Jul 2 2012 3:30pm

Poor Unfortunate Souls: Why Does “Fashionable” Equal “Thin” to Disney?

“The Disney Villains Designer Collection is a unique, stylized and fashion-forward take on these iconic characters.” - John Balen, Disney Store director.

By “stylized,” you mean “unrecognizable,” right Disney?

I’m going to attempt to reign in my temper here because it’s hard. I grew up watching The Little Mermaid, and while I loved Ariel for her red hair and Sebastian for his near-death experience at the hands of an overzealous French chef, I also knew every musical note of that movie. Singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in front of my family’s television with all the camp I could muster at the tender age of four was a common scene.

I loved Ursula. But it doesn’t look like Disney does anymore.

The Disney Villains Designer Collection was created to sell a makeup line, among other things, similar to the villains makeup line they launched with MAC a few years back. (I’ve got some gorgeous Maleficent eye shadows from that.) There are also dolls it seems, and t-shirts and the rest of it. But in a desire to re-market these ladies to a chic clientele, it appears that they decided to shave more than a few pounds off of Ursula the Sea Witch and Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts.

Because in order to be fashionable, you must be thin.

The fact is, Ursula was fashionable. In my memory, she was the only villain (or princess even that I can recall) of this lot who was shown applying makeup during her screen time. And she never demonstrated the slightest aggravation with her appearance. Why wouldn’t Disney want to uphold that?

It’s probably to save money, irritating as that may be. The dolls themselves are Barbie-like figurines, and we all know how many times we’ve gotten a glimpse of Barbies with bigger waistlines. I know someone who used to work in doll-making, and she pointed out that a bigger doll would have required another mold, which would have meant more money shelled out in the design of the figures. And that’s fine. But it’s money Disney should have spent.

The company has never had the best track record when it comes to this sort of thing, but it doesn’t help that no one ever calls them to task for it. It has resulted in yet another awful Tinkerbell film that has no basis in J.M. Barrie’s Neverland. It has made princesses a brand rather than a group of individual characters, plastic ladies in pastel dresses with no personality traits depicted outside their unnerving tendency to smile a lot. And now we can’t even have fun with our villains any longer, the refuge for grown up girls who got older and found those woodland friends and pink ball gowns just a little too cloying.

It would be easy to go on at length about how this sends a bad message to young girls (and adults for that matter), teaching them that it’s impossible to be glamourous unless they’re ready to walk the red carpet side by side 24-inch-waist starlets. It would be easy to talk about how much it seems that marketing has changed over only twenty years to make Ursula and the Queen of Hearts’ silhouettes now untenable. But I would rather point out that in doing this, Disney has made two of their characters unrecognizable. (There is a slight resemblance between the doll and the musical version of Ursula that graced Broadway a while back, but how many people will recognize that?) The only clues as to who they are exist on their clothing, and for Ursula, it’s really only the shell necklace that makes the point. So now Disney has no desire to stand by the characters they created, who garnered so much love.

And oddly enough, the thinking seems to be that if they slap big old pouffy skirts on those two fine ladies, no one will notice. Or that none of us can be bothered to care about how these things are sold to us. Ursula was a true vamp, exactly the sort of personality that anyone could have used prop up a new generation of fashionistas. Now it’s a sea witch without any “body language,” as she was fond of putting it.

Is there anything to be done? One would think that by making a big deal out of this, it would encourage Disney to listen. But I suppose only time will tell on that front.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks it’s time to wear some of that Maleficent eye shadow. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Devin Singer
1. DevinSinger
I stared at the picture for fully a minute and a half and couldn't figure out which one was Ursula. I mean, she has to be one of the purple-themed ones, right? But other than Cruella, none of them are recognizable. These are just random paper-white models in fancy outfits. I'll stick with my big beautiful tentacled camp queen.
Michelle Morgan
2. goblinbox
If you "grew up on Mermaid," you're still a very, very young adult, butthurt because Disney is marketing their own characters any way they see fit to in order to make money off of them.


Disney didn't make Mermaid so you could have a happy childhood. They made it to market it. They made it so they could sell you a bunch of plastic crap, and matching eye shadow, too.

If it makes you feel any better, when Mermaid and its plastic crap came out, your elders were pitching the same fit you are now: "This franchise is giving girls the wrong idea! No girl should be exposed to a waist like that! That body shape is utterly unrealistic! No girl should be exposed to such horrible, saccarine singing! Can't they get real singers, like they used to have? My God, Disney sucks! They're ruining the sanctity of my childhood memories! They just don't make movies like they did when I was a kid!"

