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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
DISNEY WITCHES AND FEMME FATALES:
MAKING WOMEN INTO WITCHES


At first glance, femme fatales from film noir and the witches from Disney films have nothing in common, but when looked at from the perspective of cultural context and feminism, we can see that both representations of women signify the oppressive idea that women who are smart, beautiful, mysterious, and eclectic are also witches: views about women that have been vocalized since before the Salem witch trials.

Both of the main female characters in The Little Mermaid and Double Indemnity have witch-like characteristics that help them manipulate the men in their lives.  With the riddled language, dark lighting, and obscure emotional contexts, Double Indemnity, by Billy Wilder, is considered to be the first true film noir movie. The femme fatale in Double Indemnity, Phyllis (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck), represents the ideal male fantasy, as Ursula’s human form, Vanessa, does in The Little Mermaid.  The first time Phyllis meets her male counterpart, Walter, she comes out wearing a loose towel. She saunters downstairs while fluttery music plays in the background. The music parallels the way Walter views Phyllis: as a delicate flower. Through her body language, physical characteristics, and sexual language, Phyllis becomes the epitome of male fantasy: she is sexy, she smells delicious, she seems weak, she is in between naked and getting dressed, she plays hard-to-get, and she is married to a man she does not love. Because she is married to a man she does not love, Walter believes he is acting as a savior: he is the man who will change Phyllis’s fate and lead her into a paradise-like world filled with fortune and love. But it is only because of Phyllis’s sexuality that Walter is compelled to form a relationship with her.  As Phyllis is getting dressed, Walter is thinking “of that dame upstairs and the way she looked at me." The “look” Phyllis gives him is like magic and Phyllis puts him under a type of spell. Walter becomes so focused on the way she looks that he does not realize he is being manipulated. Walter focuses only on the stereotypical image of her and ignores the fact that she is trying to use him to kill her husband.

The Little Mermaid also plays with the expected role in which a woman uses her sexual appeal to gain the trust of men. When Ursula changes her appearance to manipulate Prince Eric, he does not realize that he is being controlled because all he can focus on is Vanessa’s (Ursula’s human form) beauty. Furthermore, Ursula’s human form is very similar to Ariel’s body, which reflects the stereotypical image of a woman who men desire: they are both petite and lean with long hair, bright red lips, and long eyelashes. Much like Phyllis’s, Ursula’s overt sexuality is embodied by every action that she takes. The sexy, black dress that seems to be a part of her body illuminates the idea that, for her, a woman’s identity and sexual image are one. Because Ursula is represented as a busty, sexual woman, and because Phyllis also appears to be ruled by sexuality, then it can be said that women attain power through the way they look. Or, rather, men react to one thing: sexuality.

If Phyllis were not a sexually attractive woman, then she would not be able to sway the opinions of men. These oppressive views of women lead us to believe that women can be neither intelligent nor coy; they must be sexual and evil. Furthermore, when Phyllis and Walter are talking, he mentions how he “forgot about [her] husband." This “forgetting” reveals the manipulative magic that Phyllis uses against Walter. Phyllis and Walter begin to go into a sadomasochistic scene in which Phyllis plays the role of a motorcycle policemen and the detective, Walter, plays a man who was speeding. Because Phyllis, in this scene, is in control of Walter, the scene mimics the actual relationship that the two have. Phyllis is actually trapping Walter with her sexuality, which she uses to hide her evil nature.

Phyllis uses her sexuality to gain the trust of Walter. For example, she is trying to get a life insurance policy out on her husband so that she can kill him and collect the money. Instead of telling the truth, Phyllis manipulates Walter by staring into his eyes, batting her long eyelashes, and saying “[My husband] doesn’t want accident insurance. He’s superstitious about it. Is there any way?” Walter, thinking he is the one being sly, says, “Look baby, you can’t get away with it. You want to knock him off, don’t you?” Walter should have reported her to the police and gone on his way, but under the magic spell of her beauty and sexuality, Walter gets strung along.

