Week 50: Tangled

First Theatrical Release: November 14, 2010

First Home Viewing Release: March 29, 2011

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found ItMy Big Box o’ Disney Love

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters are limited to Rapunzel, Mother Goethel, and the Queen. But within the first few minutes of the movie, Rapunzel and Mother Goethel talk about Rapunzel’s birthday and her desire to leave the tower.


Tangled was the movie I wanted to see ever since I realized that Disney wasn’t comin’ up with all these movie ideas on their own. Once I knew that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty existed independently of Disney’s renditions, I started thinking of other fairy tales that I’d like to see get the Disney treatment. “Rapunzel” was at the top of my list.

I may have had to wait till I was 29, but Disney finally came through.

I’m not sure that it was everything I dreamed it would be, but it’s still a nice, feel-good movie, with just enough depth to keep it from feeling like total fluff.

Mother Knows Best

gothel and rapunzel

A couple years ago, I debated with one of my friends about whether Mother Goethel as presented in Tangled really loves Rapunzel or not. It had been a few years since I’d seen the movie (this week was only my second viewing of it), and I remembered getting the impression that Gothel did love Rapunzel. My friend argued that she didn’t, that she was just using Rapunzel and taking advantage of her innocence to make her think she loved her.

On this week’s watching, I was surprised and a little appalled by the way Mother Gothel treats Rapunzel. Out of all the snarky things she says to her and all the ways she belittles her, there is only one interaction that seems loving and not manipulative.

gothel and rapunzel hugStrangely, this was the only interaction from my first viewing of the movie that I remembered.

It is Mother Goethel’s agreement to take a three-day trip to bring Rapunzel back a certain white paint that she wants for her birthday.

Now, this trip is crucial to the plot, because it is during this time that Rapunzel first encounters Flynn and subsequently plots her escape with him. But what motivates Mother Gothel to leave? Traveling three days to get something that’s not important to you is much more taxing than empty words about how much you love your adopted daughter. If Gothel does not love Rapunzel, then does she make the trip simply to appease her and make her stop asking to leave? (Also, I wondered how Rapunzel even KNEW what day her birthday was — doesn’t this imply that Goethel must have taught her to mark the years, and done so in a celebratory enough manner that Rapunzel felt she could ask for something special?)

Determining whether Gothel loves Rapunzel or not mostly comes down to your definition of love. If you think love means putting the needs of the beloved before your own, then Gothel certainly does not love Rapunzel. But if love means not being able to imagine your life without a certain person in it, then I think one could argue that Gothel does love Rapunzel in her own way.

But this question becomes mostly irrelevant in the context of the movie, because whether she loves her adopted daughter or not, Gothel is an abuser.

Watching the Disney movies in such quick succession, I was struck by how similar Goethel’s treatment of Rapunzel is to Frollo’s treatment of Quasimodo. (Now I understand all the fan-art that shows Frollo and Goethel hooking up!) But more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is mostly about learning to see beyond assumptions about people, Tangled, for all its fun song-and-dance numbers and laugh-out-loud moments, is also a movie about healing from abuse.

Before Rapunzel leaves the tower, we see how nervously she petitions Goethel for indulgences, and how quickly she backpedals when Goethel refuses (and makes her feel guilty for asking in the first place.) Although the scene where Rapunzel vacillates between her joy at being free and her overwhelming guilt about disobeying her mother is mostly humorous, there is some real pain there, too. And although exaggerated, it also rings true to the complicated emotions of someone breaking free of abuse.

When Flynn and Rapunzel are later trapped in the flooding cave, Rapunzel breaks down and blames herself for the whole situation, even though they are being pursued because of Flynn’s thieving, NOT her decision to leave the tower. And just as she is beginning to regain her confidence after a day spent in the city and a romantic boat ride with Flynn, Gothel returns to undermine her once more, essentially telling her that she can’t ever come back home (“Don’t come crying”) if Flynn ends up betraying her.

Still, Rapunzel does exactly that, rushing into her mother’s arms in tears when she thinks Flynn has abandoned her and allowing herself to be led meekly back into captivity. Soon after, she will confront Gothel and call her on her lies in a scene that is incredibly reminiscent of Quasimodo’s final dressing down of Frollo.

