[Spoilers are below, but if you were going to see Tangled you’ve probably seen it already.]
Growing it out
Lauren Berlant has recently been publishing an amazing series of posts on combover subjectivity, and one (inadequate) way to describe the project would be to say that, if we’re approaching the anima in a certain way, then what people do with their hair can be especially helpful in allowing us to think through its incoherences and how we try to smooth them out and cover them up. Hair and heads are hard to animate. They are also hard to draw, color in, and set in motion on film—and so it seems worth noting that the most expensive animated movie ever made is one released at the end of 2010, the last Disney princess movie, whose narrative and affective strategies are woven around strands of impossibly long, impossibly blond, gorgeously rendered flowing hair. It’s always interesting to see what artist-technicians reserve their energy for, what they’re waiting for their machines to be able to give them. For James Cameron, it was aboriginal blue aliens who had breasts even though they weren’t mammals. The less said about what it was for George Lucas, I guess, the better. For Disney’s animation division it was Rapunzel.
I saw Tangled over the holidays at the same multiplex where the rest of my family (who are half English, if that’s relevant) were going to see The King’s Speech, a movie that stood out for me in the extraordinary, almost visceral lack of interest it inspired. I’m sure it’s not out of the question that The King’s Speech has some valuable things to say about non/sovereignty and dis/ability, and that’s not a possibility I want to dismiss. But still. I just couldn’t get psyched, at that moment, about a film asking us to give two hours of full attention and sympathy to the English royal voice, when we can hear the voice and feel its effects whenever we want to, and often it’s more than a voice, it’s (say) a truncheon smashing the brain of Alfie Meadows. So I decided to see Tangled mainly for three interrelated reasons. First, if I was going to see a royalist fairytale, I wanted to see one that had no pretensions of being anything else. (There are, intriguingly, a king and a queen who have a substantial amount of screen time in Tangled—and literally no lines: the silent sovereign might be what The King’s Speech fears most, but Tangled knows what kind of power can reside in that silence.) Second, this royalist fairytale had anthropomorphized animals and opulent animation and the voices of Mandy Moore and Donna Murphy, come on! And, third, I was curious about the way Avatar, released a year earlier, had been immediately seized upon and widely and insightfully written about as an ideological symptom, whereas Tangled—which, in addition to being the avowed final entry in a long and fascinating series, is in fact a more expensive movie than Avatar, costing a total of 260 million dollars (260 million dollars! 260 million dollars) had not to my knowledge received anything like the same kind of attention. A brilliant pre-release post on white femininity by Renée of Womanist Musings (with a follow-up post addressing reader comments, and more on this shortly) was about all I had seen.
I’m sure part of it is that there are just plenty of great critical blogs I’m unaware of, and part of it is that Avatar was a more obviously exigent target in presenting itself as a “leftist” film, and part of it is that people have had a lot of other things on their minds. But I did find myself also wondering if one reason why I’d heard about Tangled only a tiny fraction of what I remembered hearing about Avatar (or even Toy Story 3) was the same reason why the movie itself was retitled by Disney, after years of development as Rapunzel: you know; it’s for girls! In any case, I’m here to report to anyone who cares that Tangled is stunning and complicated and, in its engagement with the Disney tradition and that tradition’s legacy of hegemonic white patriarchy, something like a disturbing national combover fantasy. Like Lauren Berlant herself, I should say, I’m not uncritical of combover subjectivity as a sufficient model for thinking about how persons operate; but I’d like to suggest that part of Tangled‘s interest lies in the way it simultaneously relies on such a model for its characterization and its narrative maneuvers, and exemplifies it in the ideological work it can be seen to perform.
