Women and Flower Power: Uncovering the Inter-‘Tangled’ Structures of Gender and Sexuality in “The Lais of Marie de France” and in “Tangled” by Danielle Straus

“Oh, great. Now I’m the bad guy” (Mother Gothel, Tangled). Enclosed by Flynn’s narrative on both ends, the plot of Disney’s 2010 Tangled situates itself within the frame of male gaze. Flynn determines who’s the “bad guy” and whether or not they are all living happily ever after in the end of the plot. Even in the initial moments when he accidentally stumbles upon the tower, his adventure abroad saves Rapunzel from (it’s implied) an endless cycle of “wondering, and wondering, and wondering… Wondering, just when will [her] life begin” (Rapunzel, Tangled). In The Lais of Marie De France, this endless cycle of wondering is situated not in a high tower far away from the village, but in an enclosure surrounded almost entirely by sea. The plot, initiated and shaped in many ways by the travels of Guigemar, introduces the Lord’s wife as similarly waiting for her life to begin, sentenced to live in the enclosure for eternity until the accidental, handsome knight stumbles upon her shores. Though initially both plots are shaped by the actions of men and built around the fulfillment of men’s wishes (whether it means obtaining enormous wealth all for himself or finding a woman to cure his wounds), there lingers the question of whether or not the structures of sexuality and gender remain comparable throughout the two texts, even though one was created nearly 10 centuries later than the other. Through tracing themes of control over women’s sexuality, chastity, and both the literal and symbolic flower, this essay will uncover the structural similarities and differences of the interlocking systems of gender and sexuality in Disney’s 2010 Tangled and The Lais of Marie de France

To begin with, the first instance of control over women we encounter in the plots of each text is through the lens of the captor/captive narrative, where young and beautiful women are unnaturally locked away from the world by an older mismatched captor. In The Lais, this conflict is marital, as the Lord locks his wife away in an enclosure defended only by a eunuch to ensure her fidelity. With implications that the Lord is unable to ‘harvest’ her sexuality himself, he instead puts his efforts toward protecting it and hoarding it with a guard, so that no others can ‘invade’ her enclosure. Like the Lord, Mother Gothel similarly faces age conflict with her captor, Rapunzel. But instead of marriage here, the conflict is one of incest. Mother Gothel’s concealing of the flower/Rapunzel, likewise, feels unnatural–hoarding off youth for one’s own ends. However, an important distinction here is the ways in which each character is villainized in the text. Whereas the Lord is made to seem impotent and possessive, Gothel’s depiction—hoarding Rapunzel’s powers all to herself, locking the young girl away, and harvesting her till the end of time—is inextricably interconnected with antisemitic stereotypes and sexism. 

In The Lais, the differences between the Lord and Guigemar seem obvious, in that one is a handsome, young, and sexually competent knight, the other is an old and impotent Lord. While, in Tangled, the mis-matched aesthetics of Mother Gothel and Rapunzel (in contrast to the compatible coupling of Flynn and Rapunzel) seem to duplicate those in The Lais with the hoarding as a dead-end for both captors; yet, upon a closer look, the differences between Flynn and Gothel become less distinct. Both Flynn and Mother Gothel harvest Rapunzel’s healing powers for their own ends, both tell her lies and hide things from her in order to manipulate her, and both desire for no one else to have access to her powers. I will make the argument that, although the differences between Gothel and Flynn’s relationship to Rapunzel appear as starkly contrasted as the Lord and Guigemar’s relationship with the Lord’s wife, in the case of the Tangled narrative, this difference is only made possible with both Flynn’s narration as the frame of the text and the prevalence of antisemitism, sexism, and whiteness through the film.

Since the text is anchored in Flynn’s narrative, we are introduced to Gothel as the imposter, the manipulator, the fake mother, the greedy thief, and the kidnapper. But upon revisiting the story objectively, the flower was originally taken from Gothel by knights of the crown outside of the parameters of the kingdom, even though Gothel had it centuries before the kingdom even existed. The force that kept her alive was extracted and consumed by the monarchy in order to ensure the continuation of its familial lineage, and therefore, the flower becomes Rapunzel. So, after attempting other ways (cutting of hair, searching for remnants of magical flower, …) Gothel takes the flower back and returns to her position of exile from the kingdom. Yet, with Flynn dictating the narrative, Gothel isn’t only framed as an imposter but is also held captive herself to a feminine beauty standard of youth, a witch hoarding and sucking the youth from a young, white, beautiful girl to feel beautiful herself—effectively rendering her life-or-death dependence on the flower power as a superficial commodity. 

