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Faith and Femininity in Disney’s Tangled

January 5, AD 2016 4 Comments

tangled-1024x640As a father of three girls all under the age of five, I see my fair share of princess tales.  To be perfectly honest, most of them don’t really stick with me, a lot of it is forgettable, and a lot of it makes me wish it was forgettable.  However, on a recent car trip, we played Tangled in our DVD player and, for reasons I cannot explain, I listened carefully to almost the entire film.  As it turns out, I found some interesting material to consider in light of the Theology of the Body.

Where To Begin
In John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he frequently makes reference to Jesus’ preference to return to the beginning, when discussing marriage with the Pharisees.  Throughout his analysis, the state of original man is the primary reference point for understanding what a human being is, and what marriage ought to be.  In Tangled, the beginning is important as well.

The story opens as Rapunzel’s mother the queen is falling ill in pregnancy and Gothel (Rapunzel’s soon-to-be-adoptive-mother) is shown selfishly utilizing a sacred plant’s healing powers to keep herself eternally young and externally beautiful.  The King announces his wife’s illness and immediately the citizens begin searching for the healing plant, which is then turned into an elixir and given to the queen to drink.  This cures her illness and leads to Rapunzel’s healthy birth. All is well, except for Gothel, who cannot face her mortality.  Desperate to cling to her physical beauty, she steals Rapunzel after discovering that her hair has the healing properties of the sacred plant.

I think there’s great symbolism between Rapunzel and Gothel.  Rapunzel, especially because of the miraculous nature of her birth, is a great symbol for Mary, who was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception.  She also has the power to heal others, in an indirect sense, but especially through the birth of Jesus, who would save us all.  Gothel is a symbol of Eve, who selfishly uses a forbidden plant to try and preserve her life.

The Plot Thickens
As the movie moves on to its second and third acts, I think there’s another set of symbols we can read.  When Flynn Rider enters the picture, the conflict between Rapunzel and Gothel comes into sharper focus.  To my mind, we can read into the various relationships that emerge a sort of competing vision of the role of relationships as well as competing visions of womanhood.

Gothel: Radical Feminism
Gothel’s vision of the world is that relationships are intrinsically dangerous, and only open one up to pain and suffering.  The world exists as a place which threatens to abuse and wound you.  The only value to be found is in a raw individualism and shutting everything out.  But that’s not enough.  You have to appear happy, healthy, aesthetically beautiful.  Youth and beauty are the face you put on to cover the pain in your heart and the fear of the world.

Flynn Rider: What the Culture Thinks Masculinity Is
Flynn Rider’s character represents everything that Gothel was worried about.  It’s a sort of interesting commentary on the sexual revolution.  One of the main arguments, for instance, about oral hormonal contraceptives (the Pill), was that it would make women more free and independent, that it would give them some power in the battle of the sexes.  As it turns out, the Pill and the sexual revolution it enabled, has led to more oppression of women.  They’re, in most ways, worse off than prior to the revolution.

I say this as a preface to Flynn’s obvious reliance on his physical beauty and his wit and charm.  When he initially is captured by Rapunzel, he attempts to woo her with his obviously well-rehearsed schemes.  There’s no doubt he’s used women for pleasure before and, from the scenes we see, it seems he has rather enjoyed it.  He’s handsome and rugged and having a great time; a true model of the sexual revolution’s image of masculinity.

Of course, as the film goes on, we learn that his name isn’t Flynn Rider after all.  He’s crafted an entirely different person and the “mask” that he wears to charm women is actually a farce.  Deep beneath that facade is the true person, Eugene Fitzherbert.  This real person, who we can see somehow still knows it’s wrong to use others for whatever happiness and pleasure they can bring us, will only be revealed when he encounters someone radically different: Rapunzel.

Rapunzel: Catholic Femininity
Where Gothel wants to reject all relationships and Flynn wants to use relationships just for selfish pleasure, Rapunzel presents both of them with an alternative third way.  In a sense, both Gothel and Flynn could be seen as heretics, but don’t misunderstand what I mean by that.