Disney's selling products. That you have good memories of them is incidental.
Emily Asher-Perrin
3. EmilyAP
@jpreacher - She's the middle one with the giant purple skirt. It's really confusing!

@goblinbox - Your points are exactly the thing I'm protesting, in fact. Taking the view that Disney is just there to make money and therefore any faux pas they commit should forgiven in the name of business is absurd, and something that we allow businesses to do to often. You can make money while still making a quality product.

And this isn't about a new movie that 'isn't like the ones they had when I was a kid'. It's about creating merchandise that damages the properties that have already done well for them, all in the name of some misguided desire to make villains "fashionable" like runway models. There is no reason why Ursula could not have appeared fashionable and still been a full-figured gal.
4. myowntree
I think it interesting that even with all our prolific counter-contemporary-fashion organizations and movements and protests, these things still persist. In a sad, painful sort of way. And that they haven't figured out that it isn't true that "none of us can be bothered to care about how these things are sold to us." Actually, no, the moment I become this annoyed at thier marketing techniques is the moment they stop marketing to me, and I do really stop caring how they sell thier nonsense.
Also, I have yet to figure out who the one on the far right is...
5. Charles Ranier
oh, she's the mother from Tangled. Never would have guessed.
Benji Cat
6. benjicat
Not trying to be an apologist for Disney or anything, but I don't think the picture above is saying the model is Ursula, or any of the other villains. Instead, I think they're showing Barbie models wearing the fashions of Ursula.
7. jam
On the flip side, I've heard complaints about Ursula's original body too, with the idea that they're sending the hurtful meessage "overweight = evil". While I doubt this was their motivation in shrinking her, it's worth thinking about. It's hard for them to make any kind of decision regarding this issue without stirring up some controversy.
8. JaysonL
"And she never demonstrated the slightest aggravation with her appearance."

Except, y'know, when she changed herself to look like a brunette Ariel. To get the guy.
Sam Brougher
9. Azuaron
Eh, I've always hated Disney for destroying Hans Christian Anderson's wonderful story.

That they're undermining their own story isn't exactly a surprise.
10. chaosprime
There is no reason why Ursula could not have appeared fashionable and still been a full-figured gal.
Well, yeah, of course there is. It's the same reason that "fashionable" presently means "skeletal" in real life: because there aren't just fashions in clothing, there are fashions in bodies, and skinny is presently in (which has been the case and will continue to be the case for as long as there is such a thing as poor people and it's easier for poor people to be fat than thin). It's the same reason that big designers don't make clothes for fat people; it's not that they think fat people don't exist or don't have money to buy their products, it's that being fat is declasse, and they'd be mortified to have their work appear on fat bodies because their brand would then be tainted by association with unfashionability.

It's horrible and millions of people need to get punched in the face for it, but it's a reason, and it's not mysterious, incomprehensible or really anything less than obvious.
Emily Asher-Perrin
11. EmilyAP
@benjicat - It looks like that's not the case, since other merchandise that are not dolls feature the same images of the characters. It would have been nice if that were more the case.

@jam - That is a complaint is often an issue encountered in fiction, and while it's valid, it is sort of a separate issue when this rendering has clearly being done to make her look more pretty and "fashion-forward." After all, the collection is celebrating villains, so the fact that Ursula is evil is a good thing here.

@JaysonL - So she could get the guy, destroy Tritan by holding Ariel hostage, and gain domain over the ocean. She didn't want Eric because she was in love with him; he was a means to an end. She chose to look that way to trick him, not because she sad over not looking like a princess. Notice that she makes no effort to maintain the form once it seems as though she's won.
Benji Cat
12. benjicat
On a somewhat related note, I now can't get rid of the earworm of the Poor Unfortunate Souls song. Thanks, Emily.
Shoshana Kessock
13. ShoshanaK
I think the same could be said for the reworking of the Red Queen in the background there. The Queen of Hearts is now a tiny little waist too, and all of them look like they've caught a wasting disease. Yes, the marketing for their 'chic' line is meant to appeal to the fashion conscious, which means inherently playing into the skeletal = fashionable foible that the entire couture industry lives in. So why are we surprised that Disney would do the same? They have been slow to diversify, slow to embrace different body types, and have never shown much love to the plus sized set. To use a quote I have to utilize a lot: I'm not sad, I'm just disappointed.
14. JoeNotCharles
2 comments before the dismissal of women's concerns this time. Pretty much as expected.
Maria Alexander
15. MariaAlexander
Actually, people do take Disney to task over messages about body image. A great example was Habit Heroes. (Google it. I'll wait.) That Innoventions exhibit and the associated website developed by Imagineering and sponsored by Anthem Blue Cross got taken down after a great hew and cry over it being "fat shaming." Many of the people who were complaining about it had never even been to the exhibit or played its games. Yet, they were able to shut down a project that costs millions of dollars. It's a great example that Disney can be sensitive to concerns expressed.

