Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do: Why Tangled Is A Feminist Film

So this isn’t strictly a YA-related post, but I saw Tangled this weekend, and I was completely shocked by how much I loved it. So I’m posting about it anyways. Cool? Tangled reminded me of the best parts of the later ’80s/early ’90s Disney movies: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin. And best of all, it had an unexpected feminist message.  The first thing that struck me was how the main villain, Mother Gothel, embodied all of the negative messages girls hear every day.

Spoilers after the cut.

You’re too weak. You’re too stupid. You’re not pretty enough. You’re too immature. You’re too naive. You’re not strong enough. You’re too chubby. You can’t. No one will ever like you for you. You’re not good enough. You’re a silly little girl. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.

Ingeniously, Mother Gothel, the old woman so obsessed with keeping her beauty and her youth that she kidnapped baby Rapunzel to use her magical hair, tells Rapunzel these things over and over again. Every year, Rapunzel asks to leave her tower, and every year Mother tells her no, because the world is too harsh and cruel and horrible, and Rapunzel is just so innocent and weak that she must be protected. Mother represents the many voices that girls hear every day, telling them that they need to change this and fix that, act this way or you’ll never get a man, don’t go out at night because you might get hurt. It’s terrible watching Mother tell Rapunzel these things under the pretense of love, when really she just wants to use Rapunzel for her magical hair, which heals and gives youth.

Throughout the movie, Rapunzel struggles between trusting Mother and believing in her own strength. When Rapunzel shows that she’s capable of saving Flynn (multiple times), it felt awesome because she was doing exactly what Mother told her she couldn’t do, year after year. And yet Rapunzel used her determination and cleverness and fierce aim with a frying pan to get out of dangerous situations. Even when Flynn shows up in Rapunzel’s tower the first time, it’s not to save her – he’s just looking for a place to hide, and acts as the catalyst that spurs Rapunzel to finally leave her tower. (When he enters the tower, Rapunzel knocks him out with a frying pan and locks him up. She intends to tell Mother as proof that she’s strong enough to handle herself out in the world, but Mother keeps reminding her how weak and stupid she is, so Rapunzel doesn’t tell her and then sneaks out with Flynn when Mother leaves.)

Even Flynn is a refreshing change from the standard Disney hero: he’s not a prince, but a thief. And while at first he thinks he can deceive Rapunzel, he quickly realizes that she’s not as dumb as her blond hair and big eyes may make her appear. And she doesn’t need to change herself or shut up (like Ariel, who changes her body and gives up her voice to meet Eric) for him to see it. Flynn loves her the way he is, so much that he’s willing to reveal his real name (Eugene!) and give up his life of crime in order to be with her.

But the best part still is the scene where Rapunzel realizes that she is actually the lost princess, and that Mother kidnapped her and had been keeping her all these years not out of love, but out of greed and vanity. Mother reaches out a hand to stroke Rapunzel’s hair, and Rapunzel grabs it and says, “No. I will never let you use me again.” It’s such a fierce moment, and I cheered in the theater. In the next scene, Flynn Eugene shows up to rescue Rapunzel and finds that Mother has her chained up and intends to drag her away somewhere where no one will ever find her. Mother stabs Eugene, and Rapunzel says that she will never ever stop fighting to get away from her, but if Mother allows her to heal Eugene with her hair, she’ll go with her quietly.  So when she bends over Eugene to heal him, he reaches behind her and cuts off all her hair in one fell swoop. You see, if you cut off her magical hair, it loses its powers and turns brown. So now she can’t heal Eugene, but Mother can never use her again. Which is a great thing to see a male love interest care about – he’d rather know that Rapunzel is free than actually be able to be with her.

Now, in true Disney fashion, it turns out that with her magic hair gone, Rapunzel’s tears are imbued with the same healing properties, and Eugene is saved. Rapunzel now has very short brown hair, which in most movies would be seen as a loss of her beauty. But in this movie, it makes her even more beautiful, as Eugene wakes up and tells her he’s always had a thing for brunettes. It’s rather nice to see the trope of the beautiful, innocent blond subverted like this.

