Disney’s Gender Roles Remain Un-Tangled

The good news is that Disney’s new animated feature Tangled is funny, fast-paced and visually stunning. The bad news is that it re-hashes the same old story: As a woman, you can either be a princess awaiting her prince or an evil stepmother/witch; as a man, you get all the action (in many senses of the word). And beauty, of course, equals white, blonde, thin and young.

Keeping in mind Disney’s recent announcement that after Tangled they won’t be making any more princess films, one can see Tangled as a transitional movie, an indication of where Disney’s future is headed. And as Margot Magowan notes, Disney putting the kibosh on princesses could have been a good sign: “Great! No more damsels in distress who end the movie by landing a man.” Alas, as Magowan and others report, Disney’s stated goal isn’t ending the helpless-princess theme; instead, it’s making sure the movies have big enough audience appeal (read: appeal to boys and men, not just girls and women).

To this end, Disney brought in a new directorial team in 2008 to overhaul the planned Rapunzel and “wring the pink out of it,” as the Los Angeles Times aptly put it. The resultant Tangled, with a non-heroine title, more action and a platoon of mega-muscular-man characters (in contrast to only two key females–Rapunzel and the evil Mother Gothel), bodes ill for Disney’s post-princess era.

While one blogger has called this a “gender neutral makeover,” it seems to me more of a masculinist makeover. The privileging of men in the story is apparent from the first image in Tangled, a zoom-in on a wanted poster of the male lead, 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. Even though Flynn claims the story “isn’t even mine,” the story becomes very much about him and less about Rapunzel.

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, pairing 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 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 other males–the horse Maximus (how’s that for a testosterone-fueled name?), the thugs that serve as Flynn’s former thieving buddies and the many light-hearted ruffians from The Snuggly Duckling pub. Additionally, Rapunzel’s father, the King, takes the spotlight in a few scenes meant to emphasize how much he and the Queen still miss their daughter. In these scenes, his hulking, bearded figure dominates the screen, his face torn with sadness, while his diminutive wife stands below and beside him as comforting helpmate.

As for Rapunzel, imprisoned within the tower since a child, she is a waiflike female with big eyes and a teeny-tiny waist who sings about doing chores with the refrain, “wonder when my life will begin.” 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, proposes 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 enables their escape from the Snuggly Duckling. She is an improvement on Snow White, who could only sing to animals and happily clean up after seven dwarves. Yet, as critic Scott Mendelson points out, her bravery is of a “condescending ‘girl-power’ punch or two” sort–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.

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

Obviously the (male) execs at Disney wanted to stay true to the fairytale roots, and thus kept Rapunzel white and blond, 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 or patrons at the Snuggly Duckling?

And what possessed the filmmakers 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 good for no more than a pretty appearance).

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

As a Black woman, I know all too well how complicated the issue of hair can be. Looking at the … 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 color. The standard of long flowing blond hair as the epitome of femininity necessarily excludes and challenges the idea that [women of color] are feminine, desired … 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 [Disney] 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.

On the other hand, 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” (Flynn’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–the tyrannical single mother so overbearing the Rapunzel must beg for the opportunity to leave the tower.

To sum up, 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. Yes, I love the fact Rapunzel has more verve and spunk than her princess predecessors. But, leading into their commitment to stop producing princess films and create films that supposedly appeal to a broad demographic, Disney still has not cut its ties to a white, male-privileged view of the world. Not even close.

A longer version of this appears at Girl With Pen.

Photo via Disney.

Comments

  1. I understand the problem with the idea of female beauty being equaled with blonde. I myself am far from the pretty blonde girl that Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty are held up to be. But, as someone who has spent more than a little time reading the original version of the fairytales I must point out that if you back to the source, Rapunzel is a blonde. Sure, fairytales aren't epitomes of gender equality and a Disney movie like this can take a few liberties, but if we changed everything in the fairytales so that it wouldn't offend anyone at all we would lose that story.

    • Pam Redela says:

      I see the problem as the continuous need to re-produce the outdated fairy tales in the first place! Why not come up with all new stories? Oh, because that would involve some effort in imagining something different for females than the damsel in distress or the second fiddle sidekick.

