Guest Post: Tangled Shows No Signs of Cutting Disney’s White, Male Roots by Natalie Wilson

by Melissa Silverstein on December 1, 2010

in Feminism

The good news is that Tangled is funny, fast-paced, humorous, and visually stunning.

The bad news is that it re-hashes the same old story – that as a woman you can either be a princess awaiting her prince or an evil stepmother/witch, that if you are male, you get all the action (in many senses of the word) and that beauty equals white, blonde, thin, and young.

This bad side of the story is ironic considering Disney’s recent announcement they won’t be making any more princess films. Instead, what they have done, is made a princess film but not named it after the princess – how groundbreaking!

As Margot Magowan notes, Disney’s announcement could be a good sign. “Great! No more damsels in distress who end the movie by landing a man,” she writes. Alas, as Magowan and others document, it’s not about ending the helpless princess meme, instead, it’s about making sure the movies have big enough audience appeal (read: appeal to boys and men, not JUST girls and women).

Apparently, to appeal to the male demographic, “swashbuckling action” is necessary, as are the inclusion of many mega-muscular man characters. In order to make the film “gender neutral” Disney has privileged male characters over females – to the tune of countless key male figures in the movie and only TWO – yes TWO – key females – Rapunzel and the evil Mother Gothel.

As it is Disney, media giant, making these representations, they carry inordinate cultural weight. As Magowan writes, “ because this boys club completely dominates kidworld, their privileging of males over females with no care at all, their disregard for half the population, is really sad.”

This male privileging of the story is apparent from the first image in Tangled, which opens zoomed in on a wanted poster of Flynn Rider, as he narrates “This is a very fun story and the truth is it isn’t even mine.”

The “fun” story involves the kidnapping and imprisonment of Rapunzel – the female protagonist that Disney execs decided didn’t deserve to be front and center. And, even though Flynn admits the story “isn’t even mine,” the story becomes very much about him and less about Rapunzel. While this has been called a “gender neutral makeover,” it seems to me it is more of a masculinist makeover.

As noted by the film’s producer during production, “We’re having a lot of fun pairing Flynn, who’s seen it all, with Rapunzel, who’s been locked away in a tower for 18 years.” Ah, a man of the world who has “seen it all” with a woman who knows nothing as she has been “locked away” – how egalitarian and gender neutral!

In addition to the male lead Flynn, Rapunzel has the requisite animal sidekick – a male chameleon named Pascal. And, once she escapes out into the real world – she encounters a plethora of males – the horse Maximus (how is that for a testosterone fueled name?!?), the thugs that serve as Flynn’s former thieving buddies, and, finally, the many light-hearted ruffians from the pub, The Snuggly Duckling. Additionally, Rapunzel’s Father (the King) is focused on in a few scenes meant to emphasize how much he and his wife (the Queen) still miss their daughter. In these scenes, his hulking, bearded figure dominate the screen, his face torn with sadness – while his diminutive wife (the apparently unimportant queen) stands below and beside him as comforting help mate.

As for Rapunzel, imprisoned within the tower since a child, she is a waiflike female with big eyes and a teeny tiny waist that sings about doing chores with the refrain “wonder when my life will begin.” To add to her minuscule waist, Rapunzel is stereotypically overly emotional, swinging from one end of a mood swing to another as often as she (and others) swing from her long golden locks.

By films end, she has lost these magical locks after Flynn cuts them to save her life – and her remaining hair – no longer magical – turns brown (talk about latent color symbolism!). Her “happy ending” involves being returned to her real parents and marrying Flynn – who, the movie makes a POINT of emphasizing, proposed to her, not the other way around.

Admittedly, there are moments where Rapunzel is portrayed as brave and heroic, as when she tells Mother Gothel “for every minute for the rest of my life I will fight” or when she heals Flynn, saves them both from drowning, and is instrumental in their escape from the Snuggly Duckling and various other chase scenes. She is, no doubt, an improvement on Snow White, who could only sing to animals and happily clean up after seven dwarves. Yet, as Scott Mendelson indicates, her bravery is framed in a “condescending ‘girl-power’ punch or two” way – it is the exception to her character, rather than the rule. While Flynn is all masculine adventure, power, and cunning, she is all long blonde locks with a hint of you-go-girl attitude to appease a 21st century audience.

Obviously the (male) execs at Disney wanted to stay true to the fairy tale roots and thus kept Rapunzel white and blonde, kept the evil witch character, and kept the rescuing prince (though admittedly amping up his role) – but even keeping to this narrow white and male privileged script, could they not have thrown in some female animals and or patrons at the Snuggly Duckling?

And what possessed the film-makers to have Flynn immediately call Rapunzel “Blondie”? Yes, it’s so funny when we identify women by their looks and body rather than bothering to learn or remember their names! (Not to mention the cultural associations with being called “Blondie” such as the assumption one is dumb, “over-sexed,” and/or good for no more than a pretty appearance).

Moreover, as Renee of Womanist Musings points out, the glorifying of blonde hair – yet again – is problematic. She writes:

“As a Black woman, I know all to well how complicated the issue of hair can be.  Looking at the above image [of Tangled’s Rapunzel], I found that I could not see beyond her long blond hair and blue eyes.  I believe that this will also become the focal point of many girls of colour.  The standard of long flowing blond hair as the epitome of femininity necessarily excludes and challenges the idea that WOC are feminine, desired, and some cases loved and therefore, while Disney is creating an image of Rapunzel that we are accustomed to, her rebirth in a modern day context is problematic, because her body represents the celebration of White femininity.

