In my first post on the themes of Tangled, I discussed its representations of gender. Particularly, I touched on how it generally is very positive toward women without being negative toward men. In this post I will be focussing on the final conflict of the movie and what it says about redemption.
Throughout the movie, there had been a fair bit of violence. The amount of violence shown was of course moderated to Disney standards, but it is often implied. At best this violence tends to postpone the problems, and at worst it makes it worse as those who were hurt come back to seek revenge. In the conclusion, though, we start to see some important changes in approach.
Here’s the scene: Gothel has taken Rapunzel back to the castle, but Rapunzel has just realized that she is really the princess and that Gothel has been using her for her entire life. At the same time, Flynn is rescued from prison and rushes to the tower to rescue Rapunzel. He yells the famous line from the original story: “Rapunzel Rapunzel, let down your hair.” Gothel by force tells Rapunzel to do so and she does. Rapunzel raises Flynn to the top of the tower only for Gothel to stab him as soon as he gets there. Gothel, in line with her abusive character, blames Rapunzel: “look what you made me do.”
As Flynn lies on the ground, Rapunzel proposes a deal: she will go willingly with Gothel if only she allows her to heal Flynn first. Rapunzel is willing to continue to live in servitude for the sake of someone else’s life. But then it gets even more interesting after Gothel agrees because Flynn takes the sacrifice motif even further. Instead of letting Rapunzel heal him, he cuts her hair with a piece of broken mirror. Since Gothel had been sustained by Rapunzel’s magic, which no longer exists without her hair, Gothel immediately ages. Driven mad by realizing that she is no longer young and attractive, she stumbles around until she falls out the window to her death (with some help from the chameleon). Then in a surprise twist, Rapunzel’s magic has now transferred to her tears and by crying onto him, he comes back to life.
Depending on your church tradition, this might not sound that familiar, but from other church traditions you may recognize this as similar in ways to Christus Victor atonement theology. If you aren’t familiar with it, I’ll give a quick simplified version of my understanding (there are lots of variations within the general class of Christus Victor theories). Of course, if you’re a proponent of penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, then the rest of this analysis won’t make any sense at all. But in CV, the general principle is that Satan holds power over this world but somehow on the cross Jesus defeated that power. I would argue (not all CV proponents would agree) that the entire system of religion including sacrifices, rituals, strict doctrinal requirements, etc. is built on a lie of Satan that there is a wall between us and God. After all, the word Satan literally means Accuser – at the core of his character is primarily the habit of accusing us within the legal framework . We can call this law retributive justice, which sounds quite appealing: the bad get punished and the good get rewarded. Some Christians will argue that this system is actually God’s requirement – that’s usually part of penal substitution theory – but I would argue that it is Satan’s lie instead. God becomes human in Jesus and takes the punishment that Satan demands and we have mistakenly come to believe is necessary. This defeats Satan (although he is still active) because he is unable to comprehend true sacrificial love. As consummation of the victory, Jesus rises from the dead, showing that death – the punishment Satan demands – no longer holds sway. Jesus absorbs our and Satan’s desire for violent punishment and overpowers it with loving sacrifice.
So let’s get back to Tangled and draw the parallels. Gothel is in absolute abusive control of Rapunzel. For the most part, Rapunzel has bought into what Gothel says is true, from the greatly-exaggerated dangers of the outside world to the claim that she loves her and isn’t just using her for her hair. Like Satan has over the world, Gothel held control over Rapunzel by fundamentally shifting her worldview. As a quick side note, I debated including a third post about how Tangled demonstrates the problems with isolationism which is prevalent in many churches in the name of safety from the evil world. David Kinnaman includes this overprotectiveness among his primary reasons why young people are leaving the church in his book You Lost Me.
Now I may be reading too much into Rapunzel’s actions at the end, but here’s how I interpreted them. When Gothel says to Rapunzel “look what you made me do,” I think Rapunzel actually believed her that she was to blame. And I suppose in a twisted way she was to blame – it’s not like Flynn would have been there risking his life if it weren’t for her. Like Satan may sometimes tell a bit of the truth about something we have done wrong but twist it in order to shame us in the legal paradigm, Gothel still seems to hold Rapunzel somewhat under her control through blame and shame. Rapunzel then offers her the compromise. While a brave act of sacrifice which I do not wish to undermine in any way, Rapunzel’s offer is still ultimately operating within Gothel’s abusive system. Gothel is still going to get what she wants. Rapunzel will continue to think she is worthless and just her slave. Some think that these are the types of actions that Anabaptists and other pacifists encourage. To that I remind that pacifist means someone who pacifies, not someone who is passive. Going back to my last review, this passive offer seems to be the one point in the movie where Rapunzel settles for being the submissive woman she is told she is supposed to be.
What is great is that when she finally stumbles and stops being an active strong woman, because she has been so strong so far and been able to redeem others along the way, she now gets the support she needs. Flynn steps in and destroys the system of shame and control that Gothel has built up for Rapunzel. And very importantly, after a movie where violence was an acceptable means of dealing with problems, he does this by giving up his life. Yes, he does also take away Rapunzel’s magic hair in the process, so the Christ analogy is not perfect since he is not the only one sacrificing, but it is primarily about giving up his life.
This sacrifice seems to completely surprise Gothel. Like Satan, she seems to have been unable to comprehend the idea of sacrifice within the worldview she operates on. Not to mention the fact she has lost her control of Rapunzel and the youth that comes with it (which I’m sure was also upsetting). I do wish that Gothel had just stumbled out the window completely on her own volition instead of having the chameleon help. By the chameleon helping it still suggests that violence can play a part in stopping violence. If she had simply stumbled out on her own, it would suggest – more accurately in my opinion – how evil simply implodes and loses its power from being unable to offer any response to non-violent sacrificial solutions.
The confirmation of this victory comes when Flynn, like Jesus, is brought back to life. If he had stayed dead, it would be easy to believe that Gothel’s system of violence to solve violence and of death being necessary as a consequence of any mistake were still true. In a very real sense, Flynn deserved to die. He rushed into the tower foolishly and he had a long list of sins (primarily greed). But death does not have the last word because Rapunzel’s power is bigger than the demand for punishment. That is a beautiful message because I think it captures the exact same truth as Jesus’ resurrection: grace is bigger than retributive justice. If you’re going to remember one message of Tangled, it should be this reality.
The story isn’t completely over at the resurrection, however, and this is a minor point that I liked about the movie. They didn’t get married right away. It was not an immediate jump to the Happily Ever After. There was still work to be done, including the joyous but also painful work of reuniting Rapunzel with her parents. In the same way, just because Satan has been defeated in theory does not mean that he is not still active. Consequently, we similarly need to actively complete the joyous but sometimes painful work of reuniting with our heavenly parent.
Tangled ultimately leaves us asking ourselves the question: which system we are going to perpetuate? Are we more interested in retributive justice or in grace embodied through creative non-violent sacrifice?