Can’t get past the hair

On the blog, Girl w/Pen! Natalie Wilson writes about sexism and racism in Disney’s “Tangled:”

Renee of Womanist Musings points out, the glorifying of blonde hair – yet again – is problematic. She writes:

“As a Black woman, I know all to well how complicated the issue of hair can be.  Looking at the above image [of Tangled’s Rapunzel], I found that I could not see beyond her long blond hair and blue eyes.  I believe that this will also become the focal point of many girls of colour.  The standard of long flowing blond hair as the epitome of femininity necessarily excludes and challenges the idea that WOC are feminine, desired, and some cases loved and therefore, while Disney is creating an image of Rapunzel that we are accustomed to, her rebirth in a modern day context is problematic, because her body represents the celebration of White femininity.

The fact that Tangled is coming on the heels of the first African American princess is indeed problematic.  It makes Princess Tiana seem like an impotent token, with Rapunzel appearing to reset the standard of what princess means and even more precisely what womanhood means.”

I watched “Tangled” with my sister, both of us brunettes, and when we heard the line about how Rapunzel’s hair, if cut, loses its magic and turns brown, we looked at each other and started cracking up.

There is some other reference in the movie to “browness.” Does anyone remember what it is? Flynn takes Rapunzel into a bar full of drunken men, and he says something, or someone says something like: “It seems very brown in here” or it “smells brown.” Please tell me if you know what I’m talking about.

It is notable to, as Girl W/ Pen! refers to, that the princess death sentence is coming right after the first African-American young royal finally made her way to the animated screen. There’s lots of talk about ending the only cartoon vehicle that repeatedly allowed girls be stars, but not so much discussion about the racism involved in the timing of this decision. Also, I keep hearing that adjusted for inflation dollars, “The Princess and the Frog” did just as well as “The Little Mermaid.” If this is true, I don’t get why Disney execs claim the film was such a failure.

Again, I don’t want to be defending princesses here. I don’t like them. But I don’t like the way they’re being used to get rid of starring girls roles all together.

Natalie Wilson writes the cast of “Tangled” isn’t quite all white. On Rapunzel’s wicked mother:

Notably, Mother Gothel, Rapunzel’s evil abductress, has dark hair and eyes and non-Caucasian features.

According to Christian Blaulvelt of Entertainment Weekly, Mother Gothel is a dark, dark character. I mean, she’s a baby snatcher.” Ah yes, and she is dark in more ways than one – her dark skin, hair, and clothing contrasting with the golden whiteness of Rapunzel.

Alan Menken, the musical composer for the film, similarly notes that “Mother Gothel is a scary piece of work. Nothing she is doing is for the good of Rapunzel at all. It’s all for herself” Emphasizing her manipulative relationship with Rapunzel, Menken admits, “I was concerned when writing it. Like, will there be a rash of children trying to kill their parents after they’ve seen the movie?” Wow – how about worrying if there will be a rash of children who will see DARK-SKINNED mothers (and non-wedded ones) as evil and sinister?

In addition to carrying on Disney’s tradition of problematic representations of race, the film also keeps with the tradition of framing females beauty obsession as evil and “creepy” (Flyn’s words) rather than as understandable in a world of Disneyfied feminine norms. A mirror worshipper to rival the evil queen in Snow White, Gothel is presented as a passive-aggressive nightmare — she is the tyrannical single mother that is so overbearing Rapunzel must beg for the opportunity to leave the tower.

I always ask my daughter when we’re watching these movies: where are the moms? Belle in “Beauty in the Beast,” no mom. “Ariel” in The Little Mermaid, no mom. “Jasmine” in Aladdin, no mom.

4 thoughts on “Can’t get past the hair

  1. …where are the moms?

    We agree here. I’ve been noticing this for awhile. A girlfriend of mine and I used to joke about this. “Girl fiction” like Snow White, Cinderella, et al, has its roots in bedtime fairy tales, most of which are Brothers Grimm. “Boy fiction” does the same thing: The space explorers land on the planet within 500 feet of the guy who runs it, and he has a nubile daughter who needs to be taught how to kiss. No Mom. This, I think, was started by Forbidden Planet in 1956.

    These genres are not related to each other, so I don’t think you’re seeing a centralized conspiracy. I think, for the drama to exist, the main character has to be exposed to danger without anyone looking out for his or her interests or providing any protection. A Mom, of course, would provide these things (unless there’s a reason why she wouldn’t, which would be a story in itself), and just get in the way. Also, if there’s a Dad, a Mom would provide a relationship…which would then have to be defined by the story events. And this would be a distraction. Works for Shrek II, but other than that, again, it’s in the way. Makes it hard to tell the story. So Padme had to drop dead, leaving only Darth Vader.

    • I read a lot of fairytale criticism years ago. There were a lot of theories about why this was the case. I remember one was about the fairytales replicating social norms, telling the story of competition between the second wife and the child from the previous marriage making the story about women competing for resources. I can’t remember the others.

      Personally, I don’t think you can lay all the blame at the door of fairytales for the lack of parents. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights… and those are just the books that happen to be next to me at the moment.

      • Hi Cat,

        I agree its not just fairytales. I do think it is women competing for resources. It sucks that for women, competing for resources manifests in this way.


Leave a Reply