  2. natalie wilson says:

    GladElf,
    I agree with your point that "if we changed everything in the fairytales" we would "lose that story" – as I note in my post. However, it seems Disney execs are OK with making CERTAIN changes — for example, they radically change the role of the prince, turning him into Flynn Ryder. If this change is ok, why wouldn't other changes be ok too? Or, why not, at the very least, ensure to present the enchantress/witch character in a way that doens't perpetuate negative gendered and racialized stereotypes — Mother Gothel is not only a nagging, over-possessive mother figure obsessed with her own looks, she is ALSO the only character to be drawn with "dark" non-caucasion features…

  3. Great review! I thought the portrayal of Mother Gothel was both a slam on "helicopter moms"/"ethnic" moms (is she Italian? Jewish? Indian) who are too loving/controlling/castrating, and on the whole "cougar" (bleh) phenom. I mean, that magic youth-perpetuating hair is better then botox in keeping ol' Mother G. looking perky – despite her 200+ years. But for Rapunzel to achieve (sexual) freedom, of course the postmenopausal mommy's got to be put in her place – killed off…
    More rantiness here, would love to see what you thought: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/1

  4. Great review! I thought the portrayal of Mother Gothel was both a slam on "helicopter moms"/"ethnic" moms (is she Italian? Jewish? Indian) who are too loving/controlling/castrating, and on the whole "cougar" (bleh) phenom. I mean, that magic youth-perpetuating hair is better then botox in keeping ol' Mother G. looking perky – despite her 200+ years. But for Rapunzel to achieve (sexual) freedom, of course the postmenopausal mommy's got to be put in her place – killed off…

  5. While, like virtually any film based on a classic European fairy-tale that is also greenlit by execs who care primarily about profitability, there is a lot of problematic stuff wrt sexism and racism that I agree with you on, there's some stuff that seems off to me in this analysis.

    With regards to Mother Gothel – she is clearly supposed to be white and European from whatever pan-Western European Kingdom the movie is set in. Her skin tone is as light as Rapunzel's – it's just got a sort of pale, colorless undertone when compared to the almost excessively peachy-pinkness of Rapunzel's. Plenty of Western European women have hair like hers although there is obviously some implications that can be drawn from the contrast between her hair and Rapunzels that are troubling. I think Gothel is a very interesting character, actually – part of me rails against the "pure/innocent heroine" vs. "bad sassy villianess" dichotomy, but as a daughter I also found a lot to empathize with in terms of the insecurity one can have at the hands of a "well-meaning" motherly criticism. My complaint is that they didn't take the complexity of the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel far enough – we see scenes of genuine tenderness between the two and there is no implication that it's all simply so Gothel can manipulate Rapunzel into staying in the tower – it's almost as if Gothel is getting some emotional needs of her own met through her relationship with Rapunzel that are a lot more grey-area-ish than wanting her in the tower only so she can maintain her youth. They didn't have to go there and they could have just made Gothel out-and-out nasty. My complaint is they almost sort of had a morally complex antagonist on their hands and didn't go far enough in that direction which really could have spoken to the complicated issues surrounding mother-daughter relationships. And that would have been something to see.

    As far as Rapunzel's whiteness and blondness goes, I think it makes more sense for the criticism to be "Why did they make this particular fairy tale?" rather than "Why is she blonde?" If Disney is trying to adhere to the original story at all, the long blonde hair is the identifying feature of the character, for better or worse (and it's obviously the latter). I would have rather seen Disney take a more interesting fairy tale with a heroine who has more to do that would have given them more freedom to get away from the blonde/white/pink dress princess stereotype (every so marketable as it may be) and never thought that this story was a great vehicle for a picture with any kind of innovation or originality, much less feminist ass-kicking.

    I haven't seen it brought up in the critiques yet but even for a 'perfect fairy-tale world' I found the implication that the great and wise and kind King and Queen who rule ever-so-benevolently also rule over a kingdom that proscribes capital punishment without a trial for a THIEF to be really kinda scary. The elite ruling class thing is never, ever questioned in Disney films and even though they've gotten a lot better about creating three-dimensional female characters with motivations outside of marriage, they haven't even begun to unpack the weirdness of their class issues at all. The whole "rightful King/Princess/etc" stuff that happens over and over is just icky.

