The Real Rapunzel
I’ve lost count of which wave it is, but lately there is yet another backlash against “princess culture”: moms digging in and fighting back against the pink and sparkly tide that drowns young girls’ imaginations. The latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, encourages moms to tell their daughters that poofy dresses are impractical, glass slippers give you corns, and the worst possible way you can spend your life is to wait for Prince Charming to come.
I have to agree that the pink wave is rather nauseating at best; and at worst, there is a genuine danger of girls learning the lesson that feminine=pretty, and nothing more. Older girls, with no other guidance, translate this equation into feminine=sexy, and nothing more—and we all know where that leads.
Modern Disney movies try to split the difference: the heroine enjoys a moderate amount of sparkle and froth—but only after she learns that what she really wanted was inside herself all along, and the main obstacle to happiness was everyone else’s mulish inability to appreciate the wonderfulness that is she. Yeah, she gets to be princess; but best of all, the rest of the world earns the exquisite privilege of finding out that she doesn’t need to be princess. Yay!
Of course, little girls watch these movies because they like the dancing parts, and all the self-actualization claptrap goes over their heads. At least, I hope it does. Entertainment has a certain effect, but they learn a lot more from watching their own mother’s relationships.
But of course stories do matter. Movies and fairy tales do instruct while they entertain. Which is why I would like to encourage a return to the older versions of fairy tales, before even old-fashioned, “classic” Disney got ahold of them. Blood! Betrayal! Vengeance! Torture! And an awful lot about love.
My favorite fairy tale is Rapunzel. I haven’t seen the new movie version, Tangled, and have no idea what it’s about. But here’s the original story in a nutshell: selfish wife has pregnancy craving, threatens to die; husband steals plant for wife, is caught, and promptly offers newborn baby in exchange for his life. Child grows up in witch’s doorless tower. Witch reaches her by climbing up her gorgeous, extravagant hair. Wandering prince finds her by her sad singing and wins her heart. Girl naively mentions visits by prince; witch, in a fury, chops off her hair. Prince is lost and sorrowful without girl, and is blinded by thorns, wanders in wilderness. Girls, meanwhile, bears twins alone and in secret. Blind prince happens to wander to her, again recognizes her singing. Girl’s tears fall on his eyes, his sight is restored. And then they live happily ever after.
Talk about a modern story! Here we go: a couple loses their child through selfishness and cowardice (happens every day in family court). An overbearing foster mother overcompensates, turning the girl into a prisoner of her own innocence and femininity (ever hear of stay-at-home-daughters?). The girl instinctively still craves normal relationships (shades of Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way”), but is immediately and harshly punished by being stripped of her very sense of identity (there’s a support group for that). But it’s too late for this remedy: the babies are on the way.
Then follows a long period of loneliness and suffering (that would be that dreadful transitional stage wherein young women try to reconcile the hard-won freedoms of feminism with the timeless obligations of motherhood), as her hair, presumably, regrows (but she probably keeps it in a bun now!). When the two are finally reunited, the woman heals the man through her tears: and I imagine they are tears of anger, regret, loneliness, but mostly gratitude and hope, all in one. In other words, tears of love. He has been roundly, soundly punished for taking what was not rightly his—but is mercifully rewarded with the fruits of his passion anyway, purified through suffering. The first thing he sees in years is not something new, not the prize at the end of the rainbow, but the fruit of what has already been made in secret: his beautiful twin babies. It’s not too late!
Besides being fabulous drama and an excellent modern fable, Rapunzel is a startlingly ancient story of self-discovery. Not in the Disney way: it’s not about learning to love yourself, following your heart, or discovering that the answer to all your dreams was right there at home all along. It’s about wanting something good, taking it the wrong way, losing everything, and then getting it all back a hundredfold.
Sound familiar? It’s the story of salvation.