If you haven’t seen Disney’s newest movie, Tangled, here is a brief synopsis, followed by my thoughts as an adoptive mother and a woman.
The story is about Rapunzel (but it is not called Rapunzel because many boys would immediately refuse to see a movie that is so obviously about a princess; instead, the name Tangled is more ambiguous and thus appeals to both genders).
Anyway, Rapunzel is the infant princess daughter of a kindly king and queen. Her hair possesses magical qualities that manifest when Rapunzel sings, so evil Mother Gothel kidnaps Rapunzel, locks her in a tower, and uses her hair as a fountain of youth.
Of course, Rapunzel has no idea she is the Lost Princess, and Mother Gothel brainwashes her into thinking that the outside world is cruel and that it is for Rapunzel’s own good that she remain locked up.
Rapunzel yearns to see beyond her tower walls, and her dream comes true when a charming young thief named Eugene enters her tower in his desperate escape from the law.
As they flee together, Rapunzel inspires a group of thugs and ruffians to reveal their softer, more sensitive sides, in a scene that is charming and cleverly written.
Long story short, Rapunzel and Eugene fall in love as they cavort around the countryside escaping palace guards, but Mother Gothel manipulates them into a trap, and she regains control of Rapunzel while convincing her that Eugene has ditched her.
A depressed Rapunzel sits in her tower, and Mother Gothel is happy with her botoxed good looks, until Eugene comes back for Rapunzel. Mother Gothel stabs him, and Rapunzel promises to go diligently with Mother Gothel and sing to her for the rest of Rapunzel’s life, as long as Mother Gothel allows her to heal Eugene.
In a last, selfless act, Eugene cuts off Rapunzel’s hair when she leans in to save him, rendering the magical qualities of her hair lost but freeing Rapunzel from Mother Gothel’s clutches. As Mother Gothel suddenly ages, she screams in horror, covers her face, trips and falls to her death from the tower window.
Rapunzel weeps onto Eugene’s lifeless body, and as her tears fall we discover that they, too, possess magical powers, and he is restored to life. Rapunzel has figured out that she is the Lost Princess and returns to her parents, Eugene in tow, to live happily ever after.
Okay, first my thoughts as an adoptive mom. Disney has a long history of replacing a kindly birth parent with an evil step parent (i.e. Cinderella, Snow White). Tangled is a variation on the theme, in that Rapunzel is kidnapped by an evil mother figure, but the idea is the same.
Adoptive, foster and step parents do not get many image boosts from Disney. As I watched Tanged with Katie, I wondered what she was thinking, if anything at all, about the characters and the roles.
Do adopted children watch a movie like Tangled and wonder if they are actually lost princesses, taken from their birth parents? It is perfectly normal for adoptive children, especially those in closed adoptions, to fantasize about their birth parents.
What little girl wouldn’t want to imagine that she is the daughter of a beautiful, wealthy king and queen who have never stopped searching for her?
Last night, Katie and Annie Rose were playing “Tangled,” and I seized the chance to explore Katie’s thoughts, especially when she declared, “I am the Lost Princess.”
Hmmm. Does that make me the evil Mother Gothel? This could be pretty interesting. I actually do look kind of like her- I have long brown curly hair and dark eyes. And Katie does kind of look like Rapunzel, with her long (but not 200 feet long) blonde hair and light eyes.
“Who am I?” I inquired.
“Oh, you are the Queen,” Katie said without missing a beat. “And Daddy is the King.”
“Well, who is Mother Gothel?” I persisted.
Katie thought for a minute. “M?” she asked. M is her birthmother. “M could be Mother Gothel,” she decided. But then she looked uncertain. “No, because M is nice. Well, she could be a nice Mother Gothel.”
I found it interesting that Katie basically identified each of us with characters based on our marital status. I am the Queen and Andrew is the King because we are married, and we fit into that picture.
And M, who is single, fit neatly into the slot of Mother Gothel. But then Katie’s sense of loyalty to M created discomfort with the decision to make M the evil mother, because we all know that M is a kind, loving woman.
At no point did Katie stop, re-evaluate, and say, “Hey, you know, M is actually my real mother, so she should be the Queen.” Katie, unlike much of the world, does not equate birth mother with real mother. It always astonishes me when people (even friends and family) ask me about Katie’s relationship “with her real mother.” I gently correct them with “her biological mother. I am her real mother.”
Watching Katie puzzle through who should play what role in Tangled affirmed for me that she has internalized the knowledge that we are her real parents. It was a good feeling.
I was also relieved when Katie described M as a “nice Mother Gothel” because it shows that she does not view M with hostility.
At some point in her life, Katie is bound to feel anger at M for placing her for adoption, just as she is bound to feel resentment towards us for “taking her” from M, but that day hasn’t come yet, certainly as evidenced by the way she recreated Tangled in her imaginary play.
Now, my thoughts as a woman.
Women, along with step, foster and adoptive parents, do not get many image boosts from Disney.
Oh, things have certainly improved from the days of Cinderella and Snow White, those helpless young women who basically spent their days cleaning and dreaming of when their prince would come. Rapunzel, for example, is the one who saves Eugene from being captured several times, and she saves his life on more than one occasion.
Furthermore, Rapunzel’s weapon of choice is a frying pan, and Eugene even exclaims, “I’ve got to get one of these!” The creative use of the pan is a great way to break down stereotypes about women being the food preparers and men being the fighters and defenders.
But we still see that Rapunzel was willing to exchange her entire life and freedom for Eugene’s life, thus showing that she valued his freedom more than her own. In a nice twist, of course, Eugene was willing to do the exact same for Rapunzel, which I liked.
As I mentioned earlier, I loved the scene in the Snuggly Duckling tavern, where Rapunzel convinced a bunch of scary-looking guys to release Eugene so he could help her pursue her dream. One by one, the tough guys revealed that they liked to play piano, sing, bake, act – a welcome departure from the macho culture forced on young boys.
Another touching sight was the scene in which we see the King crying silent tears of grief because he missed Rapunzel, and his wife is the one who comforts him, again a nice model of acceptable male sensitivity for boys in the audience.
But it was disturbing to see that Mother Gothel was basically another version of the evil Queen in Snow White- a female so terrified of aging and losing her beauty that she would commit crimes to avoid the natural effects of growing older.
In the world of Mother Gothel, youth and beauty are more valuable than love and jewels. Why can’t we have an evil character with a better motivation than her looks? Do we want our young girls to think that upon growing old, they should scream in horror and cover their faces, trip and die?
Overall, Rapunzel herself was a likable character (unlike that annoying pain, Tinkerbelle), and good job to Disney for chipping away at the stereotyes of the macho male and helpless female, but poor job for continuing to promote the image of the narcissistic, looks-and-youth-obsessed older woman.