Animated Children’s Films: From the Archive: Tangled

This guest review by Whitney Mollenhauer was published at Bitch Flicks in May 2011. 
 

Last Friday, I saw Disney’s Tangled with my husband.  I thought it was a pretty good feminist-y movie, especially considering that it was a Disney princess-type movie. Because I am lazy, I have written my review in bullet-point form:
  • Rapunzel’s father (the king) cries on Rapunzel’s birthday as he remembers his kidnapped daughter.  It seems like usually in these kind of movies, you see the mom crying and the dad consoling her; but here, it’s the other way around.  Win!  Men can express emotion, too!
  • Rapunzel sews and bakes, but she also reads, does astronomy, and paints like no other.
  • She is so awesome with her hair!  She ties the male protagonist up, lets herself down from the tower, and climbs everywhere.  Seriously, it’s very impressive.  She can do just about anything with that hair–it’s not just for show. 
  • Rapunzel ends up with short hair!  Okay, that’s just a little thing, but have you ever seen a Disney princess with a pixie cut before?  Even Mulan had longer hair!
  • So yeah, the mom is the bad guy because she’s vain/wants to be young forever, blah blah blah.  But I don’t know how they could have had a male villain or some other way for the mom to be the villain without straying too far from the original.  But at least she gets some jokes.
  • The frying pan proves to be a superior weapon compared to the sword!  This might be getting a little too psychoanalytic, but I saw the frying pan as symbolizing a kind of feminine/transgressive power, while the sword represents traditional masculine power.  I just thought it was neat.  You don’t have to be a swashbuckling dude to kick butt.
  • Her story and her adventure starts not because the guy “whisks her away” or something; but rather, she plans and schemes: she catches him breaking into her tower, and strategically decides to use him to reach her goal of seeing the flying lanterns on her birthday.
  • Spoiler alert: in the end, she’s not “saved” because of her compassion, but in spite of it–her compassion might actually have been her downfall.  Unlike other movies/fairy tales where a woman’s only redeeming quality is self-sacrifice, this ending suggests that self-sacrifice isn’t always such a good thing–or at least that it’s not solely the domain of women.  Men can be self-sacrificing too!  (Didn’t want to reveal too much here.  Go see the movie if you want to figure out what on earth I’m talking about.)
  • I liked the ambivalent nature of how it shows her mom’s and her relationship when Rapunzel leaves the tower for the first time.  She feels guilty, but MAN is she happy and excited and brave!
  • She doesn’t get married at age 18!!!!
  • In my opinion, the relationship was not even really a central feature of the story, but rather a sub-plot.  The main plot was getting away from her mother, figuring out her actual identity, getting to the flying lanterns she wanted to see.
  • I felt like it was good and feminist because it was a major improvement from how Disney usually is.  Also, overt sexism did NOT distract me from what was otherwise a visually appealing, witty movie (as it usually does).  And that is really saying something.
  • Even the rich, hypermasculine stereotype is challenged–the male protagonist reveals his true name/identity, as an orphan, and she says she likes him better than the fictional (hypermasculine) character that he aspires to be like.  
  • In the end, I think it makes a good case for women’s “proper place” NOT being just in the home, but out in the world/public sphere!  I’m not sure how you could get any other moral out of it.  Even in Mulan, after she saves China, she ends up returning home, and (we suspect) marrying the army captain guy, instead of taking a job with the emperor.  In Tangled, the movie’s premise is centered around the idea that it’s wrong and horrible to expect a woman to spend her whole life at home.
  • When the male protagonist breaks into her tower, she kicks his butt; she stands up for herself in the bar; and she stands up to her mother in the end (about having been kidnapped).
  • At the end of the movie, SHE dips HIM and kisses him.  (I always hated it when guys would dip me.  If I want to kiss you, I am going to kiss you, so just let me stay on my own two feet.)
  • Body image stuff:   Okay, so Disney’s not breaking down any boundaries here.  Also, infantilization much?  Rapunzel’s face is that of a two-year-old.  
  • So, I’m not very good at remembering specifics, but I DO remember not getting angry at seeing her needing rescuing again and again and again.  It seemed like mostly she was able to save herself, and the guy didn’t save her a whole lot.
  • In the bar, Rapunzel and the guy (Flynn) meet a whole bunch of rough guys.  They sing a song about how everyone’s got a dream: the one tough guy says to Flynn, “Your dream stinks,” referring to his dream of getting rich.  The other tough guys have dreams of becoming mimes, finding love, being a pianist, becoming a baker–and one made little tiny unicorns.  Even tough guys have nuance and feminine qualities!
  • Rapunzel’s animal companion is Pascal the chameleon.  Pascal is super cute, and is possibly named after Blaise Pascal the mathematician (suggesting that Rapunzel is a math nerd like me, though that could just be me reading too much into it).  Pascal can’t talk, and I felt like that was a good thing (feminist-wise), so he couldn’t show her up and become the hero (remember Mushu the dragon in Mulan?) 
My points are random and some are not very significant. But still, small wins!  And when it comes to Disney princess movies, any hint at feminist ideology is a HUGE win. And if nothing else, it at least passes the Bechdel Test:

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Whitney Mollenhauer is a graduate student in California where she studies sociology. She has an awesome husband who doesn’t mind her running feminist commentary when they watch movies together. And, she loves cereal. 

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17374513173496945550 baileythebookworm

    I did have a few issues with the movie, although I think you made a lot of really good points here! Tangled is a good start, but it still fell short of my expectations.

    One element that I thought was really scary was the overt emotional abuse by Rapunzel’s adopted mother/captor. She tells her on at least one occasion that she’s getting chubby, calls her stupid/naive and then immediately follows it up with, “I’m just kidding” and “Stop taking everything so seriously!” This type of gaslighting and emotional abuse is used to shut women up, and its effects on Rapunzel early in the movie (and presumably throughout her life) were troubling.

    The mother character also tells her not to forget that Mother knows best “or you’ll regret it” which is always an ominous threat coming from an authority figure. It also reinforces the sort of catty/girl hate relationship between Rapunzel and her captor mother; because Rapunzel doesn’t know until the end that her captor isn’t actually her mother, I think it’s fair to make that argument. The fact that the mother figure relies on Rapunzel for youth and is stealing her life in the process is an interesting sort of age/parental conflict that automatically pits older women against their younger “rivals.”

    Tangled did have a lot of good feminist elements (although the fact that they changed the name to Tangled from Rapunzel sort of bums me out – apparently they were afraid of losing male viewers), but I think it’s important to also look at where the movie didn’t quite succeed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17500128753102750833 Mommy McD

    For me, the biggest problem with Rapunzel was that her real mom (and dad) have no lines. The only female voices are Repunzel and Mother Gothel. While the portrayal of Gothel as a villianess was spot on for emotional abuse and manipulation – which is of course far more common real life adversary than most villains in Disney – it would have hit home all the more if a larger comparison had been made in a healthy relationship between Mother and Daughter. It needn’t have been a long segment, a few truly kind and supportive words from the real mother would have been great.

    I also think it couldn’t have hurt to have even one or two female ruffians or other side characters. The crowds are more evenly gendered, but again, the personalities given to female characters is extremely limited.

    But I was ecstatic that she was 18, and still didn’t get married right away. And that she was shown as the obviously more competent leader between the two. The interaction in the love story was much better than Disney has shown thus far. And i liked how you pointed out the interaction between the King and Queen.