who loves a woman
is forever young…
—Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel”
While the hair in question here is Rapunzel’s, the actual over-comber, and as such the site of most of the film’s anxious projections, is Mother Gothel. My first real post for this blog, which set Coraline and Avatar side by side back in March, was an underdeveloped attempt to suggest that something was going on with the rapid rise of the 3D computer-animated fantasy and the fixation, in the imaginations of the movies themselves, on alternative maternities that wanted to absorb you whole. The role was played benevolently in Avatar by Eywa, the divine supplement for a Mother Earth who had been “killed,” and in Coraline, less benevolently, by the otherwise unnamed Other Mother, a
3D computer animator ghostly dollmaker who wanted Coraline to stay with her forever, at the cost of her eyes. (Stay tuned later this year for Mars Needs Moms, in which aliens kidnap Joan Cusack because they need to “steal her mom-ness.”) Tangled gives us a remarkably queer new entry in this tradition, in the form of a Gothel portrayed by the great Donna Murphy as a sort of Rose Thompson Hovick in reverse. Utterly consumed by narcissism, this Gothel (as distinct from the Grimms’) kidnaps the princess from her crib and raises her as her own, in total isolation, for the sole purpose of exploiting the magical healing and age-reversing properties that have been transferred from a flower into the infant’s hair. 18 years later, Rapunzel has grown into a thoughtful young woman who’s ready to see the world; Gothel, continually renewing herself through Rapunzel’s hair and voice, has blossomed into a campy, superbly passive-aggressive undermining stage mother whose stage is the cramped chamber at the top of a tower no one else ever visits; she fawns over an innocent stolen “daughter” while sucking her life out through the roots.
Mother Gothel’s narcissism is fascinating in its naked lack of any external motivating object, any audience other than Rapunzel and herself: before her princess leaves the tower and the story really kicks into gear, there’s no indication that she has any interest in relationality with anyone else in the world. She wants only to hang onto youth, and she wants it only for Rapunzel and for herself. The pathos of which is hard to ignore, and, at least in the first half of the movie, there isn’t a total absence of imaginative sympathy for Gothel, and so I was surprised and dismayed to see her meet a violent end, and in a familiar Disney manner: she’s wicked for wanting to be beautiful, now her true face is revealed; she sure is ugly, and it sure is a sign of her wickedness! The one character in Tangled who does win the audience’s sympathy after a fully dramatized critical-ethical transformation, a realization that he has been an unquestioning participant in an oppressive normative system and that his behavior can change for the better, is a white horse. More on that whiteness in a moment. What I mean to say about the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel is just that, first, as an addition to the “Wait, Are They Really Mother and Daughter?” canon, Tangled arguably ranks right up there with Desert Fury (to say nothing of Sexton, whose “Rapunzel” is an ode to stolen mom-ness that resonates with Tangled in some striking ways); and, second, that I suspect this serves to make Gothel a perversely perfect example of the combover subject, as described by Berlant:
The subject of the combover stands in front of the mirror just so, to appear as a person with a full head (of hair/ideas of the world). Harsh lighting, back views, nothing inconvenient is bearable in order for the put-together headshot to appear. No one else can be fully in the room, there can be no active relationality: if someone else, or an audience, is there, everyone huddles under the open secret that protects the combover subject from being exposed socially[,] confronting the knowledge that the world can see the seams, the lacks, and the pathos of desire, effort, and failure.
No active relationality. Compare this with the barely restrained desperation in Gothel’s eyes when she realizes that it’s time for another song and another combover to make her younger … and then her blissful, other-negating relief as, afterward, she stands in front of the mirror with her companion. “Rapunzel, look in that mirror. You know what I see? I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady. Oh look, you’re here too!” At moments like this I could feel the audience bristling around me in an ecstasy of indignation, and I could feel the same thing in myself: we were upset because Rapunzel wasn’t being given her due, and because we knew that, title aside, this was her movie, and Gothel’s exquisitely captured and all-too-relatable just-so was taking it away from her.
But why is it her movie, exactly? Why Rapunzel and why now? Why are we at the Mandy Moore tour?
