Last year’s animated Disney release Tangled, which reimagines the life and adventures of fairy-tale maiden Rapunzel, is a prime example of why the morals of contemporary cinema are sometimes so difficult to pin down.
Tangled follows the same basic premise as the original Grimm’s tale: A long-haired blonde grows up sequestered in a tower, raised by a witchy woman who isn’t her mother. A princely type dude who is ultimately a love interest comes upon the tower, the witchy woman injures the dude and ultimately Sister Golden Hair heals him and they live happily ever after, probably as royalty. But this film departs from the original in a few ways that are important to a feminist analysis. First, Rapunzel’s hair and powers are crucial to why she’s imprisoned in the tower in the first place. Rapunzel’s golden hair magically keeps her adoptive mother, the vain Gothel, young. And if Rapunzel’s hair is ever cut, it turns brown (yikes, there’s something very Aryan-paranoid about that) and loses its magic.
Recirculating the cinema trope of the older, single woman as hateful and menacing is nothing new, but I hate to see it revisited, especially since it recirculates two gross ideas: that when women try to look young—as we’re constantly told we need to—they become monstrous and that women who aren’t married are violently threatening to the nuclear family. Watch Sunset Boulevard, among many other films, or read the “Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery and Special Effects” chapter of Carnal Thoughts for analysis on how we reproach women who go too far to look younger. And see Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and many, many other films for examples of single women viciously disturbing heterosexual life with their spinster-ness.
The other big departure Tangled makes from the original fairy tale is the characterization of Rapunzel herself as a heroine instead of a damsel in distress. Certainly, if you read the Grimm’s version, Rapunzel does almost nothing but grow strong hair, sing sweetly and cry magical tears. It’s true that Disney’s version of Rapunzel is more active in the shallow, postfeminist sense of “strong women characters” that are so often touted in postfeminist movies.
When this film was recommended to me, it’s this active nature and dynamism of the heroine that was cited—especially the fact that, at the end, Rapunzel makes the move to kiss her prince instead of the other way around. I’ll admit that the portrayal is nuanced, from a feminist perspective, and that it’s a pretty delightful movie (who can resist a smart-ass chameleon?), but part of the reason this review has taken me a month to start writing is that the final feminist verdict is murky at best because this text is the quintessence of a postmodern, postfeminist take on history, class and gender.
For those who live outside their own assholes (i.e. outside academia), let me briefly explain what I mean when I talk about postmodernism and postfeminism. Postmodernism as I understand it—and trust me, it’s a very shallow understanding—basically describes any cultural product that was made after World War II and thinks of itself as innovative and groundbreaking compared to the social, political and artistic norms of the past. Theorists like Frederic Jameson basically called bullshit on this notion and said that postmodern texts, while they think of themselves as radical and politically advanced, are really just the same ideas repackaged in shinier wrapping. Jameson described postmodern art as schizophrenic, shallow and always loyal to the capitalist status quo.
Postfeminism is an easier concept to wrestle with—it basically refers to any argument or text that furthers the idea that feminism as a theory, and especially as a political movement, is obsolete, passé, or otherwise unnecessary. When I think of postfeminism, I think of girl power, women-who-kick-ass and ersatz consumerist empowerment through things like buying clothes. These ideas tell us that we’ve made it, that sex equality has been achieved, so what are all of you killjoys still doing complaining about sexual assault, the gender pay gap and sexist representation in media when the war is over? Didn’t you get the memo? Women can do anything they want now, including buy lots of shoes.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection or insight to realize that sexism is alive and well, so pseudo-empowerment is something that we should be concerned about as movie fans and media consumers. We should resist the idea that a text is empowering when it’s actually actively propping up sexism or whatever “ism” you’re concerned with critiquing.
So, what is it about Tangled that so exemplifies postmodernism and postfeminism? Well, the first thing is that Rapunzel as an active, feminist character is all over the place. She’s magically powerful, but only in very narrow, acceptably feminine ways—namely, healing and singing. She beats up her love interest Flynn Rider when he intrudes into her tower, but her weapons of choice are her hair, a symbol of her beauty turned powerful, and the wifely frying pan, a piece of kitchen equipment that is usually seen in comedies that turn domestic violence around into something large women inflict on slight men. She saves herself and her initially unwilling travel partner, Flynn, from life-threatening situations multiple times, but it's usually with her magical powers and feminine charm. Rapunzel’s goal of seeing an annual show of floating lanterns is what sets the journey in motion, so she’s actively making the story happen (as opposed to what Laura Mulvey describes as women characters being bystanders while the male protagonist does things to and around her), but it’s not really a radical expedition—she intends on going right back to her tower to paint and read (that sounds downright Victorian) once she has seen the lights.
Where Tangled does pave a clearer path for critique is where it addresses class relations. The film paints a portrait of a society ruled over by a benevolent king and queen whose daughter, who turns out to be Rapunzel, was kidnapped when she was a child. The plebeians love their rulers so much that they collectively mourn the heir to the throne’s disappearance every year on her birthday with a brilliant floating lantern display (similar to the commoners' Aurora song in Sleeping Beauty). Now isn’t that quaint. They joyfully celebrate their class status and dance around the kingdom outside their tidy, shabby-chic homes to vaguely Celtic music. They are clearly ecstatic to work in whatever trade they’re in, propping up their friendly monarchs’ palatial lifestyle. This heavenly class dynamic flies in the face of the brief brush with reality that the hero Flynn brings us when he talks about his childhood in an orphanage, which led to his thievery in adulthood.
Confused about what Tangled ultimately means? Me too! That’s the tricky part about postmodern texts. As Jameson says, they’re nearly impossible to pin down theoretically. So while I try hard to make definitive assessments as to what films are doing well and where they’re failing, this children’s film has been one of the most difficult ones for me to wrap my feminist head around. Of course, for many feminist media critics, the most important thing is to simply ask these questions and to know what you’re watching. That’s the fun—but also the curse—of being an active media consumer.
Bechdel Test: Pass
Overall Grade: B-
Feminist Grade: C