Forget Ariel, Belle, and Tiana. For me, the supreme Disney princess is Rapunzel from Tangled (2010). Underneath the lush colors and catchy songs, this retelling of the fairy tale is a profoundly serious and truthful depiction of a young woman’s escape from a cult-like family system.
From the IMDB summary: “After receiving the healing powers from a magical flower, the baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from the palace in the middle of the night by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel knows that the flower’s magical powers are now growing within the golden hair of Rapunzel, and to stay young, she must lock Rapunzel in her hidden tower. Rapunzel is now a teenager and her hair has grown to a length of 70-feet. The beautiful Rapunzel has been in the tower her entire life, and she is curious of the outside world. One day, the bandit Flynn Ryder scales the tower and is taken captive by Rapunzel. Rapunzel strikes a deal with the charming thief to act as her guide to travel to the place where the floating lights come from that she has seen every year on her birthday. Rapunzel is about to have the most exciting and magnificent journey of her life.”
A conventional kids’ film would have the villain accomplish her ends through showy displays of force and magic. Mother Gothel uses a more insidious method: professional-grade emotional abuse and brainwashing. Watch and learn, my friends:
In just two minutes, the song “Mother Knows Best” conducts a whirlwind tour of the techniques that an abusive parent, partner, or cult leader employs to isolate and confuse her victim. Notice how Mother Gothel interlaces apparent compliments (you’re precious to me, you’re too innocent and fragile for this dangerous world) with self-esteem destroyers (you’re clumsy, you’re naive, you’re not pretty enough to make it out there). Her lavish caresses are punctuated with subliminal flashes of menace–so quick, it’s almost possible for Rapunzel to block them out.
Dizzied by this personality-switching, Rapunzel feels uneasy and ashamed. Something doesn’t seem right, but it’s too scary to realize that her only caregiver doesn’t really care for her. Only later, when she finds an alternate source of support in Flynn, is she ready to recover her memories of her real identity and parents. (Yes, a kids’ film about repressed memories! How radical is that?)
Besides this song, I particularly love the scene where Rapunzel first escapes from the tower, aided by Flynn. Her mood swings are so true to the joy and self-doubt that an abuse survivor goes through when she begins to emerge from brainwashing. “I’m free! I’m free! I’m a terrible person. I’m free!”
Libby Anne, who blogs at Love Joy Feminism, has written eloquently about how Tangled resembles her upbringing in a Christian patriarchy cult. This film is validating for anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship, secular or religious. It’s also a great teaching tool to help your children recognize and avoid mind control.