Monday, August 22, 2011

Tangled Up In Criticism


My little girl is sick--not seriously so, but she's got a stuffy nose and a horrible cough, and she won't sleep unless she's physically touching my husband or me. So while she held me captive, I flipped through the new movies for instant watch on Netflix and found Tangled.

I'd heard some positive things from parent friends of mine, so I decided to watch it. It was entertaining enough. Now comes the question I'm constantly asking myself when I'm watching programming aimed at children: would I let my daughter watch it?

As has already  been documented, I'm cautious about the Disney princess franchise for all the commonly cited feminist reasons (promoting an unrealistic body image, basing self-worth in beauty and marriageability, making women subservient to men, and so on and so forth) as well as for the rather disturbing lack of racial diversity in the land of Disney make believe (and the even more disturbing racism inherent in some of the attempts to deal with racial diversity.)

So, I watched Tangled and my initial reaction was that Rapunzel is portrayed as a more capable woman than many of her princess counterparts. The film's tension revolves around her finding her own voice and the ability to say "no." (Spoiler alert, though, honestly, I'm a little behind the times on watching this, so I shouldn't be ruining anything.) When her hair--the source of her magic and the reason others (especially men) are said to desire her--gets cut off, it could be read as symbolic of her escaping the confines of societally-imposed beauty standards. (Though, I must say, I found it disturbing that "magic" hair is blonde while "non-magic" hair is brown.) She's also portrayed as physically strong and intellectually inventive (though, really, did her weapon of choice have to be a frying pan?)

Also interesting--from a gender role perspective--is this scene:

In it, the ogreish, terrifying men break into song sharing their inner desires to play piano, knit, decorate, and bake cupcakes. At the end of the film, most of these men get to realize those dreams in a public forum, making their new livings as pianists and mimes. It's this ending for me that added some nuance to what could have been problematic. As Our Turn points out: "While part of me likes that there's this expectation-reversal, the making of big-scary-men into sensitive (effeminate?) characters, it's also kind of a tired theme that crops up too often in children's movies. (Men can only be secretly sensitive when they're actually physically intimidating as well. . ." But by allowing the men the chance to realize those "secret" desires in public, it moves towards a normalization of roles based in ability and interest rather than gender stereotype.

And I think that's basically what I see Tangled doing in general. It moves toward a more feminist-friendly princess while not quite making it all the way there, as NOW argues in this post. And I like that. Not everyone does.

Feministing was pretty harsh on the film, claiming that Disney had ditched a female protagonist to turn it into a prince-film geared at getting little boys to watch. Their criticism was based largely off the trailer, but I don't think the film did that at all. And I certainly don't see anything wrong with a film that appeals to both boys and girls.

Slate's KJ Dell Antonia reviewed the film (pretty positively) and complained that Rapunzel was not allowed to "tell her own story" because the film was narrated by her male co-star. But this seems like a weak argument to me. Flynn (the "prince" character) does open and close the film with a voice-over, but he serves as a frame story, and it's not as if he's speaking over Rapunzel's every move during the film. Also, the film is not told through his perspective. We often see Rapunzel in shots no one else could see: alone in her tower, singing during monologues, etc. I don't think that the frame story does anything to take away her voice.

Overall, yes, I'd let my daughter watch the film, and watching it and reading the criticism makes me wonder what the goal(s) of feminist criticism should be. While there are certainly ways that Tangled could have promoted a more feminist perspective, ignoring the strides that it makes seems like a poor move to me.

1 comment:

  1. I love how you have your feminist views yet you still are aware on how this movie can affect your daughter. Growing up, I always thought I would get a prince and live happily ever after like the Disney Princesses. Now that I'm almost in my 20's, I'm looking at the sugar-coated facts of them and how they affect children, especially young girls. Love this blog. Hope you continue writing.