The following piece is part of the Quest’s new series featuring final projects of Minerva students. This piece was written for Minerva’s Decoding Art and Literature course by Kayla Cohen, Minerva Class of 2019.  Kayla is a double-major student of Arts and Humanities and Natural Sciences. To view more final projects, click here. If you are a Minerva student and would like to have your final project published,  fill out this form

In 2010, Walt Disney Pictures released its much anticipated rendition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel. The animation studio has wanted to reinvent the tale since the 1940s, and have finally found their “twist” in the form of Tangled. The film came out to mixed reviews, dividing critics as to its feminist message, or lack thereof. In this essay, I employ Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity to analyse the performance of gender in Tangled and how it compares to the original 1812 Brothers Grimm tale Rapunzel. I analyse both works for their content and form, revealing significant differences between their respective portrayals of young and old female characters, as well as a changed overall message. Ultimately, I argue that despite the problematic depictions of older women as villain, the reimagining of Rapunzel as an active heroine signifies a step in a promising direction.

On November 24th, 2010, Tangled was released to audiences worldwide, advertising “a rollicking adventure that ends with love” (Barnes, 2010). The studio had hitherto held off retelling the story due to difficulties “looking for a way in”, struggling to apply action to the plot and pluck to its heroine. In an interview with The New York Times , Producer Mr. Lasseter explained that the biggest question was how “to make Rapunzel feel like a smart, clever, educated, healthy, fun human being — who has never left a tower in 18 years” (Barnes, 2010). Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard also conveyed their desire to make Rapunzel a “very modern heroine” and “to try to flip the characters in general, so that your expectations… will be completely reversed” (Empire Magazine, 2011). Some critics congratulated them on their aspiration and success: Todd McCarthy of the The Hollywood Reporter who admired the film for its “forthrightly adventurous heroine” (McCarthy, 2010). Similarly, Common Sense Media described the movie as “positive and inspiring” due to its “messages about girl power and seeing beyond appearances” (Chen, n.d.). However, other critics were less impressed, calling it “a traditional romance at heart” and felt disarmed by “how traditional it actually remains” in terms of heteronormativity (Robey, 2013). Disney’s sentiments and the reviewer’s comments suggest a contemporary awareness for issues around gender equality, especially with regards to fairy tales – a genre that is thought to harbor “deeply entrenched sexism” (Henneberg, 2010, p.126). At the very least, whether Tangled is adequately progressive or not, it can provide an update as to how gender plays out in modern times, for a modern audience.

In her foundational essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler suggests that gender be thought of as a performance “reified and naturalized” through “the stylized repetition of acts through time” (Butler, 1988, p.520). She describes gender identity as comprising nothing more than various repeated actions, such as bodily gestures and movements that “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Butler, 1988, p.519). For Butler, “gender is not a fact” but a social construction or “strategy of survival” that must be decoded and dismantled (Butler, 1988, p.522).

By claiming that repeated performances can lead to the naturalisation of that performance over time, Butler’s theory suggests an understanding of fairy tales as comprising various gender and gendered performances. Indeed, the genre’s 200 year-old history can be thought of as one long parade of gender performances, ranging from the princess in the tower, to the evil stepmother, to the saviour Prince Charming. Since its publication in the first edition of the Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales , the characters of Rapunzel and Mother Gothel have been employed under various guises to perform differing versions of femininity or “femaleness”. Tangled represents the latest “display” in this unending parade, and is thus significant to discuss. How might Butler and other feminist critics interpret the film’s narrative arc and characterisation for messages about gender?

