Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cartoons and Cougar Backlash: Disney's "Tangled" as Postmenopausal Mommy-Bashing

We live in a culture obsessed with looking young. Even cartoon characters, especially when they are women, seem obsessed with youth culture. And hey, who can blame them? They aren't bad, really, they're just drawn that way.

Think about Mother Gothel, the new Disney villainess from Tangled. She's a curvaceous cougar who remains that way over the centuries because she's found, not the fountain of youth, or Dr. 90210, but this magic golden flower thing that zaps all her wrinkles and leaves her firm-skinned and bouncy (Avon needs to bottle some of that, yo). But it's all dermatology, not biology. Because, despite her moniker, the magical golden flower thing doesn't, apparently, affect Mother Gothel's ovaries. No, despite her hotness, there's no baby-making in this villainess' life - nor any love interest either (because infertility is apparently a requirement of all cartoon lady meanies... Oh, I guess except Cinderella's evil stepmother...).

Anyhoo, in order to fulfill the prophecy of her name and become a mother, Mother Gothel's got to rely on baby-stealing. 'Cause The Man (king's soldiers) has come and stolen her glowing flower from where she hid it, under a... er, bush. Hark! Someone even more deserving needs that flower's (vaginal?) power! The kingdom's pregnant queen is dying! (And she's a woman of appropriate reproductive age! Someone who deserves state assistance!) When queenie drinks said golden flower thing and passes its magical youth-enhancing powers to her fetus-in-waiting, witchie-poo has no option but to kidnap the princess Rapunzel and raise her for the next eighteen years in a tall, doorless tower so that she and she alone might make use of Rapunzel's 70 feet of magical, very blonde tresses, which work better than Botox and a box of Preference in keeping Motha wrinkle-free and raven-haired well into her 200's. How does she keep Goldilocks-and-locks-and-locks in this enormous, all body chastity belt? Certainly not with anything so last millenia as a lock. No, no. This mean motha uses those age old maternal weapons: guilt and emotional manipulation. 'Natch.

In Disney's new adaptation of the Grimm's brother's classic, Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy) doesn't actually quote from Sir Walter Scott ("Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive") but her message to Rapunzel is essentially the same: do not cross Mother, for Mother knows what's best for you. In fact, she belts out a fAAbulous number called "Mother Knows Best" in the grand style of that ultimate stage mother, Mama Rose. ("Mother knows best, listen to your mother, it's a scary world out there. Mother knows best, listen to your mother, something will go wrong I swear!")

The film's actual plot revolves around Rapunzel's breakin' her poor (manipulative) mama's heart by leaving her tower of power/fortress of solitude/childhood home with certain cartoon cutie named Finn Rider. Ok, yea, he's the first guy she's ever met. And kind of a jerk. And oh, yea, a thief. But girls - even really hairy girls - just wanna have fun, right?  In the end, the film's message is about the emergence of adolescent autonomy and the need to, literally and figuratively, 'kill the mother' in order to achieve adulthood.

Now, don't take all my snarkiness the wrong way. I liked the film, I did. It was fun and witty and visually appealing. But, frankly, I'm a little bored with this killing off of parents in folk/fairytales, as well as modern MG and YA novels. In fact, there was a great article in Publisher's Weekly this fall about the "Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome," a phenomenon which, yes, frees up the young protagonist(s) to find their way and have adventures, but simultaneously gestures to an inability of children's literature to deal with parents altogether. Which is why I really enjoy it when authors like John Green write parents well, while remaining true to their bildungsroman (coming of age) plots. (As the character Hassan says in Green's "An Abundance of Katherines, "...what kind of a bastard would lie to his own mother?")

But beyond just the Freudian/Oedipal/Elektra-ish need to kill off the parental unit before, well, being able to get your animated groove on, is the specifically anti-mother thing. Unlike Green's Hassan, Disney's Rapunzel does lie to her mother, but in the film, this lying is all in the spirit of autonomy, romance, and freedom.  A lot has been written already in the blogosphere about Mother Gothel as the latest in long line of Disney's female villains.  She is hot and cold, a "yeller" in an age of Stepfordly calm-voiced time outs; the kind of a mother who can mention that her daughter is getting a little chubby, but in the next breath swear "I love you more."

