We have this false idea that fairy tales are about weak and passive heroines, damsels in distress. So we are always fighting against a fairy tale legacy that doesn’t exist.
Rapunzel is the girl trapped in a tower, known mostly for her long hair. It’s easy to see why we’d think of her as passive. She grows up with no doors and no stairs. And she’s been there so long she knows nothing of the world or any life but the witch. No wonder Disney would feel the need to make her lively and vivacious – bold even when she’s afraid – charming in her innocence and willing to take a chance to find the life she wants.
Rapunzel is a great Disney character.
And yet, even trapped, Rapunzel isn’t a character who needs as much help as we may think. She does know only a small world. So when the prince comes to her she decides he’s young and handsome. But perhaps most importantly, she decides a life with him has got to be better than one with the old witch. Her life is her choice, however shallow it may be.
She is also clever enough to come up with the solution for her escape. She tells the prince to bring a skein of silk each time so they can create a ladder for her. And it seems in the nights they have together that they truly fall in love – he becomes something more to her than a means of escape. Or she becomes something more to him than a pretty face and a sweet voice.
Then trouble comes when the witch cuts off her hair and casts her alone in the desert. We aren’t told if she dreams of him. Or longs for him.
But when he learns she’s gone he throws himself from the tower and is blinded by the rose thorns at the bottom. He wanders, despondent without her.
And so like Belle and Gerta (from The Snow Queen – don’t worry that’s coming) she saves him. These fairy tale girls do an awful lot of saving and yet have gotten a bad reputation as damsels in distress. When Rapunzel finds her prince, she weeps for the loss of his eyes and her tears heal him. And they live happily ever after. Or so we presume.
Rapunzel is also interesting because she is the first in a new era of Disney films (admittedly skipping over everything from 1994 – 2010 because I have yet to see any of those). There are the classic films (1937 – 1959). And what I consider to be the Golden Era (1989 – 1994). They cover everything from Snow White (1937) through to The Lion King (1994) and each of those films essentially defined our cultural idea of that fairy tale. They walked closely with the original story and character and whatever their faults or strengths – when we think of that fairy tale girl we think of the Disney princess.
But Tangled deviates significantly from the original fairy tale. (I suspect this began with The Princess and the Frog in 1999 but still haven’t seen it). It doesn’t even carry the title of the fairy tale. There are no lights in the fairy tale; no indication of her parents loss and longing. The prince has more character than in the original story and he perhaps suffers most from the fairy tale legacy.
Because if we cannot let girls be damsels in distress, our modern society also won’t let men be the hero. Stalwart and brave are no longer believable. He must be funny and fallible. Otherwise, how could she save him? But the diminished hero is an entirely different post.
And not something the Brothers Grimm worried about. All those years ago they gave us a heroine who is more than enough on her own. For being locked in a tower, Rapunzel does a remarkable job of finding a clever way out, salvaging the life she wants and of saving the man she loves.
So why do we feel the need to rewrite her?
THE FAIRY TALE LEGACIES
Sleeping Beauty | Cinderella | Beauty and the Beast | The Little Mermaid | Snow White and Rose Red | Rapunzel | Jasmine | Twelve Dancing Princesses | Snow White | The Snow Queen | Overview
Want to refresh your memory of the fairy tale? SurLaLune fairy tales has an annotated version of the Brothers Grimm tale from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy book. And Angie has a great comparison of the fairy tale and Disney movie as part of her Project Disney.
Rapunzel’s “passivity” is dictated largely by her situation. She’s been locked in a tower with no doors or stairs since the age of twelve (it’s kind of funny, we always seem to think it’s earlier than that but the Grimm tale says it was age twelve). Rapunzel does as much as she can for someone trapped in one location. Also, anyone who can give birth to and care for twins while wandering a desert deserves some kind of props for her strength.
That’s a very good point – we accuse Rapunzel of being passive but it’s very circumstantial that would make any character in that situation passive. Seriously, twins are no joke 🙂
Great post on Rapunzel! It is interesting how Disney updated her – and how I feel like that has completely colored my view of the princess and the fairy tale, even though it is a recent film. But Disney is good at that LOL. I haven’t really thought of Rapunzel as a strong heroine, but of course your post makes so much sense – especially with how she is the one who has to save her Prince!
It’s amazing how Disney has that power to so strongly influence our views of these princesses. I’m curious to see in the next 15-20 years how young girls now will perceive Rapunzel and also some of the older stories that they maybe haven’t seen as much. Or how much things like Enchanted or Once Upon a Time will also effect that perception. Now that I’ve dived into this idea of our cultural perception of fairy tales I find it all so fascinating 🙂
I liked hearing about the origins of Rapunzel! I remembered Marissa Meyer saying something about the prince being blinded and we get that part of the story in Cress, but that is definitely glossed over in Tangled!
I have yet to move past Cinder in Marissa Meyer’s books. But I’m always curious exactly how she handles the fairy tales. I don’t think Disney would EVER do anything like that 🙂
I love these posts of yours, they’re so thoughtful! I think that like you said, Rapunzel is a heroine that we automatically label as weak and in distress, and don’t think twice about. But she’s much more resourceful and curious than we give her credit for. I think her curiosity was definitely magnified in Tangled, and I just love the movie to pieces. I think that in some ways we rewrite the story to update it in some ways, but also to make the characters more relatable (with more of a personality) and to make an old story that has been passed down for so long come alive again in a new and exciting way for a different generation. We just love the tale so much that we want to add to it.
thank you so much 🙂 That’s a great point, Tangled really took her curiosity and magnified it and made her really endearing through that. And I agree, it’s good that we keep retelling these stories and making them relevant for each new generation. It’s a fun way to rediscover and reinvent these characters 🙂