I hope it’s clear I don’t mean any disparagement to Moore herself, asking that. She really does act and sing beautifully in Tangled, and I’m glad she keeps getting better roles than Sadie Jones in License to Wed. Moreover, for whatever it’s worth, I wouldn’t by any means say that her part in Tangled amounts to faux-girl-power posturing; Rapunzel really does wield her hair like a badass (and not just her hair, but also a frying pan, throughout virtually the whole film—a nice touch, and the source of lots of satisfying kongggs). She really does get her friend and partner, the thief Flynn Rider (née Eugene Fitzherbert), out of as many scrapes as he gets her out of. And she’s smart … or, as Bruce Diones of the New Yorker puts it, she’s “given a sharp wit and intelligent concerns: she doesn’t sound like a nattering teen-ager.” (I’m sorry, but give me a fuck-ing break. The social war on teen girls and the descent of much of the New Yorker into willfully archaic gendered awfulness continue hand in hand. One of the things about I liked best about Tangled, actually, was its capacity to give Rapunzel both a sharp wit and a tendency to, you know, “natter,” or whatever, like a teenager who has thoughts that are hard to articulate and wishes that aren’t being met. Not mutually exclusive, Bruce! I’m also thinking here of Isabel’s guardedly sympathetic reading of The Little Mermaid at Feministe, one of my favorite blog posts of 2010.) It could even be argued that Tangled adapts the story of “Rapunzel” specifically in order to give eloquent voice to a certain strain of girlie feminism: maybe you see my hair and think it’s only an imprisonment, but I’m attached to it, and you’re not, and it’s also a weapon, a ladder, an escape, a thick rope to tie up the stranger who breaks into my house…
Yet it’s at just this juncture that I think some points about how a particular kind of corporatized girlie attitude can get tangled up in whiteness most urgently need to be remembered. Annalee Newitz kicked off the online discussion of Avatar at the end of 2009 by asking when white people would stop making movies like it; you could also ask when white people will stop making movies like Tangled, and the answer is probably that we just did. Within the last two years, in fact, Disney has triumphantly released its first film with a black princess, and triumphantly said goodbye to its fairy-tale sequence altogether with a crowning 50th animated feature, widely heralded as a return to form, celebrating a young woman who faces all kinds of external pressures managing her hair. These two gestures were not consolidated. Which is why I think Renée is spot-on when she says the return to form really has to be understood as a return to color, or rather to the normative “non-color” of whiteness.
Nonhuman creatures become essential here, lateralizing characters’ attributes and defining a space where hair is something between dead and animated. Among the problematic aspects of The Princess and the Frog itself, as Renée also observes, was that Tiana the black princess not only had hair that was decidedly less than kinky, she spent a good part of her own movie as a frog, and it doesn’t get much more hairless than that. In contrast, Tangled‘s adorable chameleon, Pascal, is fully an extension of Rapunzel’s hair, the daemon to the golden compass that’s on her head: he’s constantly stepping in to finish what the hair has started, he changes color as swiftly and as completely as we might wish our hair did when we dyed it … and he bears additionally the reptilian trace of an archetypal, murderous, unmanageable female rage-in-hair that is, in this film, predictably, invoked only to be projected elsewhere, onto the one character who can safely be killed off. As a hair extension, the chameleon is also, like the king and queen (and the whiter-than-white mime who plays a key role), voiceless. It’s a marked change both from the frogs and fireflies of The Princess and the Frog, and from Sebastian of The Little Mermaid, and that’s arguably the kind of Pascalian wager on which this movie’s aesthetics depend. “We have nothing to lose by making the companion creature a silent creature this time; maybe in twenty years our movie will look less racist!”
Even without Pascal’s help, though, the blondness of Rapunzel’s hair is so formidable as to be unsettling. People get mixed up in hair here, but hair qua hair never, ever gets tangled. We see Rapunzel brushing it more than once but it always looks perfect anyway. At no point is it anything less than a supernaturally potent substance, somewhere between sturdy rope, honey, and lava, with the ability to untangle any problem that presents itself. The mournful incantation Rapunzel repeatedly sings to activate the hair’s charms—first to restore Mothel Gothel to youth, but also, crucially, as a blonder-than-blond way of getting herself and Flynn out of a tight spot by lighting the way underwater—turns around the line “Make the clock reverse; bring back what once was mine“; and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that with these lines Disney unconsciously ventriloquizes the segment of white America that was raised on Snow White and Cinderella, would never see The Princess and the Frog, and wants its country back. The open secret: the seams, the lacks. If this sounds like an overreading, I would say it really is remarkable that Tangled should take place in an ambiguously medieval European fairyland that is (of course) anachronistic in every way, except (of course?) not quite enough to include a single character of color.
