Fairy Tale: Rapunzel

In being rewritten and retold over the years, fairy tales are adapted and altered “to be more compatible with the ideological views of the audience” (Smith 2015, p. 424) or, because fairy tales are stories for children, the ideological views that the teller wishes to encourage in the audience. Embedding these values in stories makes them memorable and links them to seemingly concrete examples of reward and punishment. It also allows them to slip beneath the notice of otherwise vigilant parents on the basis that these stories are hallowed artefacts of our shared culture.

This essay focuses on four different versions of the story of Rapunzel, from 1886, 1968, 1993 and 2010. Of these, only the most recent deviates in a major way from the original story, although the details and focus change in each version.

In the 1886 version (translated by Lucy Crane and republished in 1963) the story begins with a man stealing some rampion (a salad vegetable known in German as “Rapunzel”) for his pregnant wife who wants it so badly that she will “die unless [she] can have some” (Crane 1963, p. 72). The witch (Mother Gothel) catches him and offers him the rampion in trade for his unborn child, a deal that he accepts due to his great “distress of mind” (Crane 1963, p. 73) over his wife's condition.

The witch takes the child (Rapunzel), who is “the most beautiful child in the world” (Crane 1963, p. 73) and the story then skips forward in time to when Rapunzel is twelve years old and the witch shuts her up in a tower. A prince happens by and hears her singing, but finds no way to get into the tower. He returns daily to listen to her sing, until he eventually hears Gothel calling for Rapunzel to let down her hair and thus learns how to enter.

Rapunzel is first terrified when the prince arrives, because she has “never seen [a man] before” (Crane 1963, p. 74) (presumably having lived her first twelve years in isolation as well), but soon warms to him and agrees to marry him if he will help her escape the tower. The prince visits her each evening, bringing a length of rope so that she can construct a ladder.

Their plans are thwarted, however, when Rapunzel accidentally lets it slip to Gothel, who cuts her hair off and takes her to live in a desert. Using the hair, she tricks the prince, who jumps from the tower, blinding himself on the thorns at the base of the tower. He wanders for “several years in misery” (Crane 1963, p. 75) until he finds Rapunzel, who has given birth to twins. Her tears heal his eyes and the two return to the prince's kingdom to marry.

The 1968 and 1993 versions make some small changes. Rapunzel's mother is no longer pregnant at the beginning (Smith 2015, p. 430) and demands “salad” (Southgate 1968) or “lettuce” (Baxter 1993). This affects how we perceive the witch's demand of the couple's unborn child, and also removes the symbolism of the name, but not to great detriment.

More significantly, in the 1968 version, the witch assures the man that she will “treat [the child] well and look after [her] like a mother” (Southgate 1968, p. 16) and is “represented visually as very maternal” (Smith 2015, p. 431). Whereas in the 1886 version we know only that Rapunzel “certainly [likes the prince] much better than old mother Gothel” (Crane 1963, p. 74), Southgate invites us to sympathise with the witch.

The 1993 version, by contrast, makes Gothel a much younger, “physically domineering” and powerful woman, “not maternal in any way” (Smith 2015, p. 431). And so the witch goes from a neutral to a sympathetic to an antagonistic figure.

One further change, though less significant, is that the 1993 version dramatically compresses the time frame, and leaves out Rapunzel's children – she and the prince meet only once and it may have been considered inappropriate to suggest that she became pregnant as a result, even though cause of that pregnancy is left to implication in all versions.

The 2010 Disney version (Tangled 2010) contrasts with these earlier versions both for the dramatic changes it makes to the plot and characters and for the things kept from earlier versions. For a start, Rapunzel is not traded to the witch but stolen – although the circumstances of the kidnapping and the events that precede it make it quite possible to see the witch's actions as justified – and while she is now a princess, the prince is transformed into a common thief, Flynn Rider.

The biggest difference though is in how the heroes and villains are portrayed. Gothel retains elements of the “motherly” 1968 version, appearing to genuinely care for Rapunzel and fear for her safety should she leave the tower, but she also bears great similarity to the 1993 version, particularly her (apparent) youth, her power and dominance, and a motive that could be interpreted as selfishness or greed; her reason for kidnapping the princess is to preserve her own life and youthful appearance.

