You (1992). Ursula in this case matched with the earlier associations with the name. But when they brought her into Friends (1995) she became the evil twin which matches the new association with the name. The nice and friendly Ursula from the George of the Jungle (1997) movie got her name from the 1967 animation of the same name, and I wonder if Ursula Andress may have been the inspiration then. In the video game Metal Gear Solid : Portable Ops (2006), Ursula is the name of evil split personality of beautiful Elisa. The only outlier is Ursula Hanson from Super Troopers (2001), but the writers there are GenX, so I imagine they might have been still thinking beautiful blond Ursula when they cast Marisa Coughlan.
That’s my theory anyway. And I think it adds to the idea of Ursula being a gay icon.

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