The rewriting of fairy and folk tales into more politically correct versions is an old task, one that’s been done by the best fictionists (think Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber 1979) and poets (think Anne Sexton’s Transformations 1971), one that’s been analyzed by every kind of feminist there is. We all generally agree: tales are archetypal stories that limit what we can be. Stereotyping is the basic accusation against these stories we’ve grown up on; current cultural theory tells us this doesn’t just happen for femaleness but also for maleness, gayness, every other sexuality in between.
The more dominant and overwrought critique of course happens for women’s images in fairytales; it’s one that has is proven by those of us who at some point thought it true that we are damsels to be saved from distress by a man; it is one that has as proof generations of female children who believe that there wasn’t, isn’t much she can do without a man. It might be said: what a stretch. I say: have you lived my life?
It’s in this context that I enjoy every Disney Princess Movie there is, long before that label even began to be used. This doesn’t include Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora’s (Sleeping Beauty) first incarnations as traditional princesses; it doesn’t include Ariel’s first incarnation as the Little Mermaid who barely goes through suffering in the way she does in the original Brothers Grimm story. Maybe these stories were Disney’s learning curve.
Because by the time we were treated to Belle in Beauty and the Beast we were also shown someone who was reading, who knew of the world and her freedomsbecause she read books. She stands up to the beast, responds to him kindly but firmly, is unafraid. Jasmine in Aladdin was barely a step forward, with a title that speaks of the male lead instead of the female one, and with the princess’s conventional rebellion against royal duties easily and simply presented to be about getting out of the castle, and going on a carpet ride, too. By the time Pocahontas and Mulan showed in theaters, Disney seemedto have found its niche in creating new and different images of being female, of dreaming, of freedom for its audience — kids and adults alike.
This is my context for the movie Tangled, a retelling of Rapunzel, a reassessment of the fairy tale that names all its silences and puts it up for examination. Right here is the complexity in this reconfiguration of the story of Rapunzel: nothing is easy here, everything is complicated, and almost overpowers the simplicity of family and dreaming which might seem to be its easy stereotypical point, but isn’t all that’s here.
She draws herself looking upon the world. For someone who hasn’t been seen by the world, she knew what she must look like to it. She knows of the world and rationalizes the fact that she’s kept safe from it: Rapunzel was thankfully not stupid, nor was she naive in the conventional sense. Her naivete isn’t borne of innocence; it’s one that’s premised on possibility.
So when Flynn Rider finds his way up the tower, bad guy as he is, Rapunzel didn’t see him as savior, as he was about possibility: she was going to use him to find her way beyond the tower. When Flynn becomes a real guy distinct from those wanted posters with his face on it, Rapunzel didn’t simply think they were falling in love, as she thought this would prove the world wrong about him. Because her naivete is such, Rapunzel isn’t like most princesses we’ve seen in Disney retellings: she wasn’t stupidly in love, didn‘t require that we suspend belief in the process of watching her character unfold.
Instead we are enamored by her lack of self-consciousness, we are drawn to her emotional turmoil. This she had plenty of, a new and funny aspect of the retold Rapunzel, and so real given the fact that she’s been locked up in a tower for 18 years. Her psychosis bordering on the crazy, her ability at a combination of joy and guilt, ecstatic celebration of the outside world and the sinking feeling that it might end in pain and suffering, all seems real and probable for Rapunzel. None of it is stuff for fairytales.
When she finally gets angry at the mother she always new, evil as she is, it is all real, too. And when her hair meets it’s logical end, we were set up to think that it didn’t matter after all, the hair isn’t all that Rapunzel was about.
She was also about being barefoot, a wonderful image for these times of shoe craziness among females, starting them on the obsession younger than ever before, even in their version(s) of heels! (Good gracious.) Rapunzel wasn’t just barefoot, she had none of the princess-y qualities we see in animation, in the female protagonists on TV and romantic comedy movies, in romance novels and chick lit.
Here is her value in the midst of popular productions of femininity and womanhood: Tangled de-centers Rapunzel as a girl who simply dreams. Instead she is created to become the girl with short hair, the one with average looks, the one who does art and plays the guitar, walks barefoot, enjoys the simplest of things, and in the process actually lives. The point is that this girl lives, and her life isn’t a fairytale at all.