A Tangled Perception
Our niece is visiting this weekend. She’s twelve, and timid. Between her first bubble tea experience, and her first home pizza-making experience, we made the mistake of taking her to see Tangled, the latest, and fiftieth, Disney disaster. I can’t rightly call it the fiftieth disaster. I haven’t seen them all. The ones I know are the ones we mostly all know. The Little Mermaid and her ilk.
Now, I know I’m not the first to come out of a Disney flick hot in the belly and shaking a fist or two, and I’m sure my objections won’t be the most interesting or the most original, but damn, they’re fresh. And I can’t think of anything else at the moment except how frustrating and disappointing the experience was. I’m angry, really. I’d assumed we’d made some progress. I’d figured Disney had been forced to extend itself beyond the basics. That somewhere in a Disney board room is a woman who fought to sit there. That somewhere among the hundreds of Disney writers and animators would be a few women, or men … or men, who would look at the notes and the story boards and give their colleagues an ‘are you fucking kidding me?’. I guess I’ve given … someone … too much credit. I’d assumed there was a rising consciousness that would prevent Disney from doing this to us. A universal peeling away of outdated rules that would cause parental moviegoers to be appalled at this sort of slathering on of gender myths.
If anything, the Disney formula has become even more insidious than when I was little, because now it’s slightly veiled. They demonstrate Rapunzel’s boredom, for example, with a montage of her endless days in captivity. Her activities include baking, knitting and brushing her hair. Lest we think she’d been beamed into a Bronte novel, they include painting and painting some more. But!—a light at the end of the tunnel?—there’s reading, too. Twice. And chess (which she presumably plays with a mute amphibian companion). But, no. Not a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re a reminder that she’s kinda smart, but not too smart. Not the boy kind of smart. I didn’t notice a chemistry set or an abacus in her tower…
The veils. These hat tips and ‘oh, aren’t you cute”s directed at that little movement called feminism, I guess, are supposes to serve some balance. But the teeter-totter of “Tangled” had a fat guy on one end, and it isn’t the this-century end.
In case you don’t know, the narrative follows a princess-child, stolen from her royal parents by a wicked crone. The princess has magical golden hair that can keep the old woman young. She hides the child away in a tower, and raises her as her own, and never cuts the girl’s hair so that she may reap its magical effects whenever a liver spot or wrinkle appears.
The crone is the one truly evil character in the story, and she’s committed the worst of crimes. She’s a woman who’s dared to age. Or is it, a woman who dares to fight her aging? Or, somehow, the process of aging has made her so demented, so wretched, that she’s content to steal a baby and then ruin the child’s life by frightening her into endless captivity? I’m not sure. She probably had some serious mental issues before the magical hair showed up. At any rate, she has black curly hair. See my profile pic for a real life version of the cartooned coif. (Cartoon villains often have my hair.)
The heroine, Rapunzel herself, has that magical glimmering cornsilk stuff. When a lock of Rapunzel’s hair is snipped from her celestial noggin, it dies. It’s magical powers disappear immediately. Best of all, the hair turns … what color do you suppose? Brown, of course. She becomes (horrors!) a brunette.
Rapunzel is small breasted, tiny waisted. She has a ski-slope nose with a delicate smattering of freckles — though I’m not sure how she got those locked away in her shadowy tower. Her animators made her a little feisty, you know? Girl’s got dreams, but she’s till appropriately naive. She’s terrified of the male intruder until he proves to be sufficiently googley-eyed over her. (In a romantic way, not a sexual way, of course). Until things do get a little romantic — on a log, in the woods. They might even kiss! And in that scene when you expect it to maybe happen, her eyes are drawn about three times larger than they usually are. Big, stupid kiss-me eyes. Great big dumb empty eyes in her bid ole head, atop her skinny neck.
And about those giant eyes and skinny throat. There’s definitely something erotic about them. Not to mention that her cleavage is so delicately rendered that it deepens and glistens as she presses her arms back to sit up on her bed. And in the end, when she falls into the hero’s arms, the perky rise-fall-rise of taut princess ass is shaded very specifically through layers of pink brocade. This latest incarnation of Rapunzel will land in someone’s wank bank, no doubt.
The demon, her raven haired kidnapper, is likewise thoroughly drawn. She is heavy breasted and hippy. She sachets about, throaty and vain and undeniably sexy. Maybe that’s her real crime.
So, Rapunzel has this hair, right? She uses it to hoist people up into her tower, and figures out how to swing on it, like a Tarzan vine, to escape. She has a command of her mane. She can work that shit. And her animators have her using it to … open closet doors. They had an opportunity to use the hair like a superpower, and make little Rapunzel a true badass. But she only gets to use it for rope-relative passivities. In the danger scenes I found myself coming up with endless ways to turn it into a real weapon. A cat-o-nine cracked on pursuing faces; a tremendous lifting mechanism to fling and impale enemies; a hoisting tool to gather and corral the bad guys in a ditch; a noose; several nooses at once.
To skip to the end (uh, spoiler alert?) in a dramatic turn of events the hero is stabbed. Rapunzel makes a deal with the crone — she’ll never try to escape again, she promises, if the witch allows her to heal him with her hair. Not wanting her to be hidden away forever, the “hero” raises a shard of broken glass. Without discussing the matter with anyone at all, least of all Rapunzel, he with one brazen swipe slices her mane straight off her head. It darkens. From root to tip, the severed mass turns brown till it’s a dead ugly waste. The crone wilts, withers, and turns to dust.
