Rapunzel: More Feminist than she looks

 In case you haven’t heard the news, Disney announced that Tangled, its computer-animated retelling of the Rapunzel story, is going to be its last Princess movie, at least for a while. This decision was financially motivated, but artistically it’s probably a good direction for the company to go anyway – it does seem as though the formula was becoming a bit of a crutch.

As the grand finale of Disney fairy tales, Tangled doesn’t disappoint – it does a remarkable job of incorporating all the elements that made the classic princess films charming and fun while also feeling like the modern, action-packed CGI films of the Pixar era. My favorite aspect of the film, though, and the one that makes me a little sad that Disney won’t be continuing further down this road, is the heroine, Rapunzel. The road towards princess self-actualization that began in Mulan and stumbled around blindly for a while in Enchanted has finally culminated in a character with a surprising amount of what feminist critics like to call Agency.
            Time for some background. When feminist critics talk about agency, we’re talking about the actions and desires of the female characters actually driving the narrative. This is not the same thing as a female character having some kind of physical or social power. For example, look at Queen Amidala from the Star Wars prequels. She wields immense political power, as ruler of an entire planet, and clearly she can handle a blaster pistol with the best of them. But she really only makes one decision that actually influences the plot of the movies. Most of the time she is a purely reactive force. She fights with the men, but it is to help further their goals.
Mulan is still pretty much the most badass Disney Princess.

            In recent years, Disney princesses have made a lot of progress in terms of accomplishments and abilities, but agency is something they’ve still basically failed to achieve. They remain essentially passive figures in stories where male characters drive the action. Their ultimate goal is usually either to marry a prince, thereby putting themselves under the power of a male character (Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Giselle) or to in some way help their fathers (Belle and Mulan) male characters who already have power over them.

Mulan is the first Disney movie to make progress in this area. Not an enormous amount of progress – Mulan is still basically a reactive character. She dresses like a boy and goes to war in order to protect her old father. Being a soldier is not her dream, or a way of pursuing any ultimate goal of hers, but rather something brave and selfless that she does for her family. But we don’t find out what Mulan actually wants for Mulan, and she probably never achieves it because she ends the film basically the same place she started it – as an atypical woman in a society where the roles allowed to women are severely limited.
Disney’s next active attempt at bringing the feminism was the rather misguided live-action comedy Enchanted. Disney’s attempt to deconstruct itself was amusing, but ultimately so full of unfortunate implications that my Feminism in Theatre class was able to spend an entire week dissecting them all. The bottom line, though, is that main character Giselle ended up having even less control over her own destiny than most Disney princesses. She has absolutely no goal save getting married, and the only real choice she is able to make is between two men.
The Princess and the Frog comes a lot closer to succeeding on the agency front. At the beginning of the film, Tiana has no desire to get married or be a princess, and instead is focusing on her dream of someday opening her own restaurant. And I mean focusing – she’s working two jobs and saving her own money towards that goal. At the end of the film she eventually accomplishes it, through hard work mostly shown in a montage at the end of the movie. This is all very well and good (and definitely makes her a stronger character than Rapunzel) but the problem is that while the character has a strong goal and ultimately accomplishes it, the movie is not about her accomplishing that goal. It’s about her marrying the prince.
Tiana’s adventure, much like Giselle’s, is basically forced on her. While her goal as a character is to start a restaurant, her goal within the story is to find a way to get turned back into a human. That’s what the narrative focuses on, and it’s a very reactive goal, which Tiana finally accomplishes – by accident. After she stops trying and decides to just be happy as a frog because, hey, at least she’s married to a good guy.
Like Tiana, Rapunzel has a unique goal. On the surface, her goal is kind of stupid – she wants to see the lights that appear over the castle every year on her birthday. After that she’s happy to return to her life of dull, isolated captivity. This is not terribly impressive, from a feminist perspective. But the way in which she goes about accomplishing her stupid goal is more proactive than any other Disney Princess to date.
After asking her “mother” (actually the evil witch) for permission to leave the tower on her birthday for the ten millionth time, Rapunzel decides to do what no Disney princess before her has ever done and Actually Do Something About It. She asks “mother” for a birthday present that she knows will take her several days to retrieve in order to get her out of the tower for the maximum possible amount of time, allowing her an opportunity to plan her escape.
Before she can make much progress, though, Flynn Rider, an Aladdin-like thief on the run from the palace guards for stealing the royal crown, decides to hide in her tower. Rapunzel responds to this outside threat by knocking him unconscious with a frying pan and tying him up with her own hair. When he awakens, she informs him that she has hidden the crown where he will never find it without her help, and he will only get it back if he acts as her guide, taking her to the castle to see the lights.

Not as kinky as it looks.
As the film progresses, we come to see Rapunzel’s obsession with the lights as symbolizing a deeper need, not the typical wishy-washy “yearning for adventure” we get from most princesses, but a desire to discover her own identity – to find out who she is. She wants to see the lights because they appear on her birthday, and part of her knows they are meant for her. They are, of course – the lighting of the lanterns is done every year to commemorate the birthday of the princess who was stolen so many years ago.
So let’s look at Rapunzel for a moment. She has a clearly defined goal other than marrying a prince. She is willing to take steps to accomplish that goal on her own with no help. And when she does seek help from a male character, she first establishes power over him. Even more exciting, Flynn is the passive character in the story. He gets caught up in her quest, and every action he takes furthers her goals. He does go to rescue her at the end of the film, but ends up being captured himself, and ultimately becoming more of a liability than a help.
There’s a lot more I could say about this movie. Rapunzel’s magical hair as a symbol of feminine power is something that needs to be explored in more depth and I might well return to it. And there’s a case to be made that way in which she manipulates the male characters into helping her opens a whole new can of feminist criticism worms. But in spite of its problems, I think Tangled presents a female character capable of driving the plot without sacrificing their precious princess formula. And that’s an impressive accomplishment.

About The Author

Nathan Comstock holds a Bachelor's degree in Theatre from the College of Wooster, where he won several prizes for writing things. He hopes one day to write things for a living, though "what sort of things?" is an important question he is still trying to answer. When not writing or watching TV, he enjoys performing at spoken-word poetry venues around the city and sometimes playing music with fellow ACP writers Jonah Comstock and Chalkey Horenstein.
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09600963843389784337 Kat

    Love this post; I'd like to read more. :)