And Disney definitely gets internal feedback about female body image and issues. When I was working there, I had the opportunity to give the VP of Imagineering R&D direct feedback about the 3D customized princess dolls they were developing last fall and are now testing at WDW. (They're putting the faces of little girls on the bodies of various grownup princesses.) I told him I thought it had all kinds of negative implications for young girls. He's a good man and I believe he appreciated my feedback, but -- to your point -- it will take significant input from child development experts to get across what the true impact will be.
16. Kaelaa
1. I disagree that Diseney is to blame for fasion=thin. Then person to blame for that is Tiggy. Before her fashion models were full figured.

2.What I see is that they created a high fashion dolls based on the villians. It's just like if America's Top Model or Project Run way had a Disney Villian episode and the contestans were to wear or design fashions inspired by Disney Villans. Both shows would have designs that were made for sickly thin models.

3. I think the dress, hair and make up designs are cool looking. I recognized all but the evil with from Tangled because I'm not as familar with that movie as the others. Ursula was the first one I recognized because of the hair. I think you all are crazy not to see it just because she's thin. Hello did Ursula's hair ever not look like a white flame on her head? I think that is more iconic of her then her weight.

4. As for body image and it affecting girls. It's always going to be that way. I had a cousin with short brown hair who always thought she was ugly because she didn't have hair like any of the princess (at the time there was only Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella) closest was Snow White but she didn't really have black hair just short hair.

5. It's not going to be fashion or Disney dolls that make everyone think they have to be rail thin. It's going to be the goverment with all this new legislature telling us what we can and can not eat and how much of a certain beverage we can buy. Pretty soon fat people will be carted off to rehab and forced to stay until they look annerexic.

Wow when did that soap box show up under my feet?
Liz J
17. Ellisande
Your point about this particular line is well taken, but just so you know it doesn't extend to all the Ursula dolls. Mattel made a full-figured, tentacled Ursula as part of their Great Villains line for Barbie/Disney collectors back in '97. There was also a much more basic, but still not-thin version I saw in the Disney stores about a year ago, which was a part of the collection which offered the prince and the villain for most of the princesses, including relatively obscure ones these days like Pocahontas.

But wow, I have no idea what's going on with that Queen of Hearts doll. That one to me is the least recognizable, taking away not just her shape but changing the dress too. Though at least the actual doll's silhouette isn't as skinny as the artwork.
18. CaitieCat
Can't help but notice that Ursula also seems to have gotten a LOT younger, as have the rest of them. Great post, Emily.
19. idleprimate
@14. JoeNotCharles,

i don't see how this article falls under "women's concerns"?

My understanding of the article is that her primary protest was Disney failing to have any integrity or loyalty to it's own properties--properties the public has lavished millions on. Instead of making molds for the characters, or caring what they were selling, they just slapped something together as quickly and cheaply as they could. It is pretty crass and insulting to their customers. I can agree with and follow that without being a woman.

The secondary protest (which she identified as the easy target) was once again equating fashion with waspish figures and the poor message it sent, and how it once again contradicted the very narratives of the characters. Again, I can get behind that from a pure integrity standpoint, as well as a concern about messages to children: I am a father, I am hyperaware of the various things we teach children about how the world works, what social order is and isn't, how to get ahead, what is right or wrong, and desirable or undesirable.

I was also once a young man who felt embarrassed that who looked appealing to me--not waif types--was somehow wrong because i had received all the messages from everywhere, loud and clear;

Not to mention, the same message was applied to boys--fat boys were ridiculous imbeciles to be tormented by other boys and the subject of revulsion from the girls.

