This week, in class, I was teaching “Rapunzel.” And it got heavy. Not from the incredible weight of the 30 ells of her hair, but because it spawned a deeper realization.
Traditions need to be changed. More importantly, the older the tradition, the more it needs to be reconsidered.
So how the hell did I come to this conclusion while teaching “Rapunzel,” a Fairy Tale with a very limited mystical background?
A simple comparison.
I teach a class called “Science Fiction and Fantasy” in which I show my students a whole lot of movies. Yes, you would love to take this class with me. What people don’t necessarily want to think of when it comes to SFF is that these are avenues of creative exploration. They allow us to take the human condition (which is always the heart of any good SFF story) and explore the simple question of “What if…?”
Rapunzel is no different. There are mystical concepts in it, a woman called an enchantress, a girl whose hair is really really long, and magical tears. The problem with Fairy Tales in the modern world is that they are outdated.
If you compare Brothers’ Grimm’s original story with the version of the story that Disney released several years ago, the Brothers might not be able to recognize the story beyond the girl with the hair and the tower. They would look at it and ask “What of the warnings about trespassing?” “What of the advice we give to our daughters?” “What about the sex?” “What of the invincible enchantress or the problems with obsession?”
And they would be right. Their original story has been stripped bare. In fact, let’s look at some specifics. Let’s start with the original tale – the “authentic” one, if you’ll pardon my self-promotion and compare it to Disney’s relatively recent movie Tangled. One key thing to keep in mind as you continue is to remember that fables and fairy tales are ways to teach lessons. There are a whole lot of lessons in both versions of the story, kids. So watch closely.
- Rapunzel was born to a “man and his wife.” Implicit in this is that their trade, roles in society don’t matter, which would directly correlate to the lives of most people who would access to this story. In other words, this could happen to anyone. Disney’s animated version makes them King and Queen. Sure their names aren’t really given, but they are important. And that’s important. With the everyday quality of “man and his wife,” the Bros. Grimm were saying that this story is applicable to all. As a social generalization, it means that it could happen to all, and as such, the story served as a means of educating anyone who came across it. By making these two parents royalty, Disney made Rapunzel’s story a very unique and special situation.
- The man and woman live across from a wonderful garden, with all sorts of wonderful plants, and especially a rampion, which the wife craves. When her temptation gets too potent, she convinces her husband to scale the wall and bring her the tasty tuber. We could pick up on 2 things here. The first is that where there is beauty, there will invariably be those who would seek to exploit it. Depressing a thought, isn’t it? The second is that women are greedy and that a good husband would do anything for her. “How dare he say that!” Yet, is there not some truth to it? Do many women not suffer incredibly bizarre cravings during pregnancy? And shouldn’t a good husband aid her in easing the cravings – if not directly for her, than for the unborn baby? How is this example not indicative of that? To me, I’d say there is nothing wrong with such cravings, nor is there anything wrong with the two being responsible to their unborn baby by giving them exposure to a whole lot of nutrients in utero. Am I copping out? It’s up to you to decide. But there is certainly a pretty good piece of wisdom here – “Pregnant women, expect the oddball cravings. Husbands, be good and aid her in her cravings.” In Disney, they simplify it by showing the Queen afflicted by some unstated illness during her pregnancy with Rapunzel. By not stating what the illness is, they put nobody to blame – not even the pregnancy. It’s a glossing over of facts, causality, and blame. Grimm squarely placed blame on the woman’s shoulders while allowing the man to do his duty to his wife. After all, “a happy wife is a happy life.”
- But while it is never explicitly stated that the woman is pregnant, when the time comes, she most certainly does have a baby. And the pair are happy! Yay! Since no timing of this situation is defined, I choose to read between the lines and maintain my theory that the woman’s obsession with the tasty tuber (rampion) as a pregnancy-inspired craving. Of course this is a modern interpretation of what was going on. Back in the days of Grimm, would a casual male observer be aware of such nuance? I personally think that the depiction of her in this tale presents a shallow freak who goes off into tantrums when she can’t get what she wants. Personally, I much prefer the former. So that’s where I stand. No Disney comparison here.