  6. DisneyFan55 says:

    I don’t believe Rapunzel’s hair is a “celebration of White femininity” and neither does it glorify whiteness. To remain faithful to the fairytale’s roots, it’s plausible to retain the visual likeness of Rapunzel as presented in its original Brothers Grimm plot. But we fail to critically analyze the significance of Rapunzel’s physical transformation at the end of the movie and its implications in breaking Disney’s notoriety for occasionally sexist and racist representations against the female gender and of nonnative American races respectively.
    Rapunzel’s hair in its brunette form breaks the blonde-haired beauty norm prevalent in American society. While her blonde hair is a visual association with her magical powers, as a brunette, the powers are attributed and shift internally. The audience is led to believe that her hair possesses healing abilities, strength, durability, etc. This is repeatedly confirmed and demonstrated in her successful attempts at defense from Flynn’s intrusion into her tower to her swinging prowess while escaping from Gothel’s guards and so forth. However, the salient relationship between hair and power, a seemingly triumphant nod to female whiteness, is broken upon her transformation into a brunette. However, her powers are not lost and are instead internalized as her tears revive Flynn back to life at the end of the movie. Blonde or brunette, Rapunzel character celebrates the power of healing, romance, and feminine strength.

    • nikitabluewriter says:

      I did like the fact that she turned into a brunette and, yes, internalized her powers (as opposed to solely owning these powers as a component of her external factors/beauty); he even said he liked brunettes better :) However, um… she is still white.

  7. Lily Foss says:

    Did anyone else who saw the movie as a kind of metaphor for Rapunzel losing her virginity, aka her "crown?" Her mother says that Flynn is only with her for the crown, once she gives it to him he'll leave, etc., etc. Who would tht play into a feminist/anti-feminist analysis, I wonder?

    • nikitabluewriter says:

      Yes, I totally thought that too. On top of everything else, the icing on the cake was definitely the virgin worship. She's never *seen anything* outside of her tower… Yeah, be sure to hold on to that crown, thou purest of blondest of virgins… Ack!

  8. Go back to the 1977 The Rescuers. That movie is one of Disney’s better offerings for female leadership. Nothing to do with princesses or needing a boyfriend.

    A young girl ultimately and successfully escapes her kidnappers. The mice sent to ‘rescue’ her only provide a sounding board for her to bounce ideas off of. She’s the one doing the piloting of equipment and other actions which are ultimately necessary to escape.

    And the female mouse is the assertive leader of the two. The male mouse just tags along because of their supervisor’s ideas about women. He proactively recognizes she is smart and competent.

    That film does have problems with race. Africa is presented as a country–as opposed to continent with distinctive and individual countries. But inspite of this, it is one of Disney’s better titles for women. I still love it even today.

  9. hi guys i’m doing a research project on how disney movies reinforce negative gender and racial stereotypes and would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to answer my survey

    thanks
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?form

  10. Well, I don’t think Disney encourages racism and that male characters are dominating in this movie. In some older ones, yes, but we gotta have in mind that Snow White, for example, is made in 1930-ies, years in which racism wasn’t really considered a problem, but something normal. I don’t say that’s alright, it’s just the way it was.
    And, about the fact Rapunzel is blond and white, it’s an European medieval story, of course she was white. And, btw, mother Gothel isn’t dark skinned, she’s white too, she just has dark hair and eyes. There were many Disney princesses with dark hair and eyes, also.
    I, as a woman, am also sensitive when female rights are in question, but I really don’t think it’s the case here. It’s a children story, princesses and happily-ever-afters have almost became the part of our culture. What’s the point in searching racism where racism isn’t involved?
    I don’t say you’re wrong, or that you’re not right about some things, but I think that people are sometimes overreacting about racism and female rights. As I already said, it’s a children movie :)
    I don’t want to offend anyone, just saying my opinion ;) it’s my right, after all ;)

  11. I think many good points were brought up by commenters about the roles of women.  While “When Will My Life Begin” is very telling in how wasted Rapunzel sees her first 18 years of life, she is not, however, a wilting flower. We clearly see that when she dispatches Flynn with the frying pan early on in the film. A frying pan wielding female is a common trope in fantasy genre, btw. 

    My issue is more with the complaint of hair color.  If we look at a master list of Disney/Pixar films, you will see just how rare blonde really is. 

    1930s–Snow White: brown eyed brunette
    1950s–Cinderella: blue eyed blonde; Alice: blue eyed blonde; Wendy: blue eyed brunette; Tinker Belle: blue eyed blonde; Aurora: blue eyed blonde (The 50s was clearly the era of the blonde.)
    1980s–Eilonwy: blue eyed blonde; Ariel: blue eyed redhead
    1990s–Belle: brown eyed brunette; Jasmine: brown eyed brunette; Pocahontas: brown eyed brunette; Esmerelda: green eyed brunette; Meg: brunette; Mulan: brown eyed brunette; Jane: blue eyed brunette; and Jessie: green eyed redhead  (The 90s was the era of the brunette.)
    ’00s–Boo: brown eyed brunette; Lilo: brown eyed brunette; Kida: blue eyed white hair (not blonde); the girl in Jungle Book II: brown eyed brunette; Tiana: brown eyed brunette
    ’10s–Rapunzel: green eyed blonde; Merida: blue eyed redhead; Venelope: dark eyed brunette; Anna: green eyed redhead; Elsa: blue eyed blonde. 

