Friday 9 December 2011

The Social Messages of "Tangled"

Pixar has historically been slightly tone-deaf on gender issues. This jaw-dropping quote, allegedly from a Pixar executive, embodies the problem:
"We're very aware of it and we're trying to change. But sometimes it's just so hard to find a way to justify adding a female character to the story. We want to be fair, but every character has to have a reason to be there."
(If you can read that without thinking that something is obviously, glaringly wrong in the imagination of the speaker, you might want to skip this post - it relies on premises I'm not going to go into right now.)

But come back, Disney animation, all is forgiven. Tangled has genuinely strong female characterisation, a frank description of emotional abuse, and is quietly packed with positive messages.

The central conflict of the film revolves around an emotionally abusive relationship between the female lead, Rapunzel, and her adoptive "mother", Mother Gothel. Happily, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the depiction - but it is portrayed convincingly, and matches what I have read online and heard from less fortunate friends. Mother Gothel does not follow the usual villanous clich├ęs of physical violence or outright intimidation. Instead, she uses guilt, manipulation and even love to keep Rapunzel in her place. These are the tactics that make it so hard for so many people to accept that what they experienced was "real" abuse.

The manner of Rapunzel's imprisonment has moved with the times. She is no Cinderella: as she narrates in the foot-tapping opening number, most of her day is spent on genuinely enviable creative hobbies. This evolution mirrors a shift in the socially conservative attitudes these stories are fighting. No longer is the anti-feminist message a straightforward "women should stay home and do housework". Societal change has rendered that line untenable. Now, it is the gilded cage: women should find self-expression and fulfilment through "womanly arts" (making sure everybody knows how fulfilled they are), but remain largely inconsequential to the outside world.

Tangled is a broadside against this message. Better to risk the dangers of the world, says Rapunzel, than sit at home doing crafts and forever wonder what those lights over the mountain really are.

"Disney feminism" has a bit of a bad rap. After all, how much daring social progress should one expect from a large media company which produces innocuous, profitable children's stories? But Disney both reacts to and defines middle America. Disney is a bellwether, because they won't say something unless millions of American parents are ready to hear it. But once they do, their powerful, pervasive stories will drag the others along.

Put it this way: Since the day this film was released, purely emotional abuse - even wrapped up in terms of love and protection - isn't just maybe-bad, it's-just-sometimes bad, he-tells-me-he-loves-me-it-can't-be-that-bad. It's Disney villain bad.

There's a nice symbolic fillip at the end, too. The male lead, of course, gets his climactic moment of Big Disney Sacrifice. But how does he do it? He cuts her hair off. From Biblical times to the Second World War to modern culture, cutting off a woman's hair is a humiliating symbol of de-feminisation. So Flynn cuts off Rapunzel's hair. He severs her power to heal and nurture, her blonde innocence, and all the reasons she is too needed at home to be allowed into the big wide world. He cuts off her hair so she can go rule a country instead. How cool is that?

(For the purposes of this post, Meredydd is pretending that the tooth-grinding final line of the film does not exist. Don't break his illusions.)

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