As a girl, my VHS of choice was The Little Mermaid — it was truly the only thing in my tiny life that mattered. I watched it until the tape deteriorated, and then I forced my mom to buy another. I watched that one on a loop until it met the same fate as its predecessor. To this day, I know the blocking of every crustacean and fish in “Under the Sea”; King Triton still scares the hell out of me (patriarchy, am I right?), and I get chills every time I see Ursula slither out from the shadows and onto the screen.
The thing is, I was supposed to be obsessed with Ariel. She was the ingenue, the star, the love interest, the princess who finally gets her man. For a chubby, regularly bullied eight-year-old, though, it was hard to see myself in Ariel. In fact, her appearance and storyline sometimes made me feel terrible: I worried I’d never get to be as pretty and beloved as she was.
Ursula, though? She was a different story. She lived alone — I spent most of my evenings and weekends alone, because I had a hard time making friends. She had a couple of weird pets that she tortured — I had siblings. She cultivated a garden of animated seaweed, created from the poor unfortunate souls who had wronged her — I imagined them as my crueler classmates.
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Most importantly, Ursula was fat. She wasn’t the meek, shrinking violet, hide in the corner with a cardigan on kind of fat, either — she was glamorous, she was sexy, and she did not give a single solitary fuck.
“Don’t underestimate the power of body language,” she bellows during the movie’s revenge ballad, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” her rolls on display and moving in time with the music.
My second grade brain nearly exploded.
The power of this moment was a delicious escape from my reality, where I felt I couldn’t be as loud and as theatrical and as glamorous as I wanted to be, because of my size. Ursula was all of those things, and her size only made those qualities more memorable.
Simply put, Ursula was the fat bitch I needed to see in the world.
That’s probably why I was so disappointed to hear that Lady Gaga is being considered for the role of Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, due out sometime in 2019. It’s not because I don’t think Gaga would be excellent as Ursula — her pipes and winged liner are certainly right for the part.
But considering the fact that roles for fat women are so few and far between, why not cast an actual fat person in one — particularly one as iconic — and iconically fat — as Ursula? It’s not for a lack of options. For my money, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Burgess is the perfect fit for the role — check out this clip of him performing Ursula’s headline number if you need proof. How great would Chrissy Metz be as the sea witch? We already know she can sing. Insecure’s Natasha Rothwell would bring the necessary comic timing — imagine her choking out Flotsum and Jetsom. Melissa McCarthy, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer — all of these actors could bring the character to life in different ways, authentically commanding the young, chubby girls in the audience to never, ever underestimate the power of body language.
And about those chubby girls in the audience, my younger self included. I imagine that a remake of The Little Mermaid will reach just as many of them as the 1989 cartoon did. Sure, the plot of the new version will likely remain as problematic as the original — men saving women from their fathers, women irreparably changing themselves to find love, all of the same old shit that we should probably move away from, but, well, aren’t.
If Disney is going to continue to tell stories like this, they should bring them ever so slightly into the modern age by casting inclusively. Rumor has it that Zendaya was offered the role of Ariel — an excellent choice that will certainly resonate with young, black girls who’ve historically been overlooked in Disney’s leading roles. And, by having an actual fat actress in the role of Ursula, chubby girls won’t just get to see a classic movie for the first time — they might actually get to see themselves.
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