The fact that Tangled is coming on the heels of the first African American princess is indeed problematic.  It makes Princess Tiana seem like an impotent token, with Rapunzel appearing to reset the standard of what princess means and even more precisely what womanhood means.”

Notably, Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s evil abductress, has dark hair and eyes and non-Caucasian features.

According to Christian Blaulvelt of Entertainment Weekly, Mother Gothel is a dark, dark character. I mean, she’s a baby snatcher.” Ah yes, and she is dark in more ways than one – her dark skin, hair, and clothing contrasting with the golden whiteness of Rapunzel.

Alan Menken, the musical composer for the film, similarly notes that “Mother Gothel is a scary piece of work. Nothing she is doing is for the good of Rapunzel at all. It’s all for herself” Emphasizing her manipulative relationship with Rapunzel, Menken admits, “I was concerned when writing it. Like, will there be a rash of children trying to kill their parents after they’ve seen the movie?” Wow – how about worrying if there will be a rash of children who will see DARK-SKINNED mothers (and non-wedded ones) as evil and sinister?

In addition to carrying on Disney’s tradition of problematic representations of race, the film also keeps with the tradition of framing females beauty obsession as evil and “creepy” (Flyn’s words) rather than as understandable in a world of Disneyfied feminine norms. A mirror worshipper to rival the evil queen in Snow White, Gothel is presented as a passive-aggressive nightmare — she is the tyrannical single mother that is so overbearing Rapunzel must beg for the opportunity to leave the tower.

To sum up, in this “gender neutral” remake, we have a film dominated by male characters that focuses on the magical golden hair of a white princess who must be saved from an evil dark witch. Yes, it’s funny with strong dialogue and good songs. Yes, it’s a feast for the eyes and provides many laughs. Yes, I love the fact Rapunzel has more verve and spunk than her princess predecessors. But, no, Disney has not cut its ties to a white male-privileged view of the world. Not even close.

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Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, and popular culture,. She is author of the blogs Professor, What if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. Her feminist analysis of the Twilight cultural phenomoneon, Seduced by Twilight, comes out from McFarland Press in April 2011. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.  Originally posted on Girl With Pen.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Mendelson December 1, 2010 at 12:33 PM

I wish to take issue with the quotes of my prior essays featured in this article. While I appreciate being read and quoted in a relevant context, I believe both of her references to my work read as if I was discussing the finished film, but both pieces are in fact discussing the reactions to the marketing campaign.

Morever, she criticizes my reference to a ‘gender-neutral makeover’, while missing what I clearly state in the article, which is a gender neutral makeover is my default a more male-driven viewpoint. Finally, she makes reference to Rapunzel participating in a token amount of action, again missing that I am not referring to the finished film, but rather my fears of the film based on the trailer.

I HAVE seen the film and have written a review, where I basically state that whatever qualms I had about the advertising, Tangled is indeed a female-driven romantic buddy comedy that puts Rapunzel’s story arc front and center with Flynn Ryder acting as the comic foil. That I disagree with her take on the finished film is irrelevant to my quotes being taken out of context, but it does add fuel to my slight annoyance.

Sorry to pester, I do appreciate the attention, but I didn’t want readers thinking I was making critical judgments on a film I hadn’t seen at the time of publication.

My actual review, for those who care – http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2010/11/review-tangled-2d-35mm-experience-2010.html

Rochus Wolff December 1, 2010 at 6:08 PM

I’m still unsure about the film, but a minor aside concerning its name – in many Non-English-speaking countries, it is in fact called ‘Rapunzel’ or the local version of it (‘Raiponce’ in France). That does not make her the centre of the movie, of course, but it slightly shifts the emphasis you described.

Natalie Wilson December 1, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Scott,
I am sorry that you feel your quotes are taken out of context. While I realize the piece I refer to is an analysis of the marketing campaign, it seems to me that marketing is so much of the “Disney machine” that this need not necessarily be taken as separate from the film itself. I at no point state your piece referenced was a review of the film.
Moreover, the criticism towards the “gender neutral” claim is targeted at Disney — not at you – Disney execs have been touting it as a re-tooling, as NOT a princess film, as more gender neutral – this is what my criticism is directed at.

Julie December 2, 2010 at 4:35 AM

Just want to say that in Singapore at least, this movie is called “Rapunzel, a tangled fairy tale”. So why do they remove the Rapunzel part for the rest of us?

Ana March 12, 2012 at 10:30 PM

belle is french and a brunette, snow white is from god knows where and black-haired, tiana is african american, jasmine is arabic, pocahontas is native american, mulan is asian, the new girl from brave is scottish and a ginger, fiona from shrek is an ogre and a ginger, and ariel is also a ginger as well as a merperson. the only blonde princesses are cinderella, aurora, and rapunzel. 3 out of 12 princesses are blonde. y don’t u try calling them all blonde and stereotypical again? pochahontas saves her guy’s life. fiona gives up her beautiful appearance for true love. mulan lies to the man she loves to protect her father and her family. she goes to freaking war. try insulting disney again, smart one. and u call urself a feminist. rapunzel escapes the bonds of her cruel mother and faces her fears. and flynn loves her even when all her blond hair is cut off. so, thanks but no thanks. get ur facts straight. I’m a feminist just as much as the next girl, but this isn’t feminism, this is mindless ranting.

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