The audience first form an impression of Rapunzel during her opening song “When Will my Life Begin?” in which she lists her daily activities. Despite living in captivity, Rapunzel shows herself to be remarkably productive, doing “puzzles and darts, and baking / Papier mache, a bit of ballet and chess / Pottery and ventriloquy, candle making” as well as reading, painting, and playing guitar (Slater & Menken, 2010). The filmmakers are clearly attempting to create an active heroine figure, distinct from the passive princess figure awaiting a princely rescue. In fact, when rapscallion Flynn Rider climbs his way into her chamber Rapunzel does not swoon or plead for him to free her, but rather knocks him out with a frying pan (Image 1). Her priority is to protect herself against Flynn’s supposed attempt to steal her hair, which is imbued with special powers. Interestingly, she seems oblivious to any sexual threat that this male intruder might pose. Rapunzel displays the extent of her naivety when she is simply confused by Flynn’s suggestive introduction, “I know not who you are, nor how I came to find you, but may I just say… Hi. How ya doin’? The name’s Flynn Rider” (“Script for Tangled”, n.d). He continues to try to charm Rapunzel by landing her “the smoulder” (Image 2) but she remains unmoved, unable to read his sexual cues. Thus, while Disney has created an active protagonist able to protect herself, Rapunzel’s sexual nativity is central to her characterisation and implies to movie-going audiences that sexual inexperience, either due to innocence or lack of autonomy, is desirable in young women.

Image 1. Rapunzel shows her self-protection skills. Time 0.28.42

Image 2. Flynn gives Rapunzel “The Smoulder”. Time: 0.29.49

In his damning critique for the The Times Higher Education, fairytale theorist Jack Zipes positions Tangled within the tradition of Disney films which “tend to demonise older women and infantilize young women” (Zipes, 2011). His claim suggests that Disney abides by a formulaic performance of gender such that older women are repeatedly depicted as evil and younger women are consistently portrayed as innocent. This is glaringly apparent in Greno and Howard’s characterisation of Mother Gothel. The directors claim to have created “the most manipulating villain of all time”, nonchalantly turning the role of Mother Gothel into the “bad guy” (Empire Magazine, 2011). However, in the original story, the identity of the villain is ambiguous, and Zipes argues that this demonisation of Gothel is misleading. Instead, Zipes interprets Gothel as well-meaning, participating in “the initiation ritual of young girls led by older wise women who keep them in isolation in order to protect them” (Zipes, 2011). In this way, Disney’s performance of the female gender in Tangled, especially as it pertains to the portrayal of older women, can be seen as straying from the original representation.

It should be mentioned that the 1812 version of the tale is only a few pages long and does not offer much by way of characterisation. The emphasis is on what happens , rather than by whom it is done and why . The Grimm brothers call Mother Gothel “a fairy”, and give no further explanation of her powers (Grimm, Grimm, Zipes & Dezco, 2014). When she finds an intruder stealing rapunzel from her garden, Gothel “angrily berated him” but given the circumstances, her show of anger might be excused and certainly does qualify as villain material (Grimm et al. 2014). However, when she tells the intruder to take “as much rapunzel [plant] as you like, but only if you give me the child that your wife is carrying” a sinister quality is revealed (Grimm et al. 2014). Again, her intentions for striking this extraordinary deal remain unknown. Her “fairy” powers could have manipulated the situation so that the intruder stole the rapunzel and then feel obliged to hand over his child. However, it is possible that Gothel meant well, seeking to save an unborn child from a thieving father who she deemed unfit for the task of parenting.