From a Catholic viewpoint, heresies always tend to over-emphasize one particular dimension of the faith, and then get led astray. They’re not typically started by coming up with a crazy idea, but rather are the result of running away with one part of the truth that has been blown out of proportion.

Gothel sees the danger of the world and, especially, relationships.  There’s some truth there; relationships are an intrinsically risky thing.  Loving someone means letting them get close enough to you in order to hurt you.  The world also is a dangerous place.  Things can go wrong.  Dietrich von Hildebrand has a great line about this: anything truly valuable, truly great, necessarily involves great risk.  You can’t have anything worth having without risk and relationships are no different.  But that doesn’t mean we should avoid them.  And, in fact, as human beings, we’re made for relationships and only in loving relationships can we truly become the best version of ourselves.

Flynn’s heresy, on the other hand, is to pretend that relationships are good, but only if they are pleasurable. Anyone who’s ever lived long enough has realized that relationships are nice when they’re pleasurable and fun and easy, but that those qualities aren’t the only things you need for a relationship.  You also need truth, you need commitment, and above all, you need sacrifice to work through the hard times.  If we abandon ship at the first sign of difficulty, that’s not a relationship, it’s a contract.

Rapunzel shows Gothel and Flynn that, in fact, relationships are good (contra Gothel), but that they’re about more than pleasure (contra Flynn).  This is worked out slowly throughout the film, but is seen most clearly by the climax, where we see Rapunzel and Flynn both willing to sacrifice themselves for one another.  Rapunzel offers to stay with her mother if she will spare Flynn.  But Flynn cuts off her hair so that Rapunzel won’t be stuck with her mother for the rest of her life.  What’s really cool about it, though, is that we discover Rapunzel has another way of healing: through her tears.  This, to me, was the most powerful scene which shows Rapunzel as a symbol of Mary, who shows that womanhood heals the world in times of joy, as well as in times of sorrow.

More could be said, but I’ll close with an excerpt from John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem.  I think Tangled can serve as a powerful way of illuminating some of the truths of this great Saint about the relationships between men and women.  Take a look:

Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman’s motherhood constitutes a special “part” in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood – even though it belongs to both – is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who “pays” directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No programme of “equal rights” between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account. (MD #18, Sec. 5)

Filed in: Movies, Relationships

About the Author:

Luke is a married father of three. He works as the Director of Religious Education at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, LA and has a Master of Arts in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He blogs at Quiet, Dignity, and Grace
  • Theresa Williams

    Yes, yes, yes! Tangled has been my favorite princess movie for all these reasons, and more. I remember watching it in theaters when it premiered and being floored by it’s similarities, or revelations of the truth, of TotB. The line at the end that Flynn says, “She was a princess worth waiting for”- it’s meant, I think to be a throw away line, meant to refer to how much more complete the kingdom was with her in her rightful place, how much better he was because of her; but I think it has even deeper meaning. This kingdom that laid in wait of this lost princess, who already knew her value and worth, and waited with bated breath and an unshakable hope for her return, knew that it was her who could bring the truth and fullness of love to them (akin to Mary bringing Truth and Love to the world, Jesus) and would accept no substitutes. I think it’s also telling that Rapunzel is barefoot throughout the movie- symbolic of her position as servant of others, just as Mary, although Co-Redemptrix, etc., is first the servant of Love.

  • Nick

    …I think you’re overly harsh on Eugene. He’s both the comedy relief AND the ‘transformation’ character in the movie. …He’s Tony Stark. While Rapunzel’s story line is one of growth, discovery, and triumph over evil, Eugene’s is about transformation, true love, and self-sacrifice for greater good of another : )

  • DLink

    Repeat to yourself three times: “It’s just a film.” If you get more out of it than that, so much the better. If all you get is entertainment, well then, that’s why you bought the ticket.

    • Luke Arredondo

      Hi! Thanks for commenting. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t place too much concern on the symbolic meanings of every single thing we encounter. But I also think “It’s just a film” goes a bit too far. The amount of discussion and decisions that are made about every element of every film I think speak to the fact that, by its very nature, any story carries with it a deeper meaning. What I would not disagree with at all is the notion that a given story can be subject to multiple readings and symbolic interpretations. Thanks again for commenting!