Stage Left: "Mother Knows Best": on Abusive Parenting in TANGLED
Disney's Tangled is apparently their last fairytale movie for the foreseeable future. And that's a shame, because apart from the deep well of nostalgia those movies hold for me, apart from what they (starting with The Little Mermaid) did for the flagging musical-movie genre, apart from everything else... It's a good film. And there are some things to unpack in it.
Today I want to look specifically at the relationship of Rapunzel to the film's villain, Mother Goethel. Because this is one of the clearest examples of an abusive relationship I have ever seen in a children's film, and—this is key—one that is explicitly coded as such. TRIGGER WARNING ON THE REST OF THIS POST FOR PARENTAL ABUSE
What is the primary narrative of Tangled? I would argue that it isn't the conventional love story, but the recounting of Rapunzel's: a) recognition of her situation as abusive, and b) successfully escaping that environment. For this reason, as someone who also cut off contact with an abusive mother as a young adult, this movie holds a lot of power for me. And is rather difficult to watch. So far I've identified Goethel as abusive, but what makes her so? In a nutshell, she is manipulative, dishonest, and dedicated to undermining her daughter's independence. This is shown consistently through all her appearances in the film, but comes out clearly very early indeed, with the song "Mother Knows Best".
[video: A clip from Tangled showing Mother Goethel singing to Rapunzel. Lyrics are on the video's youtube page.] Previous to this song, we have already received cues to Goethel's character, but they have been played somewhat comically, as with the following line:
[Rapunzel and Goethel are standing in front of a mirror, side by side]
GOETHEL: Rapunzel, look in that mirror. You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you're here too! (she laughs) I'm just teasing, stop taking everything so seriously!
But as "Mother Knows Best" concludes, we get our first hint of real menace, as Goethel admonishes Rapunzel to "[n]ever ask to leave this tower again." This is only fifteen minutes into the movie, so from the very beginning Goethel's behavior is (to me at least) quite clearly coded as inappropriate. It only gets less ambiguous from there, and comes to a head about an hour into the movie, when "Mother Knows Best" is reprised (I am going to repeat my TRIGGER WARNING here, as the abuse is quite vividly depicted in this video).
[video: Goethel sings to Rapunzel in the woods. Lyrics for the reprise are here; the 'this' referred to at "give him this" and the subsequent verse is a jewelled tiara] Beyond the explicit textual evidence for Goethel's abusiveness in this scene, there are two other factors that reinforce the message: Donna Murphy's excellent voice acting; and the music itself, which features far darker harmonies and a slightly revised melody as compared to the original rendition of the song.]
So Disney correctly categorizes Goethel's behaviour as harmful. That being said, their treatment of abuse is not perfect. I would have liked to see (and this is perhaps too "dark" for a children's film) some acknowledgment of the fact that abuse such as this can have devastating effects on the abused person's self-esteem. I know this first-hand. The film doesn't dwell much on Rapunzel's internal life, and the effects of having lived with Goethel for eighteen years are never really explored. I really wish this had happened, but at the same time Disney films are not known for their psychological depth and frankly, if the movie had gone into that it may have hit a little too close to home for me to be comfortable. So its absence is something I can deal with. Ultimately, at the end of the film, Rapunzel prevails over Goethel, as the narrative demands she must. Their confrontation is quite powerful, and as such I am going to quote it at some length.
[Rapunzel and Goethel are in the tower, Rapunzel in her room]
GOETHEL: Rapunzel? Rapunzel, what's going on up there?
RAPUNZEL [exiting her room, quietly]: I'm the lost princess.
GOETHEL: Ugh, please speak up, Rapunzel, you know how I hate the mumbling.
RAPUNZEL [louder]: I am the lost princess. Aren't I? [Goethel looks stunned] Did I mumble, mother? Or should I even call you that?
GOETHEL: Oh, Rapunzel, do you even hear yourself? Why would you ask such a ridiculous question?
RAPUNZEL: It was you! It was all you!
GOETHEL: Everything I did was to protect you. [Rapunzel pushes her] Rapunzel!
RAPUNZEL [walking away]: I've spent my entire life running from people who would use me for my power—
RAPUNZEL: When I should have been hiding...from you!
GOETHEL: Now, now, it's all right, listen to me...all of this is as it should be! [she moves to pat Rapunzel on the head, Rapunzel grips her arm]
RAPUNZEL: No! You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me. And I will never let you use my hair again!
I have mixed feelings about this exchange—again, I feel it is more simplistic than how these scenarios usually play out in real life—but it is still a powerful moment, Rapunzel regaining her agency.
Abusive parents are a real problem in the real world. I know more than a few people who upon seeing this movie connected Goethel's behavior with that of their own parents, and took it as a cue to reassess their relationships. And because of that I think that this film, despite its flaws, has accomplished something good. It represented a real issue in a way that doesn't soft-pedal it, which is more than a lot of children's media dare to do. So hats off to Tangled, a fitting coda to an impressive media legacy.
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