- The man gets caught by the owner of the garden, a woman “who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.” She is called an “enchantress” and yet, at no point does she actually use her power. About the only power she uses is when she makes a deal with the husband. And just what power is that? Charisma? Persuasiveness? How enchanting… Well, let it not be said that women haven’t been enchanting men since the beginning of time. So is this description wrong? Is Dame Gothel really an enchantress? And why is “all the world” afraid of her? Probably for the same reason that Hilary Clinton could not possibly defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential elections. Simply put, and very generally speaking, men fear Hilary. And in his rally of Hate everything different, Trump rallied a massive number of men to stand against anything different – namely a woman whose power lay in her words. If we go by the definition of Enchantress in Grimm’s Rapunzel, Hilary Clinton is an enchantress. Why in the world would anyone want a woman like that in office? (If you’re looking for my stance on the whole political fiasco, feel free to ask. It’s not included here because it’s irrelevant to this essay.) A woman with more power than a man is a dangerous thing to closed-minded people. Then, if they get their way, who knows what would happen? And her way is exactly what Dame Gothel gets. She gets the child in trade for the endless supply of rampion that she – quite generously – allows the husband and wife to enjoy. But is she inherently evil? At this early point, she does not actually come across as such outside the simple description that she “was dreaded by all the world.” Disney saw that as too vague a description, and instead directly connected her motivations with Rapunzel, creating a direct Rapunzel-related reason for locking her in the tower rather than as punishment for the (literal) trespasses of a careless and greedy couple.
- Another very significant factor in this story is the age of the various people throughout. In the society of the Grimm brothers, marriage was not what it is now, nor were there legal ages of consent. When Rapunzel was taken to her tower in their version, she was 12. Then, “after a year or two,” she met the young man who would rescue her. How old would she have been? I’m sure that your mathematical skills are better than mine, and I’m still seeing a child barely past the cusp of adolescence. Why this is so important will become clear shortly, but for now, just keep that age in mind. Technically she is a woman, as she would doubtless would have already had her first menstruation, but according to most societies of the 21st Century, she is still a kid. Disney didn’t even bother to make this an issue like Michael Bay did and very simply and effectively sidestepped it by making Rapunzel the standard of adulthood in the USA, if not in other countries: 18. She’s an adult. She fits the general populace’s image of an adult. She is of an age where she can and – some would argue – should make her own decisions about her own life. But a 13-year-old? Hell no! She’s not ready for that kind of responsibility!
- The “king’s son” is never actually named in this. He simply is a king’s son. In other words, a prince. Girl in tower, rescued by a prince. What does the girl do throughout this? Not really much of anything. She is just a girl. In a tower. And she’s pretty. Ok, I get it. We don’t need to browbeat this issue too much more. According to the statutes of the Grimm’s time, a girl should be kept away, she should have beautiful long hair, and if she does so, she will be rewarded with a prince. I see how this could give hope to some girls as they wonder why their parents lock them away and prepare the blunderbuss every time some young man who is not royalty might come a-knocking. To me, this feels more like an education on how parents should treat their little girls, and use this story as a means of reinforcing such an ideal to their daughters. Boy, am I glad we don’t still feel this way!
- So just how is it treated when the prince finally arrives at Rapunzel’s tower? “At first Rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her; but the King’s son began to talk to her quite like a friend and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then Rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she… said yes, and laid her hand in his.” I’m taking the role of a 19th Century male here, for a second. These are my thoughts: “Ah! I must learn how to tell a beauty that if I have no rest due to images of her beauty, it will convince her of my true intentions!” 19th Century girl: “If his intentions are pure, and he is young and handsome, I should marry even a stranger.” 19th Century Parent: “If a young handsome stranger comes by with an offer of marriage for my daughter, should I accept him at his word?” Now, let’s move ahead two centuries. My actual thoughts about this are: “He enters her room. A complete stranger. 911 dialed. I shove his ass out of my home and let the cops and paramedics clean up whatever’s left.” Egad, what a creep! No way would I let some random freak opt to molest me at his whim! And some words! Nope. I wouldn’t even let him get those words out. He’s going out of the tower on his head. If Disney tried to stay true to this angle, parents would be up in arms, demanding to know what kind of a message Disney was trying to send! What do they do about it? They give Rapunzel the chance to shine as the fierce defender of her home that she is. In the process, she showcases just how capable a hero she is (which, I’ll attest, is a far more attractive trait for a young woman to learn, anyway.). Sure, she eventually does let him convince her to take her out of the tower, but only after firmly establishing her own desires for such a thing. This is a massive difference. Grimm talked about Rapunzel as the object of the prince’s desires, whereas Disney showed the man as a means for her to get what she wanted. Then, once she got what she wanted from him, off to the curb with him! One other thing – in Disney, it takes her a looooong time to actually trust him. In Grimm, it’s what? A few seconds? While love can (and does often) happen in mere moments, the speed at which Grimm has them go from utter strangers to “Let’s get married!” comes like a bolt of lightning. And then then the prince visits her every day thereafter.