Thus, so far, Mother Gothel cannot be seen as villain . Unlike in Tangled, where Rapunzel is held in captivity from zero to eighteen years-old, Gothel only hides Rapunzel at the age of twelve. The Grimm brothers write that “Rapunzel grew to be the most beautiful child under the sun. But when she turned twelve, the fairy locked her in a very high tower” (Grimm et al. 2014). This excerpt is crucial because it implies Rapunzel’s beauty is the cause of Mother Gothel’s decision to hide her away. The fact that the tower “had neither doors nor stairs” further indicates Mother Gothel’s maternal desire to save Rapunzel from harm, making it impossible for anyone to reach her. The authenticity of her maternal care, however, is called into question when she furiously banishes a pregnant Rapunzel for having “betrayed” her with a male intruder (Grimm et al. 2014). Rapunzel is outcast to “a desolate land, where she had to live in great misery… [with] twins”, evoking the reader’s sympathies and stoking their dislike for Gothel. However, underage pregnancy is a difficult situation for a parent-figure to process, and Mother Gothel might be excused her extreme response. Overall, her minimal characterisation is such that the reader can either interpret her as highly moral or highly mean. Either she is a good fairy who wants to save a child from a thieving father and lustful men, and banishes Rapunzel because she finds her betrayal immoral; or she is an ill-spirited fairy who manipulates a loving father into giving away his child who she then locks up and eventually banishes. Accordingly, while Tangled might have one hour and forty minutes to develop Mother Gothel’s character, the Grimm brothers succeed at creating a more complicated portrayal that escapes the binary of good and evil.

The representation of older women in Tangled is strikingly negative. Mother Gothel is the only female character above the age of forty and she is depicted as “a vicious, selfish woman bent on keeping her source of youth no matter what the cost to other human beings” (Nelson, 2015). In the film, Rapunzel’s hair has special powers that Gothel hoards in order to stay young. Thus, Rapunzel is framed as the victim to an older woman’s vanity and self-interest. When Flynn cuts Rapunzel’s hair, causing it to lose its powers, Gothel ages within seconds (Image 3) and running toward the shattered mirror recoils at the monstrosity that she has become (Image 4).

Image 3. Mother Gothel “hyper-ages.” Time 1.24.47

Image 4. Mother Gothel’s Horrifying Image. Time 1.24.54

Gothel’s dependence on Rapunzel’s hair may be read as performance of old-young female relations whereby older women attempt to live vicariously through their younger counterparts. It is possible, even, to suppose some jealousy between Gothel and the youthful Rapunzel. Indeed, Gothel does not simply want the service of Rapunzel’s hair, but also to prevent her prisoner from falling in love and perchance living happily ever after. This is most clearly exemplified in the penultimate scene when Gothel fatally stabs Rapunzel’s burgeoning crush, Flynn Rider, (Image 5) before beckoning Rapunzel into a dark dungeon inside the tower (Image 6). Thus, it may be argued that the Grimm brothers’ ambiguous characterisation of Gothel is in fact preferable to Disney’s univocal presentation of older women as villain.

Image 5. Mother Gothel fatally stabs Rapunzel’s love interest. Time: 1.22.27

Image 6. Mother Gothel tries to hide Rapunzel where no one can save her. Time: 1.22.50

Given how much Disney has changed the story of Rapunzel, does it still make sense to consider Tangled a fairy tale at all? Perhaps critics such as Zipes would argue not. He thinks that the film “trampled over the Grimms’ and other versions of the Rapunzel tale,” lamenting, “gone are any hints that Rapunzel might reflect a deeper meaning and history” (Zipes, 2011). His remarks stem from a methodology of interpretation called Hermeneutics, which strives “to find the spirit of the whole through the individual, and through the whole to grasp the individual” (Mantzavinos, 2016). In other words, Zipes believes that Disney should have done more to understand the whole before contributing its part. Hermeneutic scholars view every text as a “partial-expression” of its genre, and so too does Zipes position Tangled within its fairy tale context. Perhaps the reason why he is so staunch in his critique is because new adaptations of Grimm classics inevitably influence popular conceptions about the genre at large, such that every “new text evokes for the reader… the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, changed or just reproduced.” (Jauss & Benzinger, 1970). Thus, there is a degree of interdependence between works of the same genre, whereby they co-define “the horizon of expectations” that then determines how a given text or film is understood by audiences.