And the movie doesn’t even end with a wedding! Many Disney movies end with a wedding as a symbol of ultimate happiness, but this one ends with Rapunzel being reunited with her parents, the king and queen, and the kingdom celebrating her return. There’s a voiceover from Eugene saying that one day they did get married, and herein lies my only complaint about the movie: he says something like, “You’re probably wondering if we ever got married. Well, the answer is that one day, after many proposals, I finally said yes. Just kidding, I asked her.” What!? It would have been an absolutely perfect fit if Rapunzel had been the one to propose, since she was the one always knocking the expectations of her on their asses.

But seriously? That’s my only complaint. Rapunzel even dips Eugene for a final kiss, which is another great reversal of the norm. I loved the music; the animation was beautiful; I loved Pascal and Max, the trusty animal sidekicks; and I cried at least twice. Mother was a fabulous villain, and seemed inspired by one of my favorite Disney villains ever, Ursula. This is going down as a Disney classic, and both main characters are awesome feminist characters. Bravo, Disney.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do: Why Tangled Is A Feminist Film

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do: Why Tangled Is A Feminist Film « Accio YA Books! -- Topsy.com

  2. I get what your saying but I have to disagree.

    I felt Flynn cutting Rapunzel’s hair defeated the idea of self determination. I think the message would have been far stronger if Rapunzel cut her own hair. By Flynn cutting Rapunzel’s hair it sends a message that a man is needed to set a girl free.

    I will elaborate on this:

    Disney has been sending this message to girls for years through their “love is only way to set you free” resolutions that always ends in marriage.

    Furthermore before Rapunzel’s hair is cut the idea of Flynn’s death stunts Rapunzels declaration of independence.

    When Rapunzel figures out she is the lost princess and confronts Gothel with her “my life” speech, she falters when Gothel says that Flynn is in danger and will hang. Rapunzel of course has every right to be upset, however her reaction to Gothel’s question: “Where will you go,” after learning that Flynn may not be there to run to is not very independent.
    Rapunzel’s only reaction is to go save him, which is fine and expected, she can’t let him die. However this puts too much emphasise on her love for Flynn. I think Disney should have concentrated on her love for herself. She should have said to Gothel that she would survive, because she still has herself and her right to choice.

    Going back to the hair, so much could have been said if Rapunsel did it herself. Her hair was clearly a hinderance to her, a chain to her mother, and a barrier to independence. By cutting her hair herself I saw two great potential messages that could have been made:

    1) Self determination, she’s making her own
    choices by controlling her body
    and how she looks. Her hair is
    her OWN, and will be dealt with how she
    would like, thus taking back her body
    and her life.

    2)Intentionally shedding off the stereotypes
    of traditonal female beauty. By
    looking in the mirror and loving herself
    with a close messy crop style she would
    be sending a message to little girls that
    you don’t have to follow society’s sense
    of beauty to feel pretty and secure. She would
    be saying: “Hey I feel secure just like this, and even though I look “butch” I don’t feel like less of a woman”
    Thus teaching girls their confidence is not founded
    in what men think of them, THEY HAVE THE POWER
    THEY HAVE THE INFLUENCE, AND THEY SET THE RULES.

    But…
    When Flynn cut her hair and validated it with his cute comment about liking burnettes, again the decision of Rapunzel’s hair is taken from her. Flynn made the choice it would be cut, and he decides that it looks good.

    I don’t think Flynn is sexiest, I think he was being noble as you said, he was trying to save her.

    However the overall message it sends to girls is that: Rapunzel is free AND has a new life because of her love interest, and that her new hair cut is pretty because of his approval.

    Counter comments:

    I know Rapunzel could not let Flynn die. If she had cut it herself in that scene he would have died. I think the time to cut it should have been before then, thus I’d prefer a differnt ending.

    Next it can be argued that after Flynn gave her a new life by severing her tie to Gothel, she then gave him a new life with her healing tears. However there is a big difference between the spiritual and the physical. He saves Rapunzel spiritually, by taking back her right to choice and self determination. She saves him physically by giving him physical life.

    I know one could argue his comment “you are my dream” says that she too affected him spiritually. But Flynn’s freedom was never in question, a viewer knows full well if Flynn lost Rapunzel although he would be DEVASTATED, he would still have a free life. He might go back to being materialistic and cold, BUT because he still has a life of choice he still has room to relearn the lessons of love.
    Thus what they did for each other is very different.

    I liked the overall movie but even beyond the hair and the prosposal part you mentioned, I found other elements in this movie that are toxic to women.

    So I left this post to give you some thoughts to mull over.
    Sorry if there are typos. I’m not trying to attack you but think about what I wrote.

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