    *After decades of brunette princesses and other popular secondary characters, Disney’s animators seem to now be using blondes and redheads heavily. I don’t have a problem with this, having dark red hair and hazel eyes. Now that I think about some of the comments, it almost seems like a slap in the face for blondes. As someone brought up, Flynn calls her “blondie” as if that is all she is: her hair. Everyone assumes she is some delicate wilting flower who couldn’t make it–all because she is a blonde and tiny girl. I have a short friend with REAL blonde hair–she is fierce. 

    As well, people seemed pleased when she becomes brunette (and Flynn says he always preferred brunettes). She is not her hair. She is more than her hair; being happy that she becomes a brunette by end of film is just as bad as anything else because you are defining her worth by her hair. You feel better about yourself because now she is brunette, like you or like the majority of society. But doesn’t that demonize the light haired girls, who through no fault of their own, have natural blonde or red hair? In AS Byatt’s Possession, the feminist Maude has natural blonde hair, but she ties it up on her head to show the other feminists that she isn’t proud of her hair or vain. And, yet, what is wrong with being proud of your natural beauty: whether you are brunette, red, blonde, or whatever? If no man was left on earth, I would still like my hair. And I would still have long hair. It is my personality. I find tomboys often have longer hair than girly girls. Not always, but more than you would think. 

    I actually think the healing power was always within Rapunzel. The hair was just a conduit. Once it was cut off and did not grow back, she still had the power within. Inside her was always the source. We can demonize women’s hair and say they are just playthings for men if they care about their looks, clothes, makeup, but that is just women depowering each other to make themselves feel better. 

    As for those who spoke of the mother-daughter relationship and how it could have been more nuanced, a lot of people hated Brave because it was a mother-daughter relationship. I’ve read so many articles dissing Merida and Elinor. It isn’t even funny. It always seems as if no matter what Disney gives us, we whine. One of my favorite scenes in Brave (Yes, going off Tangle topic) is when Elinor lets her hair down and goes riding with her daughter across the Scottish highlands. Love that symbolism of freeing herself from duty and what society expects of her. 

    I do think it would be wonderful to do future movies based on folktales from Africa, South America, Asia, etc. More than just one token one (a la Mulan). 

  12. I agree wholeheartedly with Anne20. She took the words right out of my mouth. I don’t have blonde hair or white skin; I’m half black, half white with brown eyes and dark brown hair, but I feel as if some are condemning those who are Caucasian and do have natral blonde hair. That’s not right. All women of all types should be able to love all of themselves for who they are; yes, blondes, too. We’re almost denying them the right to love and feel good about their looks. No one should be denied or that. That’s just as bad as those who don’t appreciate and accept ethnic or dark hair. I know a girl. We’ve been friends since kindergarten. She is so ashamed of her long, platinum blonde hair. Her mom won’t let her dye it ’til she’s sixteen. People call her vain and dumb and equally steryotypical things. I feel oddly dissapointed in both feminists and humankind. I don’t want to grow up in this type of world. We’re better than this. Let’s walk our talk and bring true equality.

  13. Randall says:

    I’ll be the token guy here. It’s interesting to see how people’s beliefs/baggage colors their prospective. It’s almost like we saw different movies. Ryder didn’t seem like a real guy to me. Every time you turn around he was being captured and was rather helpless.. Rapenzuel was the one who was bailing him out all the time! Hardly the traditional story to say the least.

    As for blond… Rapenzuel wasn’t blond. Never was! The story implies that she was really a brunette! Look at the King and Queen. Her hair was enchanted because her mother consumed a potion that contained a “drop of sunlight”. This was done to save her and the effect of this was the enchantment of Rapenzuel’s hair: blond being a color of the sun (gold/yellow). When Ryder cut her hair the spell was broken and when she cried her tear drops released the final essence of the sun. Any symbology here is that Rapenzuel was finally free to become the woman that she was.. and that the rightful prlncess was finally returned to her greaving family. That is why that scene with her family is so touching to me especially because I have daughters myself

    . YMMV…

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