Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 11: Tangled
And with every passing hour, I'm so glad I left my tower!
I've been mostly doing this series chronologically, so if you're confused as to why this post is about Tangled rather than The Princess and the Frog, it's because I finally got that on blu-ray a while ago and got excited and wrote about it out of order. So this will be the last post in this series for the time being, until Disney's next fairytale foray. (I'm sort of skipping Frozen because it bears almost no resemblance to Andersen's "The Snow Queen," but I do have a post up next about it. I'm just not going to be discussing fairytale inspirations and devices so much.)
The Grimms' "Rapunzel" is by no means the first story of its kind, and the similarities between many versions of the "Maiden in the Tower" type stories are almost all present in one form or another in Disney's Tangled. There are the more contemporary versions - Basile's "Petrosinella," the French "The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower," Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force's "Persinette" - but there are also many much older stories, particularly the Iranian "Rudaba." The stories of Saint Barbara and Danaë from Greek mythology are often listed as inspirations for "Rapunzel," though they involve only the tower part and not the hair part of the story. Still, stories of young women locked in towers are ancient and persistent.
In some of these stories, the Mother Gothel character is a benevolent protector, and in the rest, she is an evil baby-stealing witch. This dichotomy in the depiction of the character is probably what leads to the debate over Disney's Mother Gothel's alignment.
She is fairly obviously the villain, but there are some subtle underscores that are often missed that really underline her characterization. There have been some defenses of Gothel as a caring, loving foster mother, who grows to truly love Rapunzel for herself and not just her powers, and who is only looking out for Rapunzel's best interests. And that is exactly what Gothel wants Rapunzel to think. It's reminiscent of the Witch in Into the Woods, who believes herself to be a good mother, but is abusive and hurtful, and her smothering results in Rapunzel's mental breakdown. Gothel is repeatedly shown speaking to Rapunzel's hair, not her, and her nickname "Flower" for Rapunzel is less of a nickname and more telling of how Gothel sees her. Gothel doesn't see Rapunzel as a person, she sees Rapunzel as an object, as the source of her eternal youth. In the first scene we see with both Rapunzel and Gothel, Gothel says to Rapunzel, "Look in that mirror. I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. [beat] Oh look, you're here, too!" This subtle put-down of Rapunzel is played for laughs a little, but almost everyone I've ever watched it with has flinched visibly at this moment, myself included. If that little throwaway comment is indicative of how Gothel talks to Rapunzel, that's part of a lifelong series of emotional abuse. Though she's not quite Basile's ogress, she's definitely not the French fairy who gives magical gifts and education to her god-daughter.
Rapunzel herself is given much more characterization in Tangled than she usually gets in the story. In the Grimms' story, she only speaks one line, which has two versions. In the original 1812 publication, she asks the witch why her clothes are growing so tight (indicating the prince's visits have resulted in pregnancy), but this was changed in the 1819 and subsequent editions to asking the witch why it's so much easier to pull up the prince to the tower than the witch (indicating that she's...not very bright). Disney's Rapunzel is artistic, creative, and talented, as well as high-spirited, eager to please, and eager for knowledge. She's much better developed in the film than in the fairytales.
It's worth noting, though, that the film and the fairytale go back and forth on a lot of Rapunzel's choices. The Grimms' Rapunzel chooses to have the prince visit her, whereas Flynn Rider just shows up. Rapunzel chooses to leave her tower in the film, though, rather than being thrown out by the witch. (In some versions the witch throws Rapunzel out after she opens a forbidden door and sees the witch in her true form, with horns. Most versions have Rapunzel thrown out after revealing, in one way or another, the prince's visits. One version has the good fairy turn the girl into a frog after the girl's dalliance with the prince is discovered! But in that one we see the Rapunzel character as bad and deceitful, and in the first two kinds we see her as curious/mostly innocent.) In neither case does Rapunzel get to keep her long hair, though; in the film, it's cut off by Flynn, and in the story, by the witch. I'm rather curious as to what Rapunzel's decision would be, had they come up with another way to end the film. The short hair suits her and her personality, I think, but the hair was definitely so much a part of her that it seems she'd struggle with the decision to cut it, if she got the chance to make it.
While by no means the first movie to inspire such works, I distinctly remember the sheer volume of fanart of non-white Rapunzels flooding Tumblr when Tangled first came out, something repeated later with Frozen. I'd like to mention once more that the German Rapunzel is neither the only nor the first Rapunzel, and non-white Rapunzels and for that matter non-white folk and fairytale characters are everywhere and certainly fanart is not the only place in which to find them. I hope with this series I've managed to bring attention to some of the hundreds of thousands of folk and fairytales from all over the world, from every culture on Earth, that tell similar stories to the European versions with which we're more familiar. The fact that the European ones are the ones chosen by Disney and other media outlets to showcase is not due to those stories being the only ones out there. When Disney chose to make Perrault's "Cendrillon," they were actively choosing not to make the Chinese "Yeh-Hsien" or the Turkish "The Feslihanci Girl." And certainly Disney wouldn't have to make another white princess even if they do set another film in France or Germany (or fictional-fantasy-world-reminiscent-of-France-or-Germany), since, as I'm sure you're aware, not all French or German people are white. But back to my main point - as that flood of fanart proves, there's no shortage of creativity in the world, no shortage of ways to include stories and characters from every culture all over the world, and the Tangled fanart storm that continues on with Frozen and countless other films/books/TV shows/etc. proves that. Disney has some catching up to do.
So that's it for this series for now, but more posts on other subjects are still to come!