According to “From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture” by Elizabeth Bell,  “The witches…represent erotic and subversive forces that are more appealing [to men]." Walter’s internal narrative reflects the fact that, even though he wants to, he cannot escape Phyllis’s grasp. After Phyllis leaves his house, Walter says, “She didn’t fool me for a minute. I knew I had a hold of her red-hot poker and the time to drop it was before it burned my hand." This internal dialogue points to the fact that Walter knew he was being controlled, but he continued to hold that “red-hot” poker until it burned more than just his hand. The repression of knowledge that Walter experiences illuminates the idea that Phyllis is controlling him through some type of black magic that stems from her sexuality. Later on in the film, we see that Walter is still stuck on Phyllis. He admits, “[I’m] all twisted up inside and still holding on to that red-hot poker. The hook was too strong. This wasn’t the end between her and me. It was only the beginning.”

The voice is an aspect of witchcraft that both Phyllis and Ursula employ. Because Walter knows what is going on, but refuses to acknowledge it in a way that could save him, we realize that he is unable to follow his own willpower. Phyllis uses her language to convince Walter that she is helpless and in need of saving. She says, “I don’t want to kill [my husband] even when he gets drunk and slaps my face.” Phyllis acts as a damsel in distress by mentioning casually how her husband hits her and she, being the good wife that she is, does not even get mad. How could Walter, a clever insurance salesman, be fooled by Phyllis’s language?

Much like Prince Eric and Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the men fail to realize what they are actually seeing: they are caught in a spell of either beauty or language. Furthermore, like the appearance of her body, the voice is an aspect of sexuality that Ursula uses to her advantage. When Ursula captures Ariel’s voice in an ultimate attempt at ruling the sea, she uses that voice - delicate, womanly, and sweet - to transform herself into a delicate, womanly, and sweet human. When Eric first notices Ariel, he is hypnotized by her voice. So Eric is not actually in love with Ariel, he is enchanted by her voice, which represents the notion that women are sweet, sexual, delicate beings. Moreover, Ursula uses her language to convince Ariel, in an almost hypnotic manner, that she needs to give up her voice. When Ursula’s human form sings, “Soon I’ll have that little mermaid and the ocean will be mine," her internal dialogue reflects her desire to manipulate Eric, kill Ariel, and cause Ariel’s father to flounder so that Ursula can take control of the sea.  In an act of defiance, the sea starts to attack Ursula: seagulls, seals, and dolphins attempt to sabotage her wedding with Prince Eric. This causes the captured voice to be returned to Ariel, and when it does, Prince Eric seems to shake out of the spell under which Ursula put him. 

The idea of the voice being a facet of manipulation and witchery is also explored in Double Indemnity through Phyllis’s language. During their first interaction, Walter says things to Phyllis like, “I hate to think of you having a smashed fender or something while you’re not fully covered” to which she replies, “I was just sun bathing.” This word manipulation reflects the actual manipulation that Phyllis is performing on Walter. Like a spell, she uses her language to flip around the conversation so Walter can only focus on her body - never fully grasping her intention. Through language, Phyllis begins to have a tighter grip on Walter. She forces him to cancel his plans so that she can meet him on a specific day. Ruled by her beauty, Walter removes all other obligations in the hopes of getting close to her. When Phyllis answers her door she is wearing a floor-length skirt and a low-cut, unbuttoned flower shirt. The outfit represents her overt sexuality as she tries to give off the notion that she is a delicate, flower-like woman. Of course, this is all a ploy to get Walter to fall in love with her so that he can kill her husband, and she can collect the insurance money, but to Walter, Phyllis represents a fantasy he is willing to do anything to maintain.

