‘Little Mermaid’ Makeup Artist Response to Ursula Criticism Exposes Real Problem

in Disney, Entertainment

'The Little Mermaid' (2023) and (1989); Ursula (2023) on the left and Ursula (1989) on the right

Credit: Inside the Magic

There has recently been a lot of controversy around the makeup look for Ursula in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid, which enjoyed an impressive box office debut over the weekend.

The controversy began when Disney released an advance clip of Melissa McCarthy in the makeup chair, transforming into Ursula for the role. This post was met with harsh critiques, best exemplified by drag queen Selma Nilla’s post.

In the video, the drag queen first did her best to imitate the makeup on McCarthy, then did her own – much more bombastic – interpretation of Ursula’s original look, which was first inspired by the famous 80s drag queen Divine.

Responses to the video were wide-ranging, but all seemed to agree that Disney should have hired a proper drag artist to do Ursula’s makeup so the style would have looked more like a fitting tribute to the original.

“The Little Mermaid” Makeup Artist Responds to Ursula Critiques: “That’s Ridiculous”

A close-up of Melissa McCarthy as Ursula
Credit: Disney

Related: Melissa McCarthy Is One of Nine People Who Play Ursula in ‘The Little Mermaid’

Now, the makeup artist responsible for Ursula’s new look, Peter Swords King, has responded to the backlash, saying that it is discriminatory in nature.

“I find that very offensive,” he said. “Why can’t I do as good a job as a queer makeup artist?”

He also added, in a separate thought:

That’s ridiculous. That’s trying to claim it and that’s fine, if that’s what they wanna do, but don’t put people down because they’re not what they want it to be…I personally don’t get it.

Yes, I’m very old now, so that’s fine, I get that too, but, you know, a makeup artist or makeup designer could design makeup, they don’t have to have an attachment to the nature of what they’re doing.

In other words, King believes that his background shouldn’t have anything to do with his work and that his decades of experience in the industry shouldn’t hinge on what he has and has not done in his personal life.

King also said that his makeup design for Ursula wasn’t “based on Divine,” though he did say he met the late drag artist in London years ago. He said he had discussed “everything” with Melissa McCarthy, who herself started her career in drag, often doing impersonation performances of Divine herself.

“I mean, we both laughed about how much we love drag queens and drag makeup and stuff. But it wasn’t based on any drag acts at all.”

In this comment, however, King betrayed the exact reason people are angry about this in the first place: He doesn’t seem to understand how important it was – and still is.

Taking Away Ursula’s Drag Inspiration is Erasure

ursula the little mermaid
Credit: Walt Disney Studios

There are always ongoing attempts to erase LGBTQ+ and queer identities from society. As long as there are people around who don’t conform to traditional ideas about gender and sexuality, there are people who make it their business to try to eradicate all deviation from this norm – be it by force, as politicians like Ron DeSantis seemed so determined to do, or by less obvious measures.

One of these sneaky measures that homophobes, transphobes, and other bigots like to take is that of erasure – getting rid of as much historical evidence and representation of queer people as possible so that when the next generation comes, they don’t know that there is a community they belong to.

This act also often serves to make queer people look evil or like they’ve never contributed to society. If you erase all the positive things a group has done for society, the only examples people are left with are the rotten few that bigots center in their rage-fueled narratives. It’s a two-pronged attack that weaponizes the average person’s ignorance of the subject, and the sad thing is, it often works.

This very narrative is how the AIDS crisis got so bad in the 1980s. Public health discourse on the disease early on pitched it as one that only gay people and drug users were vulnerable to, and the narrative led to a vast number of incorrect assumptions about the gay community; that they were dirty or that God was punishing them, were two hugely popular ones.

Because of these assumptions, AIDS was not addressed seriously as early as it should have been. As a result, it became one of the least-talked-about epidemics in US history, claiming the lives of over 30,000 people by 1991 – most of whom were under 45 years old.

Disney Legend Howard Ashman. Image Copyright Disney.

Related: Huge Blow To LGBTQ+ Community: Disney Removes Howard Ashman Documentary From Disney+

One of these people was Howard Ashman, the very man who brought The Little Mermaid out of the Development Hell it had been languishing in since before the death of Walt Disney. Ashman died in 1991, right before the release of another movie he saved – Beauty and the Beast.

When Ashman was making films with Disney, being gay wasn’t just taboo – because of the AIDS epidemic, it was actively frowned upon. Narratives that will no doubt sound familiar today painted gay men and other queer people as disease-ridden, hedonistic people who were dangerous influences to children.

Pubic opinion was so universally against gayness that Ashman was afraid even to tell Disney executives that he had the debilitating disease for fear that he would be promptly fired from the project.

So the fact that they were able to sneak in a design based on Divine – and it was a sneak, as Alan Menken didn’t confirm the fact until years later – was an act of love, rebellion, and bravery that deserves to be commemorated, or, at the very least, acknowledged.

Ursula Makeup Artist’s Response to Backlash is Part of the Problem

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula holding animated Ursula
Source: ITM/Disney

The fact that Peter Swords King’s immediate response to the backlash about their makeup look was to get defensive in an Insider article rather than take a moment to understand why people might be so upset is part of the problem.

Yes, King was correct when he said that artists don’t need a direct, personal connection to their art to be skilled at it – and that much is true. However, they also need to recognize that their skills have limits, and their life experiences inevitably set some of those limits.

Can a regular makeup artist do Drag makeup? Absolutely. Will a drag artist always, inevitably, do it better because of their practiced hand and their love and understanding of the craft? Also yes.

King has not taken the time to understand that drag artists “want to claim” Ursula for themselves because she is one of the few mainstream characters that belong to them. It’s the same representation argument that makes it such a joy to see little Black girls watch Halle Bailey play Ariel: In a world where you see yourself represented on screen so little, the few times you do see people like you will mean everything.

That’s also why erasure is an act that strikes such a big blow to these communities.

So when King asserts that he doesn’t deserve to be put down because he didn’t make Ursula’s makeup “what people wanted it to be,” we must respectfully disagree – because he said himself that he chose to erase Ursula’s drag origins from the live-action Little Mermaid.

It’s safe to say that nobody truly expected Disney to cast a drag queen as Ursula. While they have taken up the gloves against Ron DeSantis in Florida, a fight that started in part due to the company’s negative response to his “Don’t Say Gay” law, they are still attempting to toe the line when it comes to keeping more conservative moviegoers happy.

Melissa McCarthy as Ursula
Credit: Disney

Related: Adults Scream Profanities During ‘Little Mermaid’ Theater Fight

Still, when they cast Melissa McCarthy, who had origins as a Divine impersonator, people had reason to hope that the portrayal would, at least, be a faithful one in that sense.

Why did Peter Swords King and Melissa McCarthy talk about “everything” when it came to Ursula’s makeup and then consciously choose to leave out – or at the very least, very seriously tone down – the drag artist influences?

When it comes down to it, the decision would have cost Disney nothing – with a woman wearing the makeup, the only people who would have recognized it as an authentic tribute to the Drag legend would have been those who were already in the know about it anyway.

It could have been the same subtle “we see you” nod that the original film gave back in the day – so the fact that they didn’t do it reads as an even bigger slap in the face than it otherwise would have.

What do you think of Ursula’s makeup in the new live-action Little Mermaid? Do you think the backlash is justified? Let Inside the Magic know in the comments.

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