You know, one of these years I would love to come to Dysfunctional Families Day and have nothing to say. I’d love to have a whole year pass by without seeing anything that makes me twitch in that peculiar way.
This is not that year. Because this is the year Tangled came out.
Plenty of Disney films have wicked stepmothers; they’re quite ordinary villains in the genre. They do things like banish the heroine to the kitchen or send her out into the forest to be murdered. There may be rags and neglect involved. But Tangled’s Mother Gothel is much worse than that. She uses love like a poisoned apple or a witch’s curse, as a tool to achieve her own ends. And she’s clearly written by someone who knows, bone deep, how that works.
It’s well done, too. The song where she persuades Rapunzel not to try to leave the tower is a virtuoso tour of emotional manipulation. The first verse is designed to isolate Rapunzel from the outside world; the second loads her down with emotional debt, and the third belittles and diminishes her. And the end is the purest dysfunction of all: the exchange of I love you’s turned into a contest, so that Gothel can win.
But that’s not the tell. That’s not the sign that someone in the film’s production team has lived this, right down to the bitter dregs of emotional damage. Rapunzel’s range of emotions at escaping the tower is the real shibboleth. That ambivalence, that cycling back and forth between joy and guilt? That’s the detail that makes it ring true.
The only weakness in this portrait is that Rapunzel seems to escape the damage of this formative relationship. Her reunion with her parents is unshadowed. There is no hint of the struggle she’ll face after the closing credits, learning how love, generosity and sacrifice really work.
Back here in the real world, the kind of childhood Rapunzel survived has consequences. They’re not always permanent: some people manage to unpick the hurts and habits and build up new emotional structures that work. But sometimes the tower is harder—or impossible—to escape. Then victory doesn’t look like the satisfying resolution of a children’s film. It looks like a happy day, a good relationship, a healthy child, a satisfied nod at the face and figure in the mirror. It looks like a good night’s sleep and a good day’s work, the confidence to take risks, and the emotional energy to recover from failures.
May all who strive for these victories achieve them, and more.
By the way, these relevant comics came up in a recent Open thread. It’s the fullest assortment of Clarissa comics I’ve seen on the web (click on the “Monstrar Spoiler” links to reveal them.) If you’re familiar with Clarissa, you know what to expect. If not, this is a trigger warning: these deal with the effects of sexual abuse in an explicit and unsparing fashion. Some people find it healing to see the matter discussed openly; if this is not you, do not look.