A short while ago, I was having a discussion with a close friend about stepmothers. Fictional Stepmothers, you see, the Villainesses (or at least Obstructions) to the goals/life/happiness of their adopted children. We were hard-pressed to think of any female-centric, female protagonist fiction, with a stepmother, that didn’t present that stepmother’s motivations as a) related to their own youth/beauty/lack thereof, or b) related to the affections or attentions of a Significant Male. Even my example, of (the ever-fabulous) Anjelica Houston’s performance as Danielle’s stepmother in Ever After, was just an elaboration on the typically one-note maternal wickedness seen in SF/F. Ever After kicked it up a notch by touching on the Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent’s relationship with Auguste de Barbarac and her machinations toward her own bio-daughters’ (or at least one of their) pairing with (male) royalty.
So after the conversation ended, we parted ways, but I lingered on the subject. As is usual for me, the topic drifted from folklore to Disney applications, and– what? Oh, no one’s surprised? Well, excuuuuuuuuse me, then! Anyway. It drifted, is what I’m saying– and it landed on Disney’s 50th animated feature, Tangled.
Don’t get me wrong, Tangled is a lovely movie. It is technically superb, and represents Pixar at their absolute best. The characters are cheery and relatable, the art direction is magnificently “old-school” Disney, several key emotional moments and context cues are encapsulated perfectly in gestures, silent body language, and understated imagery– which is surprisingly subtle and layered for a children’s movie. And, shocker of shockers, the writing is actually… good. I hadn’t been expecting that.
I went into Tangled fully prepared to despise the movie, because of my own Disney baggage, and, frankly, the disappointment that was Princess and the Frog, not to mention murmurings that the storyline was usurped from Rapunzel herself by a love interest of all people. My long-lived fondness for the Rapunzel fairytale also played a part, as I really considered it one of the last untouched-by-the-Mouse-House bastions of “authentic” (brutality intact) Western European fantasy that I had left. Plus, the trailers looked really crappy. Two animal sidekicks? If you can’t do it in one… But no, Tangled is really phenomenal. The writing actually very cleverly keeps key elements of the fairy tale intact, and even though I’ll miss the (charming, to me) Coraline-esque mystery of the plotline (sometimes, bad things just Are), all the characters benefit from the story’s expansion. Rapunzel and Flynn Rider’s relationship is actually one of my favorite Disney prince-princess couples now, mostly because of their tenderness together, and the equal footing on which they view each other, and on which they’ve been demonstrated to stand. Shocker!
However, that’s not why I’m here. The trouble comes with Mother Gothel, the movie’s villain. A multicentenarian witch, of sorts (or so we’re told; Gothel isn’t shown to do anything more insidious or mystical than what is exactly required for the plot, which involves surprisingly little magic), with all the theatricality of Maleficent and Snow White’s Wicked Queen, all the Broadway-esque camp of Ursula, and a pinch of the Exotic Other of Esmerelda (Gothel has kinkier hair than me, yo– homegirl is firmly into “Debatable Whiteness” territory, or at very least, “Debatable WASP/WASC/Germanic-Scandinavian-iness,” ie, either way not the right kind of white) she is a wondefully crafted Mommy-Dearest-slash-textbook-stage-mother for the wide-eyed and trusting (and also interestingly Otherised; I saw no other blondes, even in the background of the movie) protagonist. And why wouldn’t she be? When the source of Gothel’s unnaturally long life (and eternal youth– looks have meaning, especially if you’re planning to outlast the current millenium) is literally plucked from her to save a dying, pregnant queen, she goes to the next-best thing: the infant to whom the enchantment has been passed on. Looking to steal the fiber optic hair initially, when Gothel learns the baby and the magic are a package deal, she doesn’t hesitate to kidnap Rapunzel from her crib. In the very next scene, the toddler-Rapunzel and Mother Gothel sit together, while Rapunzel sings the spell needed to activate her hair’s powers and calls her kidnapper “Mommy.”
You can see how this is a very potent and emotionally loaded villain bit, yes? Especially when you cut to the scene after that, featuring 18-year-old (an adult princess! *clutches pearls*) Rapunzel asking to be let out of her tower to see the “floating lights” that appear every year on her birthday (actually a lantern festival initiated by her birth parents in honor of and as a beacon to their lost daughter). Gothel heaps emotional abuse and manipulations on Rapunzel, tacking on “just kiddings!” and “I’m just saying ‘cuz I love you!” to disguise, rather than soften, the blow– adding in some dramatic examples of martyr complex “guilting,” played for laughs, this naturally being a song number, but that still gave me the hibbitiest of jibbities– and because Rapunzel loves the only mother she’s known, she is temporarily cowed by the literal song-and-dance of parent-child dysfunction.
I have no problem with this. Gothel, as I’ve said, is really a marvelous Disney villain. She does need Rapunzel, but she doesn’t love her so much as she loves what she can do for her, because she is a means to an end. I mentioned Pixar was on their game when it came to body language in this film– every single “loving” gesture Gothel made toward Rapunzel was directed first at her hair, and secondarily at the young woman herself, and every single “loving” word or orchestrated situation was further manipulation by Gothel to not only keep Rapunzel, but to keep Rapunzel by Rapunzel’s own hand, to make her not want to leave, and not think of herself as capable or safe without the home and relationship dynamic Gothel provided. All of these are villainous behaviors, though much more subtle and calculated and deliberate– and therefore more chilling– than, say, Frollo in Hunchback of Notre Dame, who committed the sins of having Quasimodo only exist as a liability, being a sadist and heretic and sexual deviant, and being in a Disney adaptation of a Victor Hugo book.