In it's own way, your comment is as kneejerk and ill thought out as that second commenter who diagnosed the author as "butthurt". You've both framed the concerns as being in the providence of women. Though I do understand anyone tiring of the 'quit your whining' response when anyone speaks up in any way, criticising anything in our culture that is cruel, harmful, counterproductive or prejudicial.

That said, I've grown weary of concerns/issues being divided into gendered war camps, entrenched and protective of their own pet causes and agressively bigoted and dismissive toward anything concerned with the "other" side.

ah well, my soapbox is beginning to creak under the weight of my own stale air.
20. Karan Noseworthy
When I was growing up in the 70's I had an aweful self body image. I was just a little stick of a thing, tall and guant, flat too, oh lucky me! At the time a lot of the movies I watched (on TV) we're from the 50's and 60's. The women in these films were valoptious, curvy, fuller figured women with enormous chests! I was crushed every time I looked in the mirror! How could I compete with these beauties? People made fun of my gangly stance. I dodn't want to be chubby, or large even, I just wished I had some meat on my bones.
Ironically it was eventually these uber thin models and dolls that made me accept my appearance! Instead of wishing I looked more like Jane Mansfield or Marilyn Monrow, I started dressing like the girls in the fashion magazines and voila! All of a sudden I was empowered and felt pretty! Maybe nobody looked at me differently, but I felt emancipation and for the first time I could hold my head high!
I understand that not everybody can be thin, and not everyone can be curvy, but filling magazines with images of fat people is not going to create a society where men start tripping over each other to woo the chubby chicks. Larger people won't be celebrated by filling the movie screens with confident larger women.
The fact of the matter is that size is not about what others think, so much as what we think of ourselves, and that's the message. Feel good about who you are, and others will notice that, and that will change attitudes quicker and more certianly than Disney could ever do! They didn't create the problem, nor should they be held responsible to change things, no entity can do that!
Feel good about who you are. All the exercise equipment and diet plans on earth can't do that for you. Don't change, but be yourself and like yourself. It's not Disney's. Or any other Corporations responsibility. Get up, Get out and be what you are!
Karan N
21. JRT
The fairies movies are not as bad as you think. The second one in the series, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure, is legitimately a fun fantasy adventure. It has airships and trolls and shipwrecks! And BEAUTIFUL animation of changing seasons.

Also, the movie you linked to (Secret of the Wings) is not out try not to hate before you see it for yourself!
22. Amanda M.
Maybe Ursula is supposed to be the legged version she magics herself into toward the end of the movie? Because I mean obviously the dolls don't have tentacles.
23. Eddy F.
I found a 12 inch Barbie sized Ursula doll on Ebay. She's big and beautiful as she was in the movie. Idk if you want to look that up. I know it's not part of this line, but if that's what you want or looking for, you can have a look if you're interested in collecting.
24. kaivon
I think the inverse is true as well; these women in their original forms were still negative views of women; Ursula and the Queen of Hearts were larger and made deliberately 'uglier' to visually cue their roles as villans. Likewise Cruella was given a charicature appearance of a waify smoking fashion designer, but her age was exacerbated to highlight her 'evil'. So my point would be that the original treading of these villans was just as superficially, visually based, as this line of retreading. If a Heroine was a different size or shape that'd be something, ala Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle; although there are other problems with that film.
25. Tim O
It's worth noting that when Ursula herself was trying to be "fashionable" she turned herself into a little brunette with a wasitline no thicker than Ariel's.

Anyways, I think this is a tempest in a teacup. This isn't a "shift over 20 years" in what Disney finds appropriate, if they'd released this line contemporary with the movie it would have gone down the exact same way. It's not like they're "Star Warsing" The Little Mermaid and digitally shaving three hundred pounds off Ursula just because she's morbidly obese, they're just making a line of doll clothes for a standard doll model.
Ryan Jackson
26. KakitaOCU
@25 Tim, As someone already said, she did that as a means to an end, once the deception was done she dropped the form. She wasn't trying to be "Fashionable" she was trying to fool Eric as part of her plan and since he seemed smitten with Ariel and with Ariel's voice she took the form.

@2 Goblinbox, Just have to ask one thing. What exactly are you considering a "young adult"? I have similar statements about having "grown up" with mermaid and other disney films. It came out in 89, I was born in 80. Assuming that the timeline given by the author means she was 4 in 1990 or so (watching it at home) that would make her currently 27 years old. Not old by any means (I don't consider myself old at 33 either). But I don't really see late 20's/early 30's as being "young adult"

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