Last week, my family and I watched Into the Woods. The story between the Witch and Rapunzel got me thinking about Tangled, and the relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel. We at Animated Meta have wanted to write about their relationship dynamic for some time now, so when better than the present? Today, we’ll be tackling the dynamic between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, the abuse involved, and how Rapunzel breaks free of the cycle.
A lot of people forget that abuse isn’t always physical. In the case of the relationship between Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, most of the abuse is psychological, and has damaging effects on Rapunzel. Psychological abuse – or emotional abuse, as it’s sometimes called – can include:
- Exploiting or corrupting
- Verbally abusing
- Neglecting the child (American Humane Society)
Now, not all of these necessarily apply to every case, but a lot of these most definitely apply to how Mother Gothel treats Rapunzel.
Exploiting or corrupting
As defined by the American Humane Association, this applies when “a child is taught, encouraged or forced to develop inappropriate or illegal behaviors.” I’m not sure if this definition applies precisely to the situation, but the term exploitation definitely does.
The whole reason Mother Gothel kidnaps Rapunzel at the start of the movie is to exploit her. If she wanted a child to raise, she could have adopted one. But she kidnaps Rapunzel because Rapunzel has something that she needs: magic. She wants Rapunzel for the magic that her hair provides, because that magic can keep her young and prolong her life. She uses Rapunzel as a tool to extend her lifespan beyond natural means, and threatens Rapunzel once Rapunzel won’t willingly use her magic to help her. That’s exploitation to a T.
Ignoring and neglecting
Ignoring and neglecting aren’t touched on as much in the movie, but Mother Gothel does go off on little journeys, while leaving Rapunzel to her own devices. She ignores Rapunzel’s desires (like leaving the tower) and writes them off as ridiculous. Example: “You want to go outside? Oh why, Rapunzel?”
She also abandons Rapunzel after Rapunzel stands up to her, telling her not to come crying to her when Flynn breaks her heart. Love is supposed to be unconditional, but Mother Gothel’s love has conditions, and when they’re not followed, Rapunzel is shut off from her love. That’s terrible parenting and unfair to the child.
One of the most common tactics of an abuser is isolation, and that’s exactly what Mother Gothel does to Rapunzel. She raises Rapunzel away in a tower far from any civilization, and keeps her confined by fear. When Tangled begins, Rapunzel is about sixteen. That’s an insanely long time to be isolated, on your own, with only one person (and a chameleon) for companionship. Naturally, Rapunzel has started to go stir-crazy by the start of the movie. There’s only so much one person can do in a confined space because they start to feel entrapped. “When Will My Life Begin?” is about Rapunzel’s desire for adventure, but it’s also about her feelings of isolation and how she feels trapped, as evidenced by the end of the song:
Tomorrow night, lights will appear
Just like they do on my birthday each year
What is it like out there where they glow?
Now that I’m older,
Mother might just
Let me go
The wistful sadness in her voice at the end shows how big of a desire this is for Rapunzel, and how often it’s rejected by her mother. She hopes her mother will let her leave, but knows she probably won’t. And sure enough, instead of letting her go, Mother Gothel tries to terrify her away from the outside world by telling her that “it’s a scary world out there” and highlighting the more negative aspects of the world outside in “Mother Knows Best:”
It’s a scary world out there
Poison ivy, quicksand
Cannibals and snakes, the plague
It’s telling too that Mother Gothel isolates Rapunzel while the song is going on. She closes the window and plunges the room into darkness, forcing Rapunzel to rely on her in order to find her way and using Rapunzel’s fear in order to coax her into staying with her. That’s some hardcore isolation tactics, ones that make it clear why Rapunzel takes as long as she does to leave the tower. Who wouldn’t be scared shitless by all of those dramatics?
Verbally abusing and rejecting
These two go hand-in-hand, so I decided to put them together. Rejecting is an “active refusal to respond to a child’s needs”; verbally abusing involves “belittling, shaming, ridiculing, or verbally threatening the child” (American Humane Association). Mother Gothel does all four of these things in spades.
Belittling: Whenever Mother Gothel talks to Rapunzel, she uses a patronizing tone, like she’s a small child, even though Rapunzel’s a teenager. She calls her “fragile as a flower, still a little sapling, just a sprout” and uses nicknames like pet, darling, and dear, which come off as condescending. She also mocks her newfound growth in the “Mother Knows Best Reprise:”
Rapunzel knows best
Rapunzel’s so mature now
Such a clever grown-up miss
Also, the phrase “mother knows best” is patronizing in itself. It implies that Rapunzel’s opinions and feelings don’t hold merit, because Mother Gothel’s are superior.