But Mother G. isn't the classic female villain either. She isn't exactly Mommy Dearest (there are no wire hangers in the entire movie, and when she brushes Rapunzel's hair, I didn't even see her pulling at any tangles), nor is she the evil queen stepmother prototype of Meleficent (who wanted to kill Snow White for being prettier than her after all, while Mother G. is perfectly happy to, er, share Rapunzel's beauty). She's no where near the psychiatric construct of the unavailable "refrigerator mother" whose coldness was supposed to have caused any number of mental illnesses (think Betty Draper from Mad Men). In fact, Mother Gothel's  overcontrolling/loving behavior likens her only to what I think is supposed to be some sort of universal 'ethnic' Mama figure (Italian? Jewish? Indian?). The kind of Mama who feeds you well (Mama G. keeps promising to make Rapunzel's favorite soup), supplies you with all you need to engage in various after-school activities (painting, knitting, hair braiding), hugs you to her (ample) bosom, but smacks you upside the head too, and puts almost insurmountable roadblocks on your progress to sexual maturity. In fact, we might call Mama G. a sort of castrating mother, unwilling to let her child leave the safety (and chastity) of the tower, and unwilling to allow anyone (but herself) learn the secret of Rapunzel's unique brand of (sexual) healing by climbing Rapunzel's, er... hair.

And this is where I started to squirm. And wondered if the other mother in the theater were squirming too. I mean, mothers have historically been criticized for everything - not being authoritarian enough, being too authoritarian, not being available enough, being too available. But if there's something that the mothers of my generation have been criticized for, it's being 'helicopter mothers' - hovering around, ensuring their children's safety and security, not allowing them to do enough 'dangerous' things. Which, to me, isn't that different than the 'ethnic' mother of a previous generation being criticized for being too overbearing, too loving, too protective.  And now this twist to the Grimm tale (which was loaded with enough gendered metaphors to begin with... virgin locked in tower by witch, prince scaling walls, etc.) - whereby the magic of a young woman's hair (didn't someone, like in Little Women or something, say that hair was always considered a woman's crowning beauty?), is the key to her mother's preservation of youth. So, are we mothers now going to be criticized for being too... what, attractive too? Is Rapunzel some sort of backlash to the cougar phenomenon? (After all, she is voiced over by Mandy, and not Demi, Moore!) Are we supposed to 'go gently into that good (AARP) night' lest we disturb visions of dating sugar plums dancing in our daughters' heads?

Mama mia keeps Rapunzel afraid, naive, and underconfident about her abilities to face the frightening 'real world.' ("Totally unprepared are you, to face a world of men, timid and shy and scared are you, of things beyond your ken..." OH, sorry, wrong movie, but you get the idea...) She sacrifices Rapunzel's sexual maturity to maintain her own desireability - a kind of sicko mother-daughter version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Mama G. can only remain a MILF if Rapunzel remains (at least psychologically) a wide-eyed, cookie baking, day dreaming tween.  In this way, Rapunzel's rebellion/autonomy becomes a slam of the (postmenopausal) mommy.

Get off the estrogen - er, magic hair - supplementation, Motha. There's only room for one hottie in this family!

Oh, yea, and pass the comb over here. 'Cause dead mothers can't brush hair.


  1. LOL! Brilliant and hilarious! Thanks!

  2. Thanks Jimin - I didn't even go INTO the whole thing about how to kill the mother the ne'er do well boyfriend chops off Rapunzel's blonde hair - which promptly turns brown (and looks mysteriously like the pixie haircut that future-predicting vampire chick best friend has in Twilight). Oh, yea, but it's all ok, because her magic healing powers are now in her TEARS! Gag! Whas up wid dat?

  3. Thanks Veronica. right back at you - lovd yours on viva la feminista!