This is brought forward in the scene immediately following Rapunzel’s big ask to leave the house and before the notorious “Mother Knows Best” song, when the two women stand in front of a full-length mirror and Gothel makes comments on each woman’s appearance. This shot (Figure 1) gestures towards a trope repeated in photographs and paintings during the era of the “modern woman,” such as the typical saloon painting Verre de Venise painted by Jacques Emile Blanche, which align the painting’s frame with the mirror frame. In effect, the formulation collapses the distinction between the woman and her image, as she is completely absorbed into her own reflection, portraying the cliché of autoerotic pleasure. The thematic of narcissism, via employing the mirror, contributed tremendously to the establishment of modern constructions of homosexual as well as feminine sexuality, the auto-erotic narcissus slipping into the homoerotic and even homosexual. Returning to the scene, framed by the mirror, the tropes of autoeroticism, with associative slippage to homoeroticism, and in this case incest, become emergent within the frame of the mirror as the image of the mirrored self and ‘real’ self are collapsed into one. Along with this sexism, integral to maintaining the imaginations of Mother Gothel as the illegitimate and ‘un-natural’ guardian and the villain in the text, the strategic dispensing of antisemitic images and rhetoric work within the film to depict the figure of an ethnic ‘other’, against which Rapunzel’s (and even Flynn’s) whiteness, purity, and innocence become visible and, further, need protection from.

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Figure 1: Gothel makes comments about her beauty in this mirror-shot, with (the text) effectively minimizing her life and death reliance on the flower to mere beauty standards.

This antisemitism is most notably harnessed through the figure of Gothel as the Jewish Mother stereotype. Through this caricature, the film both makes plausible and even justifiable her exile from the kingdom, her vilification throughout, and finally her impending and inevitable ‘degeneration’ leading to her death. The Jewish Mother caricature, “from domineering to grotesque,” is a cultural construct “developed by male writers in the United States in the 1960’s” as a counterattack against second wave feminism and to undermine attributes of power by silencing ethnic women: “warning against their zealous energy and hidden agendas” (Ravitas 3,4). These women would be scapegoated as embodiments of the unassimilable nature of Jewish people as a whole as well as the failures of the feminist movement (and need/justification for racial division within it). In Tangled, portraying Gothel as this unassimilable caricature allows for her status in exile to be unquestioned, and her kidnapping of Rapunzel to be readily incorporable into the imaginations of audiences. 

Whether the Jewish mother is represented as protecting her children or demanding their loyalty, she is seen as exceeding prescribed boundaries, as being excessive. Her claims to affection, her voicing of opinions, her expressions of maternal worry are perceived as threatening in part because she acts as a free agent, not as a subordinate female according to mainstream cultural ideals. Even when she is represented as self-effacing, cast as the martyr, she is interpreted as being manipulative or passive-aggressive, secretly striving to impose her will on others (Ravitas 4).

Although Rapunzel is caught between these two mothers, the original caretaker of the flower/sole caretaker of Rapunzel and the mother who consumed the plant and gave birth to Rapunzel, the text makes legible the illegitimacy of Gothel’s motherhood through her caricatured depiction. Beyond the obvious physical depictions, the large hooknose, dark beady eyes, and drooping eyelids (which become even more visible as she ‘degenerates’ into her ‘true’ age or ‘true’ self), Gothel is also portrayed as manipulative and greedy: century-old stereotypes that have been used to justify antisemitic beliefs. Whereas Flynn’s humor is used as a plot device, getting the audience to sympathize with him, even when he is in the midst of manipulating Rapunzel, Gothel’s humor and passive aggressiveness is used to illuminate her deceitfulness. Gothel’s nurturance and protectiveness is overshadowed by the stereotype of smothering and crossing boundaries. Her humor falls in line with Jewish stereotypes, with her ‘not giving an answer for things’ evoking more shadiness and even less sympathy for her character. Additionally, any proof of her love becomes funneled into the category of deceitfulness and manipulation as it only becomes legible when she is projecting guilt onto Rapunzel about her endless suffering.

Figure 2: The mirror shatters as Gothel’s life is taken away in her unfolding ‘degeneration;’ it appears almost as though it is her ‘ugliness’ that is more shocking in this scene than her death (via the framing and shattering of the mirror.

Additional to this caricatured Jewish Mother, Gothel also represents an ethnic ‘other’, against which Rapunzel’s whiteness and innocence becomes visible. Much more than the age conflict between the Lord and his wife in The Lais, the mismatching of aesthetic between the young, innocent, blond, beautiful, sweet, blue-eyed, white Rapunzel and the old, ‘degenerating’, Jewish, sour, dark, curly haired, beady eyed, hook nosed, manipulative, parasitic, vampiric Mother Gothel makes the conflict more than one of age but also of ethnic identity. Harnessing the whiteness of Rapunzel, the film dispenses images invoking the missing white woman syndrome, through its canonical abduction scenes of Rapunzel which work to enhance the instinct to protect her purity from this ‘other’. 