The height of its playful anachronism, in fact, comes with a group of sweet and sympathetic ruffians whose participation in the plot further illustrates how the superficially attractive gender politics of a work like Tangled might be inextricable from a much more vexed relation to questions of race and racialized queerness. Halfway through the movie, Rapunzel and Flynn, on the run from the law, make their way into a tavern whose occupants at first seem to be terrifying thugs, willing to turn Flynn in and do worse to Rapunzel. At the last moment, though, when she shouts, “Have some humanity! Hasn’t any of you had a dream?” they melt, and launch into an elaborate dance number that is honestly pretty delightful, each thug detailing a dream or a pursuit that departs nice and widely from heteronormative expectations. (One of them is the mime artist, one of them aspires to be an interior decorator, one of them makes tiny unicorn sculptures, and so on. Memo to a few Womanist Musings commenters: talk all you want about how “Rapunzel is a GERMAN fairytale,” that’s why everyone’s white, etc.; you think there were fabulous interior decorators who spoke English in medieval Germany?) They go on to help Rapunzel and Flynn escape from the tavern, return at the climax to offer their services again, and, at the end, realize their big gay dreams in a kingdom restored to proper royal order. My first reaction to all this was to appreciate how ostensibly hypermasculine supporting characters had been queered; reflecting more on it later, I realized how queer they’d been from the beginning. Their menacing costumes were really always just so much S&M gear, and the all-male space of the tavern (which is named The Snuggly Duckling) reminded me of something a friend had once said to me about a Christopher Marlowe play that was “very, very homosocial—no, wait, never mind. Just gay.” What we watch, then, over the course of Tangled, is the full recuperation of these white queers into a comic story that resolves itself with the necessary murder of a woman who has darker hair, darker skin, a shawl that sometimes looks something like a veil, and (in her monstrously narcissistic devotion to the girl-who-is-not-her-daughter) the wrong kind of queerness. The gay ruffians “have some humanity” even before Rapunzel urges it on them, and then they’re happily absorbed into the royal state; the only figure who is finally denied humanity and thrown from the tower of the film’s sympathy is Gothel. In this sense, Tangled demands to be considered in light of Jasbir Puar’s work on the rise of “properly homo” subjects in Terrorist Assemblages, and it starts to look more and more like the perfect major film release to cap off a year that saw the celebrated repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the resultant guarantee that, as Giovanni Tiso put it on Twitter, “[b]rown people worldwide can now look forward to being butchered by more people who are comfortable with their sexuality.”
To ask who gets to be counted as fully human, in this context, is to ask for whom the combover works; or, as Berlant says, “[f]or whom is there give in the system of norms?” These are questions that haunt Tangled in an odd intertextual way at its dramatic climax, when Flynn Rider—separated from Rapunzel, trapped in the royal castle, and about to be executed—sees a miniature unicorn sculpture in the corner of his chamber, and takes it as his cue to realize that his friends from the Snuggly Duckling will rescue him after all, allowing Rapunzel to be saved by a traumatic, liberating haircut and Gothel to age a thousand years in a minute before plummeting to her death. A tiny unicorn left as a calling card, as a sign that your life will have the fairytale ending you didn’t dare expect: if only for an instant, the voice that seems to echo silently across Tangled‘s landscape is Edward James Olmos’s, asking, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” and reminding us of the difference between the original release of Blade Runner and the director’s cut that excised the fairytale ending, and of all the differences that cuts can make, not least to our sense of whose story is being told, for what reasons, what’s excluded, for whom there’s give. It’s too bad Gothel won’t survive the Rapunzel story…
These are also related to questions that I’ll try to take up in another post soon, on some of my favorite filmed things from the last year, and in particular a couple of short films that pose questions of their own about “humanity” and even what it might have to do with the humanities. In the meantime, I’ll wrap this up by suggesting that in many ways, after all, maybe the more satisfying “Rapunzel” update of 2010 is “Whip My Hair”—the work of another young person whose power derives from some obscure alchemical combination of hair and music, who’s trapped in a classroom instead of a tower but who’s keen to transform it, and whose song, instead of looking back toward (or seeking to recreate) a kind of dubious fantasized coherence that’s felt to have been lost, is deliriously happy to go back and forth, in full acceptance and celebration of what is “fugitive and unraveled in ordinary affectivity and self-performance”—incoherence and hair’s part in it, a riot of blurred vision and color everywhere. Whether it’s long or short.