Even if Disney is squandering the reputation of fairy tales and warping the genre’s gender representations beyond all recognition, their blockbuster hits should still be included in the annals of fairy tale history. An examination of the history of Brother Grimm tales reveals that, at core, the genre is dynamic and the evolution of its stories inevitable. In his comprehensive introduction to the The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Zipes explains that after the initial 1812 edition, “the Grimms went on to publish six more editions and made immense changes in them so that the final 1857 edition has relatively little in common with the first edition” (Grimm et al. 2014). He describes numerous deletions and additions that came to pass over the years, and how the tales shifted from an historiographic project documenting the oral literary traditions of the German people into a creative enterprise (Grimm et al. 2014).

The Grimm brothers did not write the tales themselves, but rather collected them from their friends and colleagues, as well as from “informants from diverse social classes” (Grimm et al. 2014). They were philologists, trying to save a rich oral tradition from disappearing. Zipes explains that, at the turn of the 19th century, “the Germanic culture had become academically divided… into different disciplines such as religion, law, literature, and so on, and its cohesion could be restored only through historical investigation” (Grimm et al. 2014). Thus, it seems that the brothers took it upon themselves to “create a stronger… sense of… community among the German people” through the study of old German “epics, sagas, and tales that contained what they thought were essential truths about the German cultural heritage” (Grimm et al. 2014). The first edition featured minimal creative input from the brothers, who “endeavoured to keep their hands off the tales… and reproduce them more or less as they heard them or received them”. Thus, their Children’s and Household Tales can be interpreted as an historiographical text, chronicling the story of Germanic tales through the stories themselves and based on a critical examination of a range of sources.

Just like Disney does today, brother Wilhelm Grimm “favored more drastic poetical editing of the collected tales”, arguing that it is in the very nature of these tales to “continue to move around in endless variations” (Grimm et al. 2014). Wilhelm changed the tales to better suit the taste of German middle-class readers, abstaining from cruelty and adding Christian symbolism. Thus, the tradition of tampering with fairy tale content, attempting to strip them down to their “essential message”, began with the Grimm brothers themselves and Disney may be forgiven for simply following in the footsteps of the genre’s forefathers.

For feminist critics concerned at the sexism propagated by fairy tales, the plasticity of the genre might be cause for optimism. Indeed, if in its 200-year long history, fairy tales have drastically changed in message and character representation, then there is no reason why it can’t transform again – this time toward gender equality. Indeed, while Tangled might not have been the revolution we’ve been waiting for, it does show some promise. For example, at the end, when Rapunzel and Flynn kiss for the first time, Rapunzel holds Flynn’s weight as she scoops him in her arms in what is traditionally a male gesture (Image 7). This demonstrates a deviation away from the usual gender performances of Disney films. Alas, this deviation is immediately “corrected for” when Flynn makes a joke about Rapunzel asking him to get married instead of the more conventional boy asks girl proposal, saying: “I am pleased to tell you that after years and years of asking, and asking, and asking, I finally said yes… All right, I asked her” (“Script for Tangled”, n.d). Here, the film conveys mixed messages about female agency, overlaying an image of female empowerment with a voice over narration that makes a joke out of it.

Image 7. Rapunzel holds Flynn as they kiss in the famous “dip” position. Time: 1.30.54

Perhaps then, it would be wise not to ask too much of Disney and to look elsewhere for the gender representation “makeover” that many think the genre needs. As Butler herself explains, “those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” and in the movie-making industry this means failing to present a conventional heroine and then making a loss at the box office. The asymmetry between the cost of making a film and the cost of publishing a fairy tale is such that we might expect writers to pioneer gender equality norms and hope that Hollywood follow suit. Even if books have smaller audiences than blockbusters, both art forms work within the same genre and writers can produce at a more prolific pace to change sexist norms within fairy tales.

In conclusion, my comparing Tangled with the original Rapunzel has provided an insight into how performances of femaleness has evolved over the 200 years since the fairy tale genre was established, and although Tangled might not be making large strides toward gender equality, I think it constitutes a step. Even if the tales aren’t going so “happily” at the moment, at least they are “ever after”.