The problem actually came up in a fan group I have been watching. There seemed/seems to be some conflict as to whether or not Gothel is a “true” evil villain; after all, didn’t she feel some affection for Rapunzel? Didn’t she actually want her to be happy, and didn’t she actually keep her well fed and clothed and housed? In theory, wasn’t Rapunzel protected from people who would do her harm over the power of her hair, and weren’t the cosmic sunlight healing powers being better used even as a flower allowed to stay alive for centuries than plucked and destroyed to save one ailing woman? I was flabbergasted to read those things, actually. How could anyone side with such blatantly self-serving behavior? How could someone take the side of a woman who would kidnap an infant to remain youthful, and then turn around and tell that child that the world was full of selfish people who she couldn’t trust? I realized my problem very quickly– I also consider Disney’s Prince Adam (aka the Beast) a villain, so my shades of grey were a bit muddier than the average Disney watcher’s.
This is where this article is going to veer into the childhood-smashing territory I tend to wander into with an iron fist, but keep in mind that I do this out of love.
Let’s look at the parallels between the two stories. The Beast’s repellent form, initially a metaphor for old age as it related to arranged marriages between the audience (young women) and the rich men their parents chose for them, has been imposed on him, though not by time, but rather, as a way to gain wisdom. His only salvation will be the love of a woman who can see beyond his physical limitations– but he’s on a supernatural deadline, imposed by an enchanted flower that represents his own mortality and will take him with it if it dies. The Beast takes a man prisoner, because he is cruel, and when the man’s daughter comes and volunteers herself in his place, the Beast takes his chance to both free himself from his own beastliness, the ugliness of his fur and claws standing in for Gothel’s graying hair and wrinkles, and to save himself from what he considers an untimely death– and though, at the end of the movie, his castle and its inhabitants are restored to their former condition, one wonders how long the Beast had actually lived. After all, his servants had begun to refer to themselves as the names of the furniture and tools whose shape they occupied, his home had fallen into disrepair, and no one within the distance of one night’s horseback ride seemed to even be aware of any castle or prince in the area, even Belle, who one would assume would have read at least a few history books.
However, Gothel and Adam are presented very differently by Disney writers. Whereas Adam/the Beast is redeemed by the love of Belle, the love of Rapunzel digs the hole deeper for Gothel. Both kept young women prisoner from their families, alienated them from their peers, and tossed them a bone every now and again– a kind word, a gift– to keep them somewhat content. What is it, exactly, that differs between the two? Both seek their former beauty; both seek their former vitality; neither wants to die.
Is it that Rapunzel didn’t know what she was missing out on with her biological family? Is it that Rapunzel was taken as an infant, and had no choice but to love Gothel?
Is Belle more noble, more powerful than Rapunzel for having offered herself to the Beast? Is she more weak and vulnerable for allowing herself to be influenced by superficial gestures from a man/animal who regularly attempted to intimidate her with his volume and size and might?
Is Gothel wicked for not changing herself in the pursuit of her magic bullet, and is the Beast therefore good because he had to modify his own behaviors in order to woo his captive? Is Gothel evil because she has plotted out what she needs to do to keep Rapunzel, to keep her safe as a life support system for the hair she truly loves, and the Beast is beneficently rolling with the punches due to his more flexible game plan? Is Gothel worse for trying to keep Rapunzel happy to keep her in her tower, and the Beast better for trying to make Belle happy and keep her inside a place with more than three books?
While I think all those things play a part, though probably to a much lesser extent deliberately than the significance I assign them, what I believe the underlying difference, the true dividing line between the way the two stories’ moral horizons are portrayed and meant to be read, is the type of love at play.
Maternal love is only of any value in a Disney movie when it is passed from a biological mother to her child, often in a grand display of sacrifice, for the greatest thing any woman can give is herself, and it is her greatest calling to do so. Stepmother-stepchild relationships emphasize the “step,” and are automatically somehow warped– there is no real love there, you see, for there is no blood link. It says something that the only Disney exceptions to this involve orphans whose alternative is a worse stepparent, as in The Rescuers, and (from what I hear, not having seen it) Meet the Robinsons. Mother-daughter relationships are already kind of evil, or at least inferior, you see. Anything else, like kidnapping or mind games, only serves to emphasize that relationships between women are corrupt.
It is telling that both movies reach their near-ending with the weeping designated-princess bowed over the unconscious presumed-dead bodies of their chosen paramours– part of it is obviously an homage to Beauty and the Beast, as Tangled animators and writers went out of their way to refer to other well-loved Disney films, this being a significant film in both numerical order and storytelling quality– and possibly also an homage influenced by composer Alan Menken to honor his former musical partner Howard Ashman, whose last viewed Disney movie was Beauty and the Beast (he died before Aladdin’s completion and release). The message seems to be that male sacrifice can be renegotiated to give men a second chance at life, if women are willing to give of themselves either the necessary emotional bond to those men, or give of themselves physically, or both.
Additionally, romantic love is naturally superior to any familial relationship, especially such a false and twisted one as a non-blood-linked family’s. The Beast isn’t evil, because he wants to get in Belle’s pants. Gothel is evil because her interest in Rapunzel lies a little further north. I don’t think you can really have it both ways; using people is still using people.
So, on one hand, you have a woman who falls in love with her male captor, and on the other, a woman driven into the arms of a man by her female captor; the question now becomes, what can we, as the audience, and we, as storytellers, do to reject these “morals” that reinforce the heteropatriarchy and the social constructs confining women’s roles to wicked captor or virginal captive?
Maria’s ETA: I’ve gotten several emails from people criticizing Gena for calling Tangled a Pixar film. Pixar was purchased by Disney in 2006, and two of Pixar’s most prominent staffers are now heading the Pixar/Disney conglomerate division that produced Tangled.