Although barriers were broken with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Disney didn’t stop there. With their 2010 effort, Tangled, Disney proved once again that it was aware of its own history of infantilized females, hypermasculine men, and questionable morals. While Tangled, in many ways, deals with the typical princess, it positions in an unusual way; a way where her naivety is explained and her own sense of self-assurance grows as the movie progresses.
In discussing the merits of Tangled, it seems crucial to position Rapunzel within the larger framework of Disney. Yes, it’s true that Disney has returned to the blond-haired ideal of what a princess should look and the demure persona of how a woman should act. However, Disney has been perpetuating these ideals since the company’s very inception. Nevertheless, Rapunzel differentiates herself from the others because of the inherent acknowledgement of these traits within the story world. For instance, in the film, Rapunzel is only alive because of a healing flower, which was brought into existence by a ray of sunshine. Naturally, since she is essentially a living embodiment of sunshine, the blonde hair is only fitting. Furthermore, her ignorance at many things can be explained by her living conditions. Knowing only what someone else tells you of the world and never experiencing it for one’s self would lead to a sense of child-like wonder as well as a sort of vulnerability. While either of these traits could easily be read as perpetuating the American beauty myth or re-enforcing gender roles, each of these are accounted for within the story itself.
Furthermore, the positioning of Rapunzel in relation to other characters is particularly telling. Disney, once again, re-establishes its whole “dark is evil” mythos by giving the film’s antagonist, Mother Gothel, black hair. However, when examining who the audience is, it’s understandable that younger kids would need such pronounced differentiation between good and evil. After all, the standard classification of “dark is bad” and “good is light” pre-dates Disney and even films themselves. While Disney could certainly use its influence to combat these, their firm establishment, no matter how problematic, has become an accepted practice in children’s films.
However, it is the film’s romantic interest, Flynn Rider, who offers a refreshing break from the typical features of the Disney film. For much of the film, Flynn is arrogant, selfish, and an all around menace. Rapunzel and his first meeting is a direct result of him fleeing from guards after pulling off a heist. Flynn is unquestionably a negative influence. It is only through his adventure with rapunzel that he is reformed. However, this is unlike most other Disney films in which the male is reformed, such as Beauty & the Beast. With Beauty & the Beast, the Beast’s transformation from a savage animal to a well-mannered misfit can be traced through Belle’s action. She actively tries to change him. With Tangled, Rapunzel makes no effort to transform Flynn. She accepts him as he is and, in fact, uses him for her own means. His reformation is only indirectly related to Rapunzel. He wants to be a better man. It’s not something that she wants for him. As early as the Flynn’s introduction, the male is recognized as the “outside force”, who operates outside of society’s accepted standards, and even when this is resolved, it is by his own accord, not the relentless efforts and never ending nagging of Rapunzel.
What is perhaps most refreshing about the dynamic between Rapunzel and Flynn is that it is not confined by their archetypes. Rapunzel is more than a damsel in distress and Flynn is more than a bad boy with a heart of gold. In fact, the film’s journey only takes place due to Rapunzel taking initiative. She essentially blackmails Flynn into taking her to the castle so that she can see the floating lanterns. While blackmail is certainly morally questionable behavior, it is most surprising that it is the behavior of a princess. Furthermore, as the movie progresses, Flynn and Rapunzel find themselves in a number of compromising positions where their lives are threatened. With very few (if any) exceptions, in all of these scenarios, it is through Rapunzel’s actions that their lives are spared. In one of the earliest instances, she saves Flynn from a band of outlaws whom he has betrayed by singing a song. This certainly adheres to the old Disney standards of women as pure and passive objects only good for a song and a dance. However, as the film progresses, Rapunzel’s actions take a more pronounced shape. In one particular scene, they use her hair as a rope to swing across a canyon and make their escape. In another, they use her hair’s healing qualities to heal a wound of Flynn’s. As the film goes on, Rapunzel’s role of savior progresses to one of a more hands-on nature. This only re-asserts her as a new type of princess, especially when considering that she spends a majority of the film not even knowing that she is, indeed, a princess.
Tangled is somewhat of an anomaly in regards to the Disney canon. While not as outwardly progressive as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled is certainly aware of the history of Disney. In fact, it makes use of those conventions set forth in other Disney classics to create a new kind of princess. It manages to do so by recognizing and making diegetic use of some of the conventions of the Disney fairy tale, but it also does so by positioning Rapunzel in a certain way in comparison to other characters. However, most importantly, Tangled creates a different kind of princess by giving her an active role in her own destiny and the chain of events that lead her to her happily ever after.