For example, the scene in which Mother Gothel commands the two Stabbington brothers to try and take Rapunzel is filmed in a series of shots which emphasize the lightness and diminutive, petite stature of Rapunzel, juxtaposed against the dark silhouettes of the giant men. In this scene, Rapunzel runs away, but is unsuccessful when her beautiful, golden hair gets tangled around a rock, her hair both literally and figuratively preventing her from escaping the never-ending cycle of harvesting. These shots emphasize Rapunzel as the epitome of whiteness and purity, something precious, pure, and needing protection, with illustrations hinged upon the opposing degeneration or corruption of those around her—namely Gothel’s Jewishness.

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Figure 3: The Stabbington brothers juxtapose Rapunzel’s purity and diminutive stature, invoking fears of human trafficking and the missing white woman syndrome.

Emergent alongside these similarities and differences in captors, creating the conditions for the damsel to be in distress, are the male rescuers, catalyzing the oppressed women’s journeys to freedom. In both of the texts, the labor of women is needed to ‘cure’ the man’s both physical and emotional ‘wounds’. In the case of Guigemar, he faces a wound with no remedy or healing “until she shall heal [him] / who will suffer, for love of [him], / …and [he] will do as much for her” (Guigemar, Lines 115-119). The wound in his thigh, along with his asexuality, needs to be cured by the Lord’s wife (by having sex with him/him harvesting her sexuality), her sex work required to heal him. Similarly to Guigemar, Flynn’s relief from suffering is contingent upon Rapunzel and the harvesting of her flower. Throughout Tangled, Flynn ‘harvests’ Rapunzel’s flower three times in order to be rescued. He uses her hair to get out of the cave, to heal his wounded hand, and ultimately carries out a complete harvest in order to take Rapunzel away from her mother (killing the mother to get to the daughter) and ensure that she cannot be harvested by anyone else ever again. Guigemar also completes a harvesting of sorts of the Lord’s wife’s sexuality after he convinces her that “the lady of good intentions / who has worth and sense” (Guigemar, 519-20) would not be so fickle and reluctant to have sex with him or admit her love for him. This practice of reverse psychology and manipulation to get what he wants is something Flynn also does throughout the text (though his nefarious intentions seem oftentimes to crouch behind his ‘charming’ humor) in order to obtain what he desires from her (the crown, her hair, her sympathy). 

In the end, in this ‘final harvest’ Flynn isn’t just healed from the wound Gothel made in his side, he is also healed from his emotional wounds causing him to have no family and no love; in other words, Flynn gets everything he wished for, he gets Rapunzel away from her mother, he gets the crown (his dream of piles and piles of money), he gets the family that he has never had, and he gets a wife, “On an island that [he, one day will] own [once he becomes king] Tanned and rested and alone, Surrounded by enormous piles of money” (Flynn, “I’ve Got a Dream,” Tangled). Although he suffers for Rapunzel–the cut hand, almost drowning in the cave (though both this and the cut hand were actually caused by his attempt to sabotage her plans to see the lights and because of his status as a wanted criminal), getting into horse fights, and getting stabbed in the side–in the moment when he makes the decision to cut off her hair, he takes everything he wants and leaves her with nothing: the ultimate moment of asymmetrical ‘love pain.’ 

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Figure 4: Rapunzel’s ‘real’ mother offering Flynn—the killer of Gothel, Rapunzel’s ‘imposter’ mother—to join the group-hug and become part of the family: something he has never had.

Though this scene parallels the moments in Guigemar of the two lovers sharing love pains for each other, and when the two lovers ensure that no other lover can ever be with them through the knots (similar to the cutting of hair) and chastity belt—though the belt is importantly not a removable object—there is more mutuality in The Lais than there is in the story of Tangled. Whereas the cutting of Rapunzel’s hair was a clear euphemism for the killing of her mother, with Flynn taking complete control and ultimately destroying Rapunzel’s powers to heal people and save lives, the chastity belt and knot represent more of a symbol of intimacy than a mechanism of control. The cutting of hair scene may relate more to the moment in which Guigemar forces the Lord’s wife to have sex with him in order to heal himself in that it duplicates the sense of male control in order to satisfy their needs/heal their wounds. 

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Figure 5: Flynn cuts Rapunzel’s hair in the final harvest, ensuring that it will not be used to heal or save anyone else ever again.