Like Phyllis in Double Indemnity, Ursula in The Little Mermaid tries to convince Ariel that through her body language, she can be a man’s desire. Ursula sings, “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” Ursula says this as she bounces her body like an exotic dancer might, and the camera closes up on her shimmying breasts. Ursula tries to convince Ariel that she does not need her voice, because according to Ursula’s song, “Men, they don't like a lot of blabber. They’re not that all impressed with conversation…. Come on, you poor unfortunate soul, go ahead, make your choice.” Ariel is then presented with a contract that she signs as if her body, not her mind, is making the decision. Ursula, with her body language and verbal language, forces Ariel to sign the contract. When Ariel goes into Ursula’s cave, she, like Walter, goes against what she knows to be true and decides to give Ursula the power because she is led to believe that Ursula will actually help her.

According to Donald Keesey's The Contexts for Criticism, “Any text which does recognize the fundamental moral reality of women is sexist.” Femme fatales like Phyllis, and witches like Ursula, are depicted in a way that makes manipulation the driving force behind their actions. This characterization does not take into account more complex emotions like love, guilt, or friendship. Because Phyllis is so interested in killing her husband, she does not think about the results of her actions. By being so focused on the end result, Phyllis does not feel guilty for her actions until she is about to be killed. Walter, on the other hand, believing that Phyllis loves him, agrees to kill her husband so that they can be together. In the end, we view Walter as a full character - he feels remorse for killing a man “who never did [him] no hurt except he was married to a woman he didn’t care about.” But Phyllis, on the other hand, is “a little more rotten,” than Walter because she never feels remorse. We lack a rounded character view of Phyllis; she becomes one aspect of femininity: the witch.  Recognizing this female character as a woman who cares for nothing more than material possessions, Keesey explains, means we are not viewing the “fundamental moral reality of women.” Because of the way we see Phyllis, our view about Ursula can be informed: both women have manipulative and undercutting natures without feeling remorse, which is an aspect of femininity that repeats the discourse of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.

According to Marilynne Roach, author of The Salem Witch Trials, “witches were envious, resented their neighbors’ successes, and enjoyed their misfortunes." These characteristics resemble the way Ursula treats Ariel and the way that Phyllis treats her husband. Like Phyllis in Double Indemnity, who has killed before and is willing to kill again, witches were perceived as evil, mischievous, and cold-blooded. Furthermore, like Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Roach explains, the witches were “shape-shifters who changed their forms.”  Indeed, like Ursula, Phyllis also shape-shifts, when she is facing different people. When she is in front of her stepdaughter Lola, she shape-shifts and becomes a loving, caring, and responsible mother. When Phyllis is in front of Walter, she shape-shifts to become a sexy, flowery, and alluring woman in need. When she is in front of the insurance salesmen, she is a destroyed, meek, and widowed woman. Although she does not actually shift shapes like Ursula, Phyllis still changes the way in which she is perceived in order to achieve various motives; she wants to trick Lola into believing that she is a kind mother; trick Walter into believing that she is a damsel in distress; trick the insurance men into believing that she is a lowly widow who needs support. All of these tricks show that Phyllis, like the perception of the witches during the Salem witch trials, enjoys the misfortunes of others, and by shifting shapes uses her manipulative skills to steal her neighbor’s successes, or, in this case, her husband’s money.

Furthermore, Ariel from The Little Mermaid reflects Mercy Lewis from the Salem witch trials. As Roach explains, Mercy Lewis was a woman who, on May 9, 1962, was “abducted [by Burroughs’s specter] and brought to an exceeding[ly] high mountain.” Mercy was then shown all of the kingdoms of Earth. These “kingdoms” reflect the happiness that Ursula promised Ariel. Furthermore, Mercy refused to sign the specter’s “book” once she realized that the specter worked for the Devil. Mercy’s refusal to sign the specter’s book parallels the fact that Ariel was forced to sign Ursula’s contract. Both women were presented with an evil being (a specter, in the case of Mercy, and a witch, in Ariel’s case), and both evil beings were trying to force innocent women to sign a contract in the hopes of stealing either their soul or their voice. The similarities between the Salem witch trials and the meeting between Ursula and Ariel parallel the notion that unconventional women who challenge traditional society are seen as witches because they challenge social norms.

