Blonde on the Tracks*
I got into a bit of a Twitter debate today with silentbeep over the symbolism of Rapunzel’s hair turning from blond and magical to brown and un-magical in Disney’s Tangled. While I think there is a great deal of legitimate gnashing of teeth over the typical Disney blond princess, I think that this particular complaint is missing something. Namely, I think that the act of ridding Rapunzel of her false blond hair (and thus stripping her of her magic and her imprisonment by the witch, Mother Gothel) is an act of liberation. Going from long, blond hair to short brown hair makes Rapunzel more human and less the stereotypical princess. It is a shedding of skin, a rebirth. I think this is a conscious move on the part of the filmmakers. I don’t think it means “blonds have more fun” or blond hair is magical while brown is plain and boring. I think that, as with many other fantasy pieces, the end of Rapunzel’s magic is supposed to be a good thing, a coming of age in a way. Magic is almost always lost in good fantasy, in one way or another.
Now, admittedly, silentbeep and I have very different backgrounds. I am a white male. She is Latina and female. We are going to view these things differently, and I think it’s important to respect different points of view. What strikes one person as negative symbolism or too-narrow definitions of beauty might not even register with another. That being said, the last two Disney films – The Princess and the Frog and Enchanted were quite adept at changing around gender roles, having the ‘princess’ figure (who was not blond in either film) play more the role of heroine. Enchanted was downright self-mocking of the entire tradition of Disney sugar-coated damsel-in-distress princess movies – albeit in a fun, charming way.
And looking back at all the good or classic princess movies I can think of off the top of my head, Snow White had black hair, Cinderella blond, Sleeping Beauty blond, Maid Marian was a fox, Ariel red-head, Belle was brunette, Jasmine brunette, Giselle (from Enchanted) was a redhead, and Tiana was a brunette…there aren’t actually that many blonds in Disney’s line-up. (Even in the sub-par Disney films like Mulan or Pocahontas we don’t get much blond.) A better complaint would be that Disney has never once presented a female protagonist who was not thin and beautiful.
Which brings me to this piece by Natalie Wilson in Ms. Magazine, which speaks more to gender roles than simply hair-color-symbolism (though it’s in there too). Natalie’s complaints are manifold: the princess is too stereotypically beautiful (“she is a waiflike female with big eyes and a teeny-tiny waist who sings about doing chores with the refrain, “wonder when my life will begin.” Rapunzel is stereotypically overly emotional, swinging from one end of a mood swing to another as often as she (and others) swing from her long golden locks”); she is overshadowed by her male counterpart (“The privileging of men in the story is apparent from the first image in Tangled, a zoom-in on a wanted poster of the male lead, Flynn Rider, as he narrates, “This is a very fun story and the truth is, it isn’t even mine.” The “fun” story involves the kidnapping and imprisonment of Rapunzel. Even though Flynn claims the story “isn’t even mine,” the story becomes very much about him and less about Rapunzel.”); and the villain is a witch with dark features (“On the other hand, Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s evil abductress, has dark hair and eyes and non-Caucasian features.”) Furthermore there aren’t enough female characters (despite Rapunzel and Gothel being two of the three primary characters in the film) and the only animals are male- the horse, Maximus, and the chameleon, Pascal.
Now, I can sympathize with some of this. I want more strong women characters in these films, too, rescuing their knights-in-distress from the evil sorcerer’s tower. But I think the piece is way over the top, especially given the preceding two Disney films and their toying around with gender and racial roles. Making Mother Gothel ‘dark’ and Rapunzel ‘light’ is less about racial stereotypes (Gothel was also very pale) and more about classic good and evil symbolism. We shouldn’t expect kids’ movies to do away with too much convention.
Flynn may have been given the biggest role in the film, but he was also pretty much a schmuck for most it. Calling Rapunzel “Blondie” was more about pointing out Flynn’s schmuckiness than an attempt to foist off on Rapunzel all these cultural associations “such as the assumption one is dumb, “over-sexed” and good for no more than a pretty appearance”. (There is a trend lately to have the male protagonist be self-centered schmucks – see: Princess and the Frog or really stupid – see: Enchanted.)
Could Disney do more to emphasize qualities other than beauty and being thin and falling in love for its female characters? Sure, and they probably should. They’ve already announced no more princess films (which I think is a shame). But looking at the last three Disney films, it’s hard for me to buy Wilson’s argument as it stands. And I hope we do not kill the fairy-tale or the romance of these films in order to scrub them clean of any and everything that could possibly be conceived as sexist or racially insensitive, any more than we should publish new additions of Mark Twain books for those reasons.
* Inspiration for the title comes from greginak in the last Rapunzel thread.