Tangled Gender Issues

Note: I am not providing a content summary but I will provide some spoilers inasmuch as they pertain to the themes being discussed. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may consider it worth it to watch it or to read the IMDB summary first.

Some readers will not understand why I include a critique of the role of women as part of a theological analysis. I consider this an important theological issue, however, because I believe that “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all in Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NIV 1984). Thus, gender equality is not simply a contemporary social issue – it is also a very important gospel issue.

So how does Tangled represent gender roles? My first instinct, and still my conclusion, is that Tangled is a very positive movie from the perspective of its treatment of women. In doing some research, though, I quickly learned that this is more debatable than I had thought and so I express some of those critiques here as well.

The Portrayal of Men

Although the story does loosely follow the traditional Rapunzel story, Disney does make some changes which balance out the value of the genders. In the original story, the valiant prince, driven by love, repeatedly returns to the tower to try to rescue the princess. She’s pretty passive, just hanging out and letting her hair grow, and he does all the work. In some versions she’s even a little bit incompetent, accidently letting Mother Gothel know she was planning to escape with the prince.

In Tangled, it is again the arrival of the man who prompts the escape but there is so much more to it. The rescuing is not exactly noble. After she takes charge by knocking him out, tying him up, lying to her mother, and striking a deal to make him help her, he still tries to find ways to get the tiara without having to take her with him. He’s not even concerned about such minor details as her name and what animal is on her shoulder the whole time. Eventually he comes around and begins to actually care about her, but for a large portion of the movie he is simply greedy.

Over the course of the movie, though, it does seem to argue that deep down, men really are good. It isn’t a male vs. female thing, which is what some people mistakenly think of when they think of feminism. Flynn is the central case, ultimately giving up his life to save Rapunzel despite not having a whole lot of good character going for him for most of the movie. It is true of others as well, though, such as the thugs in the bar who also go from wanting to kill Flynn at first glance to singing about their dreams which include such “feminine” things as being a concert pianist or an interior designer. Ultimately they even orchestrate a rescue mission by the end of the movie. The exceptions to the rule of redemption are the two thieves who initially helped Flynn steal the tiara and continue to show no good attributes, still being driven by greed and revenge.

Specifically on the point of the thugs in the bar, I encountered a blog that disagreed, pointing out that these changes only happen after young, skinny, attractive, blonde Rapunzel pleads with them. As she puts it, “so, yes, you can trust men – as long as you meet their physical and behavioral requirements.” So were they trying to take advantage of her, or only showed a feminine side because they wanted to impress her? I didn’t see any hints to that conclusion. I didn’t even consider the facts that it was physical beauty that reformed all these men, and Flynn doesn’t even show any romantic or sexual interest in Rapunzel for quite a while into the movie. I just assumed it was her zest for life and celebration of her new freedom which is contagious – something that could be discussed as a powerful theme in itself. I include the other perspective because I do think it is valid, but it isn’t what I saw.

And on a very minor point, at one part of the movie the king is shown crying while his wife comforts him. Even the king is allowed to show his soft side and the queen allowed to be the one more in control of emotions.

The Portrayal of Women

Rapunzel begins the story as a woman trapped in her house. She paints. She cleans. She reads. She is firmly under the authority of someone else (in this case, another woman). But she always dreams of more, much like many women growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s dreamed of more. In her opening song, she references all of these traditionally-female duties and then asks “when will my life begin?” stating pretty strongly that being confined to housework against her will does not qualify as life. The main plot of the movie was her escaping the home, not her finding a man as in so many other Disney movies (although that still did happen by accident along the way). When Flynn shows up, she is anything but passive. She seizes the opportunity, knocks out Flynn with a frying pan (yes, that is a little stereotypical), and strikes a deal with him to get what she wants. Her take-charge attitude remains for the entire movie, working the situations to her advantage often through some very quick thinking in stressful situations.

Once out of the tower, she is torn between breaking free and doing what she has always been told she is supposed to do. I appreciated this because I know it cannot be easy for women to break free of oppressive authority. Eventually she overcomes it, but it does speak to the very real challenges that many women face. Her strength doesn’t stop there, though, as she is routinely the one to get them out of tough situations while Flynn is generally still clueless and selfish. Sure, some of these methods are stereotypically feminine, like appealing to the better nature of the thugs to get them singing about their dreams. It worked, and as stated above, it even reformed many others by showing them there was nothing wrong with taking a gentle positive approach instead of violence.

