Michael Landis in Smithsonian:
The central story of The Little Mermaid is, of course, 16-year-old Ariel’s identity crisis. She feels constrained by her patriarchal mer-society and senses she doesn’t belong. She yearns for another world, apart from her own, where she can be free from the limits of her rigid culture and conservative family. Her body is under the water, but her heart and mind are on land with people. She leads a double life. She is, essentially, “in the closet” (as symbolized by her “cavern”—or closet—of human artifacts, where the character-building song “Part of Your World” takes place). When Ariel ventures to tell her friends and family about her secret identity, they chastise her and tell her she must conform. She must meet her father’s expectations, sing on demand, perform for the public and give up all hopes of a different life. Her father, King Triton, even has her followed by a court official. In her misery, Ariel flees to the sea witch Ursula, the only strong female in the entire film and thus Ariel’s only female role model. At this point, the movie becomes truly subversive cinema.
Conceived by Ashman, Ursula is based on the famous cross-dressing performer Divine, who was associated with the openly gay filmmaker John Waters. As scholar Laura Sells explained in a 1995 anthology of essays, Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” song is essentially a drag show instructing the naive mermaid on how to attract Prince Eric (who is conspicuously uninterested in Ariel and most content at sea with his all-male crew and manservant Grimsby). “In Ursula’s drag scene,” Sells wrote, “Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize woman, she performs woman.” While teaching young Ariel how to “get your man,” Ursula applies makeup, exaggerates her hips and shoulders, and accessorizes (her eel companions, Flotsam and Jetsam, are gender neutral)—all standard tropes of drag. “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!,” sings Ursula with delicious sarcasm. The overall lesson: Being a woman in a man’s world is all about putting on a show. You are in control; you control the show. Sells added, “Ariel learns gender, not as a natural category, but as a performed construct.” It’s a powerful message for young girls, one deeply threatening to the King Tritons (and Ronald Reagans) of the world.