Disney is often criticized for bastardizing the symbolism in the original tales with their tweaks and sanitization, but despite the many changes made to the story of Rapunzel, the archetypal message of a girl struggling to attain independence from her mother remains remarkably intact. Indeed, Disney takes it a step further and allows Rapunzel to heal her mother-wound in a way not offered in the original.

baby rapunzel and motherIn the language of fairy tales, “wicked stepmothers” and “witches” are often symbolic of the dark side of the child’s real mother. These figures emerge in the story when the child has reached that age when she  begins to realize that the parents are not the perfect, godlike figures she believed them to be. Recasting the parent in the role of villain gives the child the courage to separate and become independent while preserving the memory of the “perfect parent” from childhood.

Rapunzel new familyThis happens in real families all the time as teenagers and mothers butt heads. But what the fairy tales often don’t acknowledge is that on the other side of these struggles is the opportunity for mother and daughter to come back together as adults to forge a new, different but just-as-enduring bond. In the Grimm version of the tale, Rapunzel is exiled from the tower by Gothel and wanders in the wilderness until she is eventually reunited with her prince. In Disney’s version, she is restored to the mother she lost as a child, soothed with the return of the “good mother” after she has completed her separation and attained independence from the “bad mother.” This approximates the mature relationship many daughters come to enjoy with their own mothers — but often only after leaving home.

Boyfriend Knows Best

I’ll be frank: I’m not a big fan of Flynn. I don’t go for the “cad” type, and I don’t like that his relationship with Rapunzel begins with him basically trying to dupe her out of the deal they made by first agreeing with her that it’s better if she just stays, and then bringing her to a tavern that he thinks will scare her off. In his own way, he’s as manipulative as Gothel is in the beginning.

Of course, he changes course rather quickly around the time that he realizes Rapunzel’s got this dope glowing hair and healing powers, and soon her innocence and enthusiasm win his heart. In a story that is about Rapunzel breaking free of her abusive mother and attaining autonomy, I don’t take issue with the fact that she finds some of her redemption in a man. After all, many people find that the first steps toward healing from abuse happen through a relationship with someone who sees them through new eyes.

But it does make me uncomfortable that, after Rapunzel finally confronts her mother near the end of the movie, just a few minutes later she is promising herself back into a life of confinement and virtual slavery just for the chance to heal Flynn (or Eugene, by this point.) After all those years of subjecting her needs to her mother’s, now she’s back to putting herself second. Not only that, but she doesn’t even know where she stands with Eugene when she agrees to make this sacrifice — even though he came back for her, she never got an explanation for why he seemingly abandoned her after getting the crown earlier in the movie.

haircutEugene, to his credit, is not willing to see Rapunzel returned to her role as a prisoner now that she’s tasted freedom. So even though he’s dying, with his last breaths he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, effectively robbing Gothel of Rapunzel’s power and forcing her to rapidly age and die.

By cutting off her hair, Eugene frees Rapunzel from Gothel’s clutches, but he also robs her of her power — all without her consent. HE’s the one who sets her free, HE’s the one who saves her, even though the entire emotional journey of the movie rests on Rapunzel attaining her independence. This final rescue left me feeling dissatisfied, as if that much-needed independence still had not been achieved.

And sure, Rapunzel ends up saving Eugene’s life shortly thereafter — but while Eugene’s act of saving Rapunzel is fully intentional, Rapunzel’s subsequent saving of Eugene is almost accidental. She simply succumbs to emotion and weeps, and then — surprise! Her lover is brought back to life.

healing flynn

So after Eugene saves Rapunzel and Rapunzel saves Eugene we’re even-steven, right? Time to go off and enjoy an egalitarian relationship?

flynn wantedOne can hope. Except that Eugene is the one who gets to tell this story. Even though he admits up front that it’s not really “his story,” we see it through his lens nonetheless. He also gets the last word, and he uses it to assure viewers that gender roles remain intact — he proposed to Rapunzel, not the other way around.

There’s so much I like about Tangled. The fact that it’s based on one of my favorite fairy tales EVER. The gorgeous animation. The attention given to the complicated dynamics of Gothel’s and Rapunzel’s relationship. The musical numbers. A heroine that is both innocent and bold and not overly sexualized, who mostly looks and acts like an 18-year-old. But then there is Flynn/Eugene. And that, my friends, cost the movie a whole half star point. Sorry, Rapunzel.

rapunzel upset


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