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Disney’s Racist Stereotyping and Gender Roles Remain Un-Tangled

Alas, Disney’s stated goal isn’t ending the helpless-princess theme; it’s making sure the movies have big enough audience appeal (read: appeal to boys and men).
 
 
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The good news is that Disney’s new animated feature Tangled is funny, fast-paced and visually stunning. The bad news is that it re-hashes the same old story: As a woman, you can either be a princess awaiting her prince or an evil stepmother/witch; as a man, you get all the action (in many senses of the word). And beauty, of course, equals white, blonde, thin and young.

Keeping in mind Disney’s recent announcement that after Tangled they won’t be making any more princess films, one can see Tangled as a transitional movie, an indication of where Disney’s future is headed. And as Margot Magowan notes, Disney putting the kibosh on princesses could have been a good sign: “Great! No more damsels in distress who end the movie by landing a man.” Alas, as Magowan and others report, Disney’s stated goal isn’t ending the helpless-princess theme; instead, it’s making sure the movies have big enough audience appeal (read: appeal to boys and men, not just girls and women).

To this end, Disney brought in a new directorial team in 2008 to overhaul the planned Rapunzel and “ wring the pink out of it,” as the Los Angeles Times aptly put it. The resultant Tangled, with a non-heroine title, more action and a platoon of mega-muscular-man characters (in contrast to only two key females -- Rapunzel and the evil Mother Gothel), bodes ill for Disney’s post-princess era.

While one blogger has called this a “gender neutral makeover,” it seems to me more of a masculinist makeover. The privileging of men in the story is apparent from the first image in Tangled, a zoom-in on a wanted poster of the male lead, Flynn Rider, as he narrates, “This is a very fun story and the truth is, it isn’t even mine.” The “fun” story involves the kidnapping and imprisonment of Rapunzel. Even though Flynn claims the story “isn’t even mine,” the story becomes very much about him and less about Rapunzel.

As noted by the film’s producer during production, “We’re having a lot of fun pairing Flynn, who’s seen it all, with Rapunzel, who’s been locked away in a tower for 18 years.” Ah, pairing a man of the world who has “seen it all” with a woman who knows nothing as she has been “locked away” -- how egalitarian and gender neutral!

In addition to Flynn, Rapunzel has the requisite animal sidekick: a male chameleon named Pascal. And, once she escapes out into the real world, she encounters a plethora of other males -- the horse Maximus (how’s that for a testosterone-fueled name?), the thugs that serve as Flynn’s former thieving buddies and the many light-hearted ruffians from The Snuggly Duckling pub. Additionally, Rapunzel’s father, the King, takes the spotlight in a few scenes meant to emphasize how much he and the Queen still miss their daughter. In these scenes, his hulking, bearded figure dominates the screen, his face torn with sadness, while his diminutive wife stands below and beside him as comforting helpmate.

As for Rapunzel, imprisoned within the tower since a child, she is a waif-like female with big eyes and a teeny-tiny waist who sings about doing chores with the refrain, “wonder when my life will begin.” Rapunzel is stereotypically overly emotional, swinging from one end of a mood swing to another as often as she (and others) swing from her long golden locks.

By films end, she has lost these magical locks after Flynn cuts them to save her life, and her remaining hair -- no longer magical -- turns brown (talk about latent color symbolism!). Her “happy ending” involves being returned to her real parents and marrying Flynn, who, the movie makes a point of emphasizing, proposes to her, not the other way around.

 
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