Similarly, another theme infiltrating both these texts is the quest for freedom being contingent on male violence. From the cutting of the hair to killing Mother Gothel, to the starving and killing of Meriaduc’s entire village in the case of Guigemar–both texts make it necessary, if not desirable and justified, to use extreme violence to remove these women from the cycles of trafficking that they are caught within. Interestingly too, before this moment of violence, both men offer objects or services in exchange for their prospective wives, exchanging either service in war (Guigemar to Meriaduc) or a crown that didn’t even belong to him (Flynn to the Stabbington Brothers) in order to buy her and, correspondingly, their own freedom; yet, both men fail in these exchanges as the woman is seen as the highest prize. This clear economy of exchange and interchangeability—especially in the case of Tangled where Rapunzel is quite literally objectified—in each text leads to the view of woman and the desirable ‘wife’ figure as an interchangeable and exchangeable commodity which both men needed to resort to violence in order to obtain.

Although both texts portrayed a clear damsel in distress/captive princess narrative, Rapunzel and the Lord’s wife express and obtain their empowerment, freedom, and pleasure in both similar and divergent ways. As mentioned earlier, although the journeys to the outside of their enclosures/towers were somewhat catalyzed by the men in each text, the captors had an equal if not greater role in their pursuits of pleasure and freedom. In the case of The Lais, unlike Rapunzel who withheld the crown from Flynn to get what she wanted from him, despite his persistent manipulation and sabotage of her plans, the Lord’s wife does not achieve her freedom from withholding anything from a man (in fact, he pressures her into acquiescing her sexuality almost immediately). The wife discovers by herself that the door to her enclosure is unlocked; she desires Guigemar and then, magically, his boat appears and brings her away. Although Rapunzel makes the recognition that Mother Gothel is not her ‘real’ mother and that she is the lost princess all by herself, her freedom from captivity is still contingent upon Flynn and his killing of her mother, just as her first journey away from home was dependent upon his (mis)direction. Although both women’s freedom was dependent on male violence, in the end, the Lord’s wife got what she wanted: freedom, a handsome and fulfilling (sexually and emotionally) partner; however, Rapunzel was reunited with parents she didn’t even remember, yes, she was able to leave the house and explore for once in her life but had lost her powers and the only mother she’s ever known. 

In conclusion, though both texts show structural consistencies regarding the oppression of women, and control and concern over who and what kind of people are able to ‘harvest’ women’s flowers, the 12th century text has shown a greater level of mutuality, empowerment, pleasure, and freedom for women than the 21st century Disney film (progress is not linear). Both texts shared fundamental similarities in that both stories are framed by men and both stories’ “happily every after(s)” are contingent on male violence; in other words, this ‘knight in shining armor’ trope (Guigemar and Flynn) is depicted in similar ways: taking circumstances into his own hands and not looking for women’s consent before making decisions. This lack of consent, from Flynn cutting off Rapunzel’s hair to Guigemar forcing the Lord’s wife to have sex with him, in order to be healed from one’s wounds and take the captive away from the captor repeats in both texts, taking away the women’s power in order to remedy their own wounds. Yet the villain diverges from Tangled to The Lais. As opposed to the intrinsically vilifying qualities of the Lord (oppressive towards his wife, jealous, and sexually impotent), Disney pushed and forwarded a vilification of Gothel through its reliance on sexist and antisemitic imagery, dispensing it to create and frame the ‘villain narrative’ making Gothel’s exile, torture, and killing palatable and justifiable[1]. And finally, though women’s journeys to freedom/escape, along with their sexualities/flowers, seem controlled by men in both texts, I found much more mutuality, liberation, and pleasure in the case of the Lord’s wife than in the case of Rapunzel.


Footnotes:

[1] Importantly, the Disney text in its caricatured depictions of Mother Gothel also bears the responsibility of creating, upholding, and repeating antisemitic ideology in the minds and imaginations of a generation. I am not at all saying, “save the [figure of the] child” (Edelman, No Future) but I do think we should assign a great deal of blame to Disney for embedding antisemitic imagery and ideology into the minds of their young audiences. 

Works Cited:

“Guigemar.” The Lais of Marie De France: Text and Translation, by Marie and Claire M. Waters, Broadview Press, 2018, pp. 52–99. 

Howard, Byron and Nathan Greno, directors. Tangled. Disney, 24 Nov. 2010. 

Latimer, Tirza True. “Chapter 3: ‘Narcissus and Narcissus’: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.” Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Rutgers University Press, 2005. 68–104.

Ravits, Martha A. “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture.” MELUS, vol. 25, no. 1, Mar. 2000, pp. 3–31., doi:10.2307/468149. 


Danielle Straus is a rising senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She is passionate about racial justice/climate justice, radical feminism, disability justice, LGBTQ++ activism, and subverting binaries. Originally from San Diego, California, Danielle loves art, the outdoors, reading novels, and anything queer. As an English major and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies minor, she is most interested in writing about theory, cinema, and literature. Along with creating ceramic and wood sculptures, Danielle’s lifelong dream is to publish novels of her own.

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