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—
GOETHEL: Rapunzel!
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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Comments

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I come from an abusive mother

I come from an abusive mother as well, and am working toward cutting off the relationship. Thanks for posting this and I plan to re-watch Tangled with this in mind.

I'm so glad you posted this!

I had no plans to ever see this movie, because based on the short trailers, it looked like a Disney film that wanted to be, but never could be, as good as the old ones. But now that I see all the other stuff that's going on I'm so interested to see this! And I'll take any excuse to hear Donna Murphy sing.

Agreed but.....

I really appreciate this insightful reading of Tangled. As a long time feminist and mother to a three year-old, I am constantly trying to figure out how to teach my daughter media awareness. And at 3, she is obsessed with princesses and frequently asks to see disney princess movies, which honestly makes me cringe. I do like that in Tangled that Rapunzel is an agent for her own change; yes, she is strong, she follows her instincts and desires, and is a very free spirit. This, much like "Princess and the Frog" are films I can stomach and they give me some nice fodder for conversations with my wee one. So I can say to her, wow, I really liked when Rapunzel was brave and stood up for herself during x,y, and z scenes in the movie. My issue however, is that after so many Disney films, why is the abusive person the mother and WHY is this the first time we see female characters in disney films stand up to abuse?! Perhaps this is because I am a mother but when I look back at films such "Beauty and Beast" or "Pocohantas" I see well, quite frankly see rape narratives, classic narratives of abusive relationships, and stories of capture-- and these movies in particular romanticize AND normalize these abuses: at the end of these stories, the girls/women in the stories fall in love with their abusers and they live happily ever after (which we know for survivors of abuse, that is just not true). So, yes, kudos to Disney for more recent strong female characters but I would like a story where Belle escapes the beast like Rapunzel escapes her mother and Pocohantas-- well I am not sure what could have been done with that story for children, historically it does not really end well for Pocohantas, perhaps that story could be re-imagined where she stands up to colonizers and escapes capture. My point is, yes give us more strong young female characters that adeptly and strongly navigate injustices such as the kinds of abuse that have become all too common and normalized (especially for teenage girls, I am thinking about the overwhelming victim blaming that happened in the Rhianna-Chris Brown affair-- how did the disney films of the late 1990s and early 2000s teach girls to think that abuse is provoked and not an issue of power and control?). So I guess what I want is a disney film that my daughter wants to watch that shows her how to respond to gendered violence.

let a child dream

She is so young, let her dream. Be there to help her keep her feet on the ground, but the world of make believe and fantasy are so important, especially at her age. You sound well grounded, and I'm sure you will keep her so, but please let her explore, pretend, dress up ....

Of course!

Oh, I do let her dream and pretend. She has a whole chest of dress up clothing (including a princess outfit among all sorts of other pretend clothing). These days he spends a lot of time wearing frilly dresses and dancing and singing; she loves it and we do too. We just keep offering her options because that is what she needs right now.

Here's the thing: I used to

Here's the thing: I used to be obsessed with Disney and princesses and Barbies and etc etc etc and all things girly when i was little. Whether or not my mother liked that stuff, she never let me know because she let me be me.

I'm with you, I totally see how problematic Disney films are, as a grown woman, and an aware feminist, but the thing is, your daughter can't understand those issues yet. It took me until my early 20s to. You would like to see those Disney films end that way, but those movies aren't made for adults, they're made for kids. Kids wouldn't understand why Belle or Pochahantas fled.

"So I guess what I want is a disney film that my daughter wants to watch that shows her how to respond to gendered violence."

But Disney doesn't offer that. You're asking fairy tales and Disney to be something that they're not, and to change for you. Believe me, I understand your frustration, but you can still teach your daughter to stand up for herself and to leave an abusive relationship if she's ever in one. The beauty of it is that you're her mother, and you have the ability to teach her these things. She can still love Disney movies without having them be what you want them to be. She doesn't need a Disney movie to teach her that, she has you.

Anyways, my point is, don't worry because you're her parent and you have every ability to be a great parent to her while still letting her love the things she loves, and if you parent her right and love her, she'll turn out great. My mom was that way with me and I think I turned out pretty great.