Both Phyllis and Ursula challenge traditional roles of marriage, and like the female defendants during the Salem witch trials, they are, according to Roach, “middle-aged…past childbearing…with few or no children in a culture that valued large families.” Phyllis, who is represented as beautiful, mysterious, and dark, challenges the traditional view of women that society held in 1944. Ursula and Phyllis have attributes that are similar to persecuted women during the Salem witch trials. For example, Trade states that many witches “whispered evil ideas to unwitting victims’ minds…appeared before them in any deceitful guise.”

Walter, representative of the male superiority at the time, is able to beat Phyllis at her own game. At the end of Double Indemnity, Walter walks into Phyllis’s house and finally understands the spell under which he is held: he says to Phyllis, “It’s like the first time I came here, isn’t it? You were talking about automobile insurance and you were thinking about murder. I was thinking about that anklet.” Walter states that he is free because the police believe that another man committed the murder. Phyllis, once again trying to use her language, states, “I just want to talk.” Walter replies, “Sometimes people are where they can’t talk." This statement reflects not only the idea that Walter is going to kill Phyllis, but also the idea that Phyllis is no longer able to control Walter because he has broken out from under her spell. Phyllis attempts to control Walter one final time by shooting him. Unfortunately for her, she misses and he walks closer to her, antagonizing her to shoot him. Phyllis says, “I never loved you. I’m rotten to the heart. I used you and that’s all you ever meant to me until a minute ago when I couldn’t fire that second shot.” This is the only point in the film where it seems as though Phyllis is expressing real human emotion: regret. Although she is feigning regret, she is actually creating a bigger scheme to force Walter to put his gun down and emotionally disarm him. Walter says, “I’m not asking you to believe me, just hold me.” Walter says, “Goodbye, baby” and kills Phyllis. The male dominance that Walter expresses over Phyllis illuminates that idea that evil women who are seen as witches must be killed in order for the males to protect the familial and social values present at the time. If Phyllis had killed Walter, 1940’s America might not have been willing to accept the idea that beautiful, strong women, no matter how evil, have control over men and therefore have control over society.

Like Phyllis in Double Indemnity, Ursula is also overpowered by a male figure. Ursula, believing she is going to win the ocean, grows triple in size as she tries to kill Ariel. She towers above the ship, captained by Prince Eric, and, thinking she has won, raises her arm with the trident and screams, “So much for true love,” only to be pierced through the stomach with the bowsprit of the ship, which due to its shape, represents male power. Ursula’s power breaks and Tritan throws her out of the kingdom; Ariel marries Eric, and “true love,” wins. Overall, Ursula and Phyllis represent the same type of eccentricities and loss of family values for which women during the Salem witch trials were killed. It would have been unacceptable for a woman with no children, who hates her husband (or who does not have a husband), and who promotes sexuality as a driving force behind her allure to defeat the male at the end.

Because there was little leeway for women to oppose the traditional roles of marriage, society, and family, Phyllis and Ursula represent the same roles that women during the Salem witch trials represented: oppressed, confined, and forced to fight in a battle that they could not win. The male hierarchy, in both of these cases, prevails in the end to show that women must continue to conform to both typical gender roles and societal values. Because Ariel is easily manipulated, beautiful but not overly sexual, and obedient to the idea that, for a woman to get anywhere in the world she must find a rich man to love her, she is able to marry Prince Eric and sail away with him on the ocean: a separation from the family that is only acceptable because she is married. Both Ursula and Phyllis get killed in the end, a sign to wayward women that their eccentric and manipulative behavior has no place in a male-dominated society. 


May 2013

From guest contributor Kaelin Falandays

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