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Thursday, March 31, 2011

“Tangled” in Subtle Sexuality – Disney Stays True to the Original Fairy Tale (in a PC Way)

Whenever Disney tackles a fairy tale, the company takes on many challenges, and they often have to make significant alterations to the original stories to make them a hit for contemporary audiences. Many try to blame Disney for being inappropriate for children without knowing the original stories in which these popular films are based; if they did, they might bite their tongue next time they want to cast another stone at the company.

For fairy tales, while initially created for children, were not generally nice or ending in "happily ever after." These stories were usually created to produce fear in children and often taught them a lesson. The Brothers Grimm loved putting a nasty spin on these stories. Cinderella's evil Stepsisters had their eyes plucked out by birds as payment for their cruelty and vanity. Little Red Riding Hood learned that talking to strange creepy men could result in seriously bad consequences (an allegory for kidnapping, rape and death). Rapunzel's story, however, was probably the toughest fairy tale that Disney decided to tackle to date.

The Brothers Grimm version of the story of Rapunzel is, at its heart, the greatest fairy tale family melodrama. This is a classical soap opera, folks. A young couple moved into a house next door to a witch with a very lush garden. The wife became pregnant and had strong cravings for greens – no doubt the neighbor's expansive vegetable patch made her hungry. The soon-to-be-father snuck over to the witch's garden and stole vegetables (historically in Germany's folklore, where a lot of Rapunzel's history comes from, it was dangerous to deny a pregnant woman a food she craved, so family members went to extreme lengths to obtain such foods). The husband was caught, however, and the witch was furious. In exchange for her vegetables, the soon-to-be-father was forced to promise his unborn baby as payment to the witch. Rapunzel was born, and the witch (or Mother Gothel) took Rapunzel away and locked her up in a tower (every teenager's worst nightmare come true). Mother Gothel wanted Rapunzel all for herself and, like an extremely over-protective parent, would not let her go out and experience the world. But, eventually, a handsome Prince heard Rapunzel's beautiful voice, saw Mother Gothel call out, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!" and saw a way to visit this young maiden. So he did just as Mother Gothel did – he visited Rapunzel in her tower, and the two fell in love. The Prince planned to spirit her away and marry her, but Rapunzel became pregnant after one of their sexual encounters, and Mother Gothel found out. In the original Brothers Grimm edition, Rapunzel tells Mother Gothel that her dress is getting too tight around her belly. The witch becomes enraged, so she cuts off Rapunzel's hair and casts her out into the world, where she eventually delivers twins. When Rapunzel's Prince returns to the tower, he only finds the witch, then falls back out and lands on thorns that blind him. He wanders the wilderness until he hears Rapunzel's familiar voice; filled with emotion, the two find each other and Rapunzel cries with him in her arms. Her tears heal his eyes, and his vision is restored…and the two can live happily ever after.

It's no wonder that Disney's version had to go through so many script re-writes. The main issue was generally the same: no one knew how to solve the third act. And how would the public react to the new Disney Princess getting knocked up? In such an overly-conservative time, it would be a dangerous move.

Copyright Disney

After seeing Tangled and knowing the original story of Rapunzel, you might think that Disney did some serious straying…but, they were actually very clever about the way in which they handled the heroine and hero's relationship…and the idea of Rapunzel's virginity and beauty.
Copyright Disney
 In the movie Tangled, Rapunzel's tiara symbolizes her virginity. At the very beginning of the film, Flynn cleverly snatches away the tiara (which is heavily guarded as requested from her actual parents). Flynn fights other men for this tiara, and it is initially important to him because of the wealth, power and (dare I say it) bragging rights it could get him. But, he cannot truly have Rapunzel's tiara until she chooses to give it to him. There is a world out there she wants to experience…and that experience ends up becoming a very long and exciting date, I would say.

Copyright Disney

In the middle of this date, Mother Gothel finds her and tries to bring her back home. When Rapunzel refuses (as all young adults do when they discover love and are ready to leave the nest), mother uses her typical, manipulative scare-tactics to keep her daughter at home forever. In "Mother Knows Best (Reprise)":

Rapunzel knows best
Rapunzel's so mature now
Such a clever grown-up miss
Rapunzel knows best
Fine, if you're so sure now
Go ahead, then give him this
(Mother Gothel reveals the tiara)

This is why he's here!
Don't let him deceive you!
Give it to him, watch, you'll see!

Trust me, my dear
That's how fast he'll leave you
I won't say I told you so - no
Rapunzel knows best!

Is this not what most adults tell young people to keep them from having sexual relationships? The literal contexts are different, but the words and the expressions are the same.

Eventually, Rapunzel gets to finally experience the "floating lights", the one thing she has dreamed about for years and years. In arguably one of the most romantic and beautiful sequences ever made for a film, Rapunzel finally gives Eugene (I will call him Eugene here since he has experienced a character arc at this point) her tiara, telling him that she's "not scared anymore." He takes it from her, but puts it to the side, and says, "I'm starting, too." It is no longer her virginity that he is symbolically just taking: he is making love to her, because he loves her. His intentions are now pure.

Copyright Disney
But, Eugene has some Flynn problems to take care of, and has to leave Rapunzel. Flynn offers the two scary thugs the tiara, but they no longer want it. Mother Gothel has told them what the most valuable prize regarding Rapunzel is: her healing hair. Symbolically, one could argue that, as these men perceive that Rapunzel's virginity is no longer intact, they do not want to fight for it anymore. I am more inclined to focus on something else. Rapunzel's hair, representing her beauty, is something that they can market and sell…just as the world markets and sells female beauty, even prostitutes their bodies, these men would like to make money off of Rapunzel's beauty…be her pimps, as it were.

Mother Gothel tricks the thugs and sends Eugene to his death, but he manages to escape and goes to rescue Rapunzel. Mother Gothel stabs him, and Rapunzel begs to heal him…and in the moment where Eugene can have a guarantee of his life continuing, he nobly cuts off Rapunzel's hair…no longer can she be marketed and controlled by those that seek personal gain from her beauty. She is beautiful just as she is. She is free.
In this version, Rapunzel's tears still save her beloved…while he may not be a Prince or blinded by thorns, he has suffered because of his love for her. Her tears revive him, and they live happily ever after…just the way a classic Disney fairy tale should end.