Then Rapunzel gets up and kicks that asshole in his teeth.
“That was my hair!” she demands. “It was my magic. Mine! What right was it of yours to take it from me? You thought you were saving me, you hasty coward? I could have saved myself! I had it all worked out! You could have stabbed your own damned self if you didn’t want to be saved. I spent an entire lifetime growing that hair!”
And he skulks away in shame.
Actually, that’s not what happened. She thanks him. She reaches up, fingers her now brunette choppy short cut, and watches him die. But not for long. Because she cries, and it turns out her tears are magical, too. One falls on him. He’s saved, and they live happily ever after.
“DNA, baby,” as the popcorn cruncher behind me loudly observed. DNA.
He “saved” her. By stealing her magic without a single thought given to whether or not it’s what she’d want, or what she herself might have done. Then, she turns around and thanks him. For his selflessness. To top everything off, we now learn that to leverage her magic, she’ll have to tap into her sorrow to produce tears. Wonderful. Well done, Disney.
So, I’m sitting there with our niece, who’s adopted. She’s Chinese, and has gorgeous black hair, and dark eyes with narrow tilts and straight eyelashes. She has not a single thing in common with Rapunzel, and I think … what is this doing to her? In this moment, at twelve years old, in a sticky movie theater in Brooklyn, what crevices of her brain are flexing and contracting to process and store this information? How is she relating herself, and her own history, to these characters? More than how she relates to the character’s physicality, how is she internalizing this character’s questionable decision-making?
Perhaps just as damaging as what the movie might do to someone like my niece, is what it might be doing to the little blonde girl behind us, and the others like her. The button nosed, rosebud lipped, yellow haired girls. I suppose they, too, have the same choices as everyone else. Fall into some preconceived version of a grownup, or reject anything preconceived in some dramatic way. But characters like Rapunzel might further limit the potential options for her lookalikes.
There are so few. So very few. Who figure out how to own whatever it is they’ve been given, and embody it, on their own terms.
When problematic animated characters come up, people like to reference Shrek. The princess ends up as an ogre in that one. To me, that story seems more an exercise in accepting one’s poor fate, than developing a true sense of self worth. It’s a coming to terms story. An accept the-best-you’ll-get in your bilious and warty, if kind-hearted, swamp-dwelling ogre husband. If you’re an ogre, there are nice ogres out there for you, too. Another scary message.
It’s a whole big terrible mess. Rapunzels are drawn, and Gaga’s are created, and Beyonces crawls around on the floor in half their music videos, and Nicole Kidmans get crazier, but they all have great legs. And so then shampoo ads are filled with great legs. And then feminists yell at shampoo companies. So then new ads are born for “real” women. And if I could climb to the top of that cliff in the Lion King (you remember that one, with the sexy long-lashed lady-lion and the archetypal mother character?) I’d beat my chest and scream, “We’re all real!” Whether your legs be the tanned and sinewy variety, or the jelly and creme type, we’re all real. You with your blonde hair, and you with your Asian eyes, and you with the perky double A’s, and you with your great big fat ass. All of us. Real.
If everyone would stop trying to tell our little girls who’s real and who’s not, and would stop presenting to them very tidily what their limited options are for the types of girls they can be right now, and the types of women they can grow up to one day be, then they can spend their childhoods figuring out what they like, and what they’re good at, instead of trying to figure out which character to emulate; which fiction to embody.
But in the end, everyone wants to make a living. That’s what all this is about. That Disney executive dabbing topcoat onto the run in her pantyhose? She has a bottom line to think about, if she wants to keep her seat at the conference table. This version of Rapunzel, the other princesses like her. They’ll sell better than the princess I’d draw: a slightly chubby punk-rock princess with villain hair who goes on to attend an all girls liberal arts college, and sues Disney (and wins) for irreparable damage to the collective subconsciouses of three generations.
Maybe more disappointing than the films, and the people who make them, are the parents who don’t take the time to dissect the stories with their kids. The parents who allow it to be swallowed whole in a single gulp. The parents who go out of their way to make sure their kids have all the shit to help them fit in. The gadgets, the clothes. To fit in to what? Fitting in, all the desperate striving for conformity, might be the realest, baddest villain of childhood.
I like the little weirdo girls. The thirteen and fourteen year olds who pierce their face to shit and dye their hair green. The badass ‘suck my cock’ chicks who give cops the finger. Or the dirty hippie chicks who shave their heads and show their bellies, even if they’re big, and don’t shave their pits. Those kids are certainly rejecting the mainstream for another slightly subversive other stream, but they’re the ones who once they’re away from the fragile and closely guarded nest, are ready to be opened to the truth that we don’t need to become who we are based on what people have already been. That you can kick the garment rack of costumes over and choose your own damned wardrobe. You can like disparate things at once, and you don’t always have to be adorable or thin or polite. If they’re lucky, those girls won’t be forty-four year old divorcees before a more freeing reality appears for a flash, and then disappears again behind half a lifetime of ingrained behaviors that it’s too late, and too hard, to unlearn.