Tangled

Thematically favorite Disney film ever. I feel this is Disney's way finally putting the last nail in the coffin of their Princess roots. How much overlap is there in this thing with Snow White? Mother Goethel strongly resembles the Evil Queen; they're both women who are desperate to hold into their youth and will abuse all their power to do so. But the victor in this is not the frail, pale princess sleeping in a glass coffin waiting for her sexual awakening. Rapunzel goes out into the world, meets a man, (SPOILER) he cuts her hair for the first time. But she still heals him with her shiny sun magic which she totally didn't loose because the power exists in her not in some dead keratin that just happens to be attached to her! And then she goes home to her parents who do not reject her because of her lack of shiny hair and embrace both her and her potential future husband. A sex positive Disney film, who knew?

I never thought of Tangled

I never thought of Tangled like this before. When I saw it in theaters, I never thought that deeply into it. Thanks for pointing this out and showing the twisted meaning behind Tangled.

Over Her Head

I do not disagree with the analysis given, per se, but this is NOT an appropriate film for little girls. I have a four year old step daughter and have seen this once because she brought it over. DSD is OBSESSED with this movie in the way only those in a period of cognitive development with a high desire for repetition can be.
Here is what step daughter tells me she sees:
A pretty lady who sings is Rapunzel's mom.
Rapunzel is bad because she doesn't listen to her mommy.
Mom is mean when she doesn't let Rapunzel go with her friend.
Rapunzel cuts off her hair and that kills her mommy and it is very sad because then Rapunzel isn't pretty anymore.

This freaks me out. It is one thing to understand the symbolic sexual liberation of Rapunzel because we are adults get the concept of symbolism. Little kid brains don't get it! Period. What this has done for step daughter is normalize isolation and enmeshment enforced by an authority figure/mother. She plays mommy by brushing hair while singing that creepy song. We are already dealing with parental alienation without Disney reinforcing the idea that mommy' gets control over your mind, body and personal power. The 20 minutes at the end does not rescue this movie.

Gah! I hate the Evil Rodent Empire.

Came close but missed

I had high hopes for this movie...I can't stand Disney's portrayal of females. My daughter, six, was super excited to go see it and it is one of her favorite movies now. I loved that Rapunzel recognized that Gothel was not ok to her...but then, I felt Disney crashed and burned a super opportunity when Rapunzel has a "revelation" that she DECIDED not to leave earlier. While I applaud children who are able to escape abusive situations, I felt that Rapunzel's statement was indicative of victim-blaming, that she was at fault for trusting a person who are SUPPOSED to be able to trust, your mother. Not only that, but the point at which she had the opportunity to really liberate herself and take things into her own hands (cutting off her hair) THAT decision was MADE FOR HER by the man in the film.

It did give me a good opportunity to discuss abuse with my daughter; while I understand the reasoning behind the idea of "stranger danger" I feel it is much more valuable to prepare her for the possibility that sometimes a person who claimes they love you ACT to the contrary, and it is the actions one must put stock in. The only other thing she got out of the film, which broke my heart, is saying that she wasn't beautiful because she didn't have blond hair. I pointed out that Rapunzel's hair was really brown, like my daughter's, but the idea that blond is better persists.

I don't normally watch Disney

I don't normally watch Disney movies, but for this one I may make an exception.

That was my mother, right there. (And a lot of her screwy, narcissistic, self-esteem-shredding behavior was centered around my looks, including hair. And around mirrors - I worked out some time ago that Snow White was another metaphor that fitted my earlier life. Her 'stepmother' was originally her real mother; the squeamish Victorians who changed so many of those stories have a lot to answer for.)

Disney isn't the first to find this undercurrent in 'Rapunzel': Sondheim's musical Into the Woods has a witch who keeps Rapunzel cooped up away from the world - in her case, because she (the witch) is ugly and fears nobody else will love her. But Goethel, from the extracts here, seems rather nastier. You can't imagine her ever getting enough insight to sing 'Children Will Listen.'

My mother is now deceased, and I never did have that necessary confrontation (I've been through counselling, which has helped me to gain some sense of self-worth - in my forties! - but I don't think certain members of my family will ever quite be ready to accept what kind of a person my mother was). I'm glad that there is some acknowledgement of that kind of mother-daughter relationship in popular culture, because it's something that rarely gets spoken about. Thank you for this.