On the other hand, the only reason she needs Rapunzel for this is that her original method involved a flower that was stolen from her by Rapunzel's father, and before resorting to kidnapping she does attempt to regain the flower's magic by less drastic means. And so while she is portrayed as the villain of the piece and unceremoniously murdered at the film's climax, the situation's a lot more nuanced than that.

The film's male protagonist, too, is less straight-forward than might be expected. Rather than being a noble prince rescuing the imprisoned Rapunzel for love, he is a traitorous thief who has to be blackmailed into helping her and arguably does not do anything of value at all – Rapunzel does not even require his assistance to leave the tower as her hair, in this version, is magical and allows her to do just about anything she pleases.

In fact, Flynn Rider seems extraneous to the plot in this version. Whereas in previous versions the prince plays a vital role in inspiring and helping Rapunzel to escape, here he seems unnecessary, retained only to fulfil the role of obligatory male lead. Comments by Jack Zipes in regard to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs seem strangely appropriate to this film also; “the film follows the classic sexist narrative about the framing of women's lives through a male discourse … the prince plays … a framing role because he is introduced at the beginning [and] also appears at the end of the film as a fulfillment of her dreams” (Zipes 2006, p. 204).

He also states that the “Disney fairy tale is geared toward nonreflective viewing. Everything is on the surface, one-dimensional” (Zipes 2006, p. 204), and this too seems true of Tangled. The story only works if we do not examine it too closely, if we do not allow ourselves to be sympathetic to the witch or to look past Rider's dynamic charisma to see him for the selfish and essentially useless character that he is.

But it is important to perform such an examination; “texts are not transparent objects; they are highly coercive linguistic strategies, positioning readers in particular ways” (Cranny-Francis 2014, p. 98) and children may be especially susceptible to such coercion. Thus fairy tales have the “function of acculturating young girls into passive sexual and social roles” (Cranny-Francis 2014, p. 100). Through fairy tales (and other stories) children “learn behavioural and associational patterns, value systems, and how to predict the consequences of specific acts or circumstances … these tales present a picture of sexual roles, behavior and psychology” (Lieberman 1972, p. 384).

In this, and many other cases, one part of this is association of the “happy ending” with “heterosexual romance and marriage … which typifies patriarchal discourse” (Cranny-Francis 2014, p. 93). It is also very important to note that even in the 2010 version, despite the fact that she could leave at any time, Rapunzel does not do so until the male protagonist arrives to “rescue” her (Tangled 2010), sending a clear message that it is appropriate for a man to be proactive and for a woman to be passive or reactive.

This is further reinforced by the positioning of Gothel as the villain, as with many other “women who are … generally shown as active, ambitious, strong-willed and, most often, ugly” (Lieberman 1972, p. 392). This last is particularly evident in the way Gothel's appearance changes to match her current role in the story. In her more pleasant, more motherly moments she is smiling and youthful. As she takes a more active role and attempts to thwart the protagonists she appears to age and become scruffier, harsher in appearance (Tangled 2010) and this is consistent even in the earlier versions of the story (Southgate 1968; Bazter 1993); “being powerful is mainly associated with being unwomanly” (Lieberman 1972, p. 392).

Thus girls who engage with this story are encouraged to be passive while boys are encouraged to be active, and even shown (in the 2010 version) that they will be forgiven for their transgressions without any need for repentance or restitution – Flynn Rider betrays his allies and flees the law in the beginning of the film only to end up living in luxury, married to a magical princess, without having made up for any of his crimes (Tangled 2010).

Baxter, N., 1993. Rapunzel: Favourite Tales. London, Ladybird Books.
Crane, L. & Crane, W. (illus.), 1963. Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Dover, New York.
Cranny-Francis, A., 2014. 'Gender and Genre: Feminist Subversion of Genre Fiction and its Implications for Critical Literacy', in B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (eds). The powers of literacy: A genre approach to teaching writing. Routledge.
Lieberman, M.R., 1972. “Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale. College English, 34(3), pp.383-395.
Smith, A., 2015. Letting Down Rapunzel: Feminism’s Effects on Fairy Tales. Children's Literature in Education, 46(4), pp.424-437.
Southgate, V., 1968. Rapunzel: A Ladybird ‘‘Easy-Reading’’ Book. Loughborough, Wills & Hepworth.
Tangled, 2010. Motion picture. Walt Disney Animation Studios. California.
Zipes, J., 2012. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Routledge.

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