Breaking Free of Abuse

The theme of abuse is also very strong, although this is one of those controversial ones on whether it is truly a feminist statement. The heart of the movie’s story is that Rapunzel must break free of the abuse of Mother Gothel. One of the most disturbing moments in the movie for me comes when Gothel insults and controls her then follows it up with “I’m just teasing. You’re adorable. I love you so much” with a really creepy smile. Gothel repeatedly says the kinds of things to Rapunzel that women are so often told they are in our world: too naïve, too immature, not good enough, not strong enough, can’t handle the real world, no one will like you for who you really are, etc. That’s pretty much textbook abuse, veiling manipulative control in the guise of love. That sounds pretty feminist, then, that the movie emphasizes escaping this abuse.

But, so the counter-point says, the abuser is an older woman, and the reason for the abuse is that she is jealous of the young Rapunzel’s beauty. At one level it is reinforcing, then, that women are competing with each other particularly in the domain of physical attractiveness. I wonder if this is really the case, mainly since the one who is jealous is the one who is villainized and ultimately dies in attempting to secure this youth and beauty. Any other women in the story (and there aren’t that many) seem to be quite happy that Rapunzel is better than them. Finally, Rapunzel is not defending herself from Gothel because Gothel wants her beauty – she is defending herself because Gothel is abusive. So to me, the only line drawn about female competition was that it is a bad idea.

Perhaps a better argument is that it reinforces the idea which goes back at least as far as Freud that women must break free of their mothers’ control over them, which may unnecessarily add tension between women that way. But for me this is still entirely contextual – just because she had to break free since her mother was abusive does not mean that every daughter is controlled by her mother. I could keep exploring this further along the theme of mothers living vicariously through their daughters to recapture their youth, but I think whether it is there or not is really a matter of how you look at it.

Minor Points

This is an odd one but I felt like it had to be included. An aspect that has always confused me is that Rapunzel’s hair turns brown once it is cut and no longer magic. You could easily argue that it seems to be reinforcing that blonde hair is inherently better which just adds to the whole idea of encouraging competition amongst women that I mentioned above. But then again, Flynn does wake up and say that he always had a thing for brunettes, so that is a nice little touch to rebuke this argument. One blog I read even suggested that it was supposed to mean the loss of her virginity or at least innocence but I really have no idea how that author reached that conclusion.

Another minor point is that she dips him for the final kiss. Recently in another (much-less-kid-friendly) movie, Friends With Benefits, at one point the main male character complains that he doesn’t like the main female character in control of sexual action because it feels emasculating. I’m not sure I agree, but it is common that the man is understood to initiate anything sexual, including the final kiss in many Disney movies. So I applauded that in this movie she was the one willing to take control.

A minor negative came right after that for the very end of the movie. Flynn, narrating, says that yes, they did get married after he eventually said yes. From a feminist perspective it would have been great to stop here – it seemed appropriate that Rapunzel continued to be the main person taking charge. But then he says that he was just kidding and that he did ask her. I did like this from another perspective; it seemed to show that he was redeemed and willing to initiate a commitment after being so self-centred early on. But it did seem backward from the gender representations the movie had been giving up until then.

Conclusion: A Pretty Good Representation of Gender

So in conclusion, there are some things here which I believe are helpful to a healthy understanding of gender in the Kingdom of God. Men are not the only ones able to be heroes and they don’t need to go to extremes of men vs. women to showcase that as the men are still able to be redeemed (mostly through the leadership of Rapunzel). Women are shown that being in an abusive situation of being stuck in the house doing the womanly duty is wrong and should be broken free of. Women are also shown that they have the power to break free – maybe with some help but they can initiate and lead it. There may be some minor points that are counter-productive depending on your point of view, but I do think in the big picture the way that Rapunzel is treated is a pretty healthy understanding of women. Agree or disagree? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

In Part 2 I examine how Tangled’s conclusion is analogous to a Christus Victor understanding of atonement.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.