- Dame Gothel does eventually learn of it, but only through a slip of the tongue. This, I’d say, is actually an important – and still quite relevant – part of the story. She does so because she asks Dame Gothel, who, with her hair, she daily lifts up to her tower, to “tell [her]… how it happens that you are so much heavier for [her] to draw up than the young King’s son.” Forget the man… did she… did she just make a crack about Dame Gothel’s weight? Did Rapunzel really just call her fat? Girl! Don’t you know never to call a woman fat? Cutting off your hair and casting you out to live in a desert is a kindness, you dumb child!
- Then there’s the bit about the prince ascending the tower, to be cast out by Dame Gothel, where he is blinded by thorns. That’s actually pretty fair a fate for him. In fact, it should have been Rapunzel to do that to his breaking and entering ass in the first place. What should be looked at here, however, is Dame Gothel. What happens to her? Does she get some kind of comeuppance for raising Rapunzel as her own child? Do we ever learn why she wanted the girl for her own? Is she somehow punished for locking Rapunzel up in a tower for a couple years, relocating her in a desert, or even for making a somewhat unfair deal with Rapunzel’s parents? Nope. Not a thing. This, ladies and gentlemen, is called a plot hole. Modern audiences would not settle for some kind of ending for Dame Gothel, so Disney dealt with her. By tying her life into Rapunzel’s, they firmly show that Rapunzel’s resolution would somehow tie into Gothel’s, and then we would be guaranteed a conclusion to Gothel’s arc.
- As mentioned above, the prince is blinded. But here’s where the Grimms confuse us. He wanders “quite blind about the forest…. Thus he roamed about in misery for some years….” Wait. He’s a prince, and he roams about in a forest for some years? Where the hell were his entourage? For that matter, how far away was his kingdom? Considering he was making daily visits to Rapunzel’s tower, he had to have an abode nearby. There had to have been people who recognized him. What kind of wool are you trying to pull over our eyes, Bros Grimm? Who are you trying to fool? Oh. Right. People from 200 years ago. People with no access to the Internet. People whose greatest means of education were stories shared word-of-mouth. People who probably never saw three books in their lives. This is absolutely not for a person like me, who has read countless stories, written a couple dozen, and watched thousands of stories on television. No wonder this whole angle was established right from the get-go of Disney’s Tangled. Had they not, they would have been admitting that they were not considering the modern audience, they would have only been thinking about the original version. Which, simply put, doesn’t work. Not today.
- Are you starting to see the pattern emerge?
- One last bit. When the Brothers Grimm finally bring the prince to his Rapunzel and their twins, it is a reunion that gives them the happy ever… wait… twins?!? This is where people of the 19th Century would say, “Yeah. Duh. What do you think ‘taking someone for a husband’ meant? What do husbands and wives do with one another?” The modern individual would be wondering where the justice of the peace, or the rabbi, or the witnesses are. They would be saying that this marriage is a sham because there is nobody to officiate it or witness it. To us, we would only see two horny kids wanting to have sex. And then we’d be asking why the Brothers Grimm wouldn’t just say that they got naked together. And in doing so, we’d completely forget that by using the word “marriage” the Brothers Grimm would open the door to any possibility of marriage, while also teaching a little something about what marriage actually is. One other thing that this modern reader asks is “How do we know that the twins are the Prince’s?” But that’s just me asking. A young woman trapped in a desert, alone? That’s just asking for trouble, and no, I’m not going to qualify that statement in any way, save for stating that a girl with little life experience might not many choices regarding her survival, and death might not always be preferable to the bartering of the usage of one’s body. Not a very cheery thought, is it? I can see why Disney has a pretty strict no-sex policy in their animated movies. By removing Rapunzel’s twins from the tale, we’re making the whole thing a whole lot easier both from a story-telling perspective and a social perspective. Really, who actually enjoys a teenage pregnancy?
When all is said and done, hopefully this example helps to illustrate just how much a society can change – even in 200 years. Disney is not a stupid company. They’ve made countless pieces of entertainment for children of all ages (including adults), and they seek out the best and the brightest to tell these stories. Very often the best and brightest are those who have honed their craft, and learned not only how to do their jobs well, but also have watched the trends and desires of society. We are past the days of a government or a religion dictating terms to a society, and traditions have to change to meet the demands of the people. If they don’t, those ideas get lost on the side of the road, cast out of a wily group of story-tellers who know when details don’t – and won’t – fit with the audience that they are trying to reach.
Simply put, if something is archaic and doesn’t fit in with modern society, call it out. Stories are the easiest medium through which such changes can take place. Rapunzel is a great example of that. But don’t settle with just stories. Change the people around you, connect to them, give them shelter, and show them that something needs to change. It will take time, but it will be worth it in the end.