Shaming: Mother Gothel shames Rapunzel into staying in the tower. “Mother Knows Best” is a great example because while she preys on Rapunzel’s fears, she also manipulates her using their bond as mother and daughter:
Go ahead, get trampled by a rhino
Go ahead, get mugged and left for dead
Me, I’m just your mother, what do I know?
I only bathed and changed and nursed you
Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it
Let me die alone here, be my guest
We know Mother Gothel doesn’t really feel this way, so her words are purely for Rapunzel’s benefit, in order to shame her and make her feel guilt for wanting to leave her alone in the tower. It’s shameful behavior.
This is one of the biggest issues highlighted in the movie. The way Mother Gothel speaks to Rapunzel, and the way that she uses her insecurities against her, is so cruel. She preys on Rapunzel’s appearance, calling her chubby and sloppy. She jabs at her personality, calling her ditzy, gullible, naïve, immature. She tells her that the world outside will “eat her alive” and that it’s a “cruel dark place” but the truth is that Mother Gothel is all of these things. She is the monster eating Rapunzel’s spirit alive, and the tower is a cruel dark place she cannot escape.
There’s a great symbolic moment, when Rapunzel is lighting her way with the candles, and Mother Gothel comes up right behind her and snuffs out each light. It symbolizes the way that Mother Gothel’s harsh words smother Rapunzel’s light and spirit, feeding into her lack of confidence about both herself and the world outside her tower.
However, she can’t suppress Rapunzel’s spirit forever, as seen in the Mother Knows Best Reprise, when Rapunzel takes a stand and refuses to let her mother continue belittling and ridiculing her. It’s also important to note why the change is so drastic. There are a few reasons. First, from “Mother Knows Best” to the reprise, Rapunzel has had time in the outside world. She’s discovered that it’s not really as cruel or dark as she was told, and she also grows into herself as a person. Second, Rapunzel gets some human interaction, and experiences a much healthier relationship experience with Eugene.
While Eugene is a thief, he’s also someone who’s open with Rapunzel. He doesn’t belittle her or ridicule her. He respects her feelings and her dreams. He is someone she can trust, and her being able to open up and trust someone who isn’t using her as a fountain of youth is a really liberating experience for her. Eugene feels the same way, accepting her trust and bestowing his in return, as seen below. This is important because Rapunzel finally has a two way relationship, where both parties care.
Rapunzel is beginning to distinguish healthy relationships vs. unhealthy ones, and encountering Mother Gothel after spending time with Eugene shows her the truth: mother doesn’t know best.
The most telling aspect of Rapunzel’s spirit coming out is when Mother Gothel attempts to tell her that mother knows best, and Rapunzel cuts her off before she can even finish with a firm “no!” That’s huge for Rapunzel, who was always unwilling to stand her ground against her in the past. Before, she had reservations, but would eventually fold. Now, Rapunzel knows better, and she won’t let Mother Gothel manipulate or ridicule her any longer.
Verbally threatening: While Mother Gothel ridicules Rapunzel, she doesn’t outright threaten her until later on in the movie. However, there is a veiled threat in “Mother Knows Best” that I didn’t catch at first:
When it’s too late, you’ll see, just wait
It’s subtle, but definitely a threat. Mother Gothel doesn’t get more overt until later, when her control over Rapunzel begins slipping away, and then she decides to escalate matters by threatening Flynn’s life so that Rapunzel will leave with her, which ties into…
Terrorizing involves fear and creating an environment that terrifies the child, which Gothel does earlier on in the movie when she tries to make Rapunzel scared of the world outside of her tower. But terrorizing can also mean “placing the child or the child’s loved one in a dangerous or chaotic situation.” How does that tie into the plot? Well, it describes the end of the movie, where Mother Gothel threatens Eugene’s safety and stabs him to hurt Rapunzel and also shatter her spirit, so that Rapunzel will go with her.
Rapunzel agrees if she allows her to heal Flynn before she leaves, essentially playing into Mother Gothel’s manipulations. Eugene cutting Rapunzel’s hair breaks her free of Gothel’s control, because now Gothel has no leverage over her, and also no way to continue healing herself. The cycle of terror ends with her death, and once Flynn is healed, Rapunzel has a chance at a new start and healthier relationships with her parents and Eugene.
American Humane Association. (n.d.). Emotional Abuse. Retrieved April 6, 2015, from American Humane Association: http://www.americanhumane.org/children/stop-child-abuse/fact-sheets/emotional-abuse.html
Do you think Tangled did a good job at portraying psychological abuse? What do you think of Mother Gothel and Rapunzel’s relationship? Let us know in the comments!
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