Five signs you’re in an abusive relationship as told by Tangled
"Mother knows best" *shudder*
When it comes to great on-screen villains, no one can touch Disney for their range of bad-to-the-bone bastards.
From the Cruella de Vil, the picture-perfect proof that rich people have no morals (see the history of the world, volumes 1 – tbc), to Aladdin’s Jafar, the animated embodiment of ‘absolute power grabs corrupt absolutely’, the studio repeatedly excel themselves engineering evil.
But, for me, the two greatest Disney villains are The Lion King’s Scar, and Mother Gothel from Tangled. Why? Sure, they both sound like old school British bullies, but mostly it’s because their strength doesn’t come from money, magic or might. It all comes from their manipulative personalities.
Whereas Scar’s power stems from his superiority, a cult of personality that’s always seconds away from inspiring a Jim Jones-style mass suicide, Mother Gothel’s comes from a more devious place: love. Mother Gothel doesn’t need to lift a finger to keep Rapunzel a prisoner – her words are enough to keep her youth on tap by her side.
So today, we decided to take a look through Tangled to point out all the different abusive behaviours the maddening matriarch uses to get her way.
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Rapunzel? Sure, there’s the whole long, blonde hair thing, but I’d say being trapped in a tower for her whole life is a much more important characteristic. But why the hell is she trapped in a tower anyway?
There’s a reason Mother Gothel uses pet names like ‘pet’ and ‘flower’ for Rapunzel, and it’s not to do with being cute.
It’s the same reason straight men call women ‘girls’, or gay men ‘fairies’. They, like the frontrunner for Disney’s worst mum of the year awards, want to make their targets feel weak and fragile. Why? To weaken their self-esteem and make them feel reliant on their ‘stronger’ loved ones.
By comparing her daughter to fragile, breakable things, and constantly reinforcing how dark and dangerous the outside world can be, Mother Gothel makes Rapunzel completely dependent on her for survival. There’s even an entire song about it in the movie!
Think back on Mother Gothel’s first words to Rapunzel. No, not ‘let down your hair’ - this delightful little exchange.
Gothel: How you manage to do that every single day without fail! It looks absolutely exhausting, darling.
Rapunzel: Oh, it’s nothing.
Gothel: Then I don’t know why it takes so long!
You might recognise this behavior as negging, a practice made famous by ‘pick up artists’, where the PUA will use a back-handed compliment to knock their target’s self esteem.
In the same breath, the abuser will give and take praise away, like an eleven-year-old holding out his hand for a handshake then whipping it away at the last second. Only instead of bruising your pride, negging, especially from a loved one, can destroy your ego.
Mother Gothel didn’t kidnap Rapunzel for some human companionship, she took a magical item that just happened to be attached to a baby girl’s head. In her eyes, Rapunzel isn’t a person, she’s a thing.
In every scene between the two, MG’s eyes will dip to eye up Rapunzel’s hair, compliments are often paid at shoulder, rather than eye, level. Going back to Mother Knows Best, MG spends most of her time nestled in R’s hair while making sure she knows how weak she is, the ultimate power neg.
No one should ever be made to feel that they are nothing more than the sum of their parts. Women kept in abusive marriages because they’re made to feel unfit for anything other than popping out babies. Overweight and obese people made to feel worthless because their body types don’t suit the current marketing models. Men pressured into displaying hyper-masculinity because to have any ‘feminine’ interests is to be emasculated. These are all abusive relationships, on a personal or political level, because they treat people as objects, rather than human beings with agency. Mother Gothel is a master of objectification.
But what happens when Rapunzel tries to assert her own agency?
Think on the moment the soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old asks for her one birthday present: the chance to leave the tower and see the floating lights that appear every year. Of course Mother Gothel denies her request, but how does she react? She plays the victim.
That’s right, one of Mother Gothel’s most abusive behaviours is acting like the abused. Building on the fragility and isolation she’s instilled in Rapunzel, MG stacks on an unhealthy layer of guilt, making it seem like taking care of the stolen child is a burden, a costly endeavor that Rapunzel is ungrateful for.
Abusers will often portray themselves as hard done by, forced against their will into looking after an ungrateful charge, all the while using their victims for validation and/or financial or statutory gain.
But by far, the most evil thing Mother Gothel does is make Rapunzel believe everything she’s been told about herself.
When Flynn asks her why she’s never ventured outside before, Rapunzel shows the lock of her hair, turned brown after being cut by Mother Gothel, stripping it of its restorative powers. She starts to say “That’s why Mother never let me…” before correcting herself, “that’s why I never left.” There's also the scene directly after she leaves the tower where Rapunzel's mood swings from sky high to rock bottom, on first reading a funny juxtaposition, but after a bit more thought a devastating meditation on the cycle of abuse.
The truest evil in abusive relationships is the normalizing of emotional violence, and the internalizing of the abuser’s behaviours. Eighteen years of the manipulative behavior outlined above have left them embedded in Rapunzel, like Jack only knowing the world inside captivity in Room, the warped idea of love seems normal.
Thankfully for Rapunzel, she breaks free from her abuser’s clutches and lives happily ever after, but it’s not so simple in real life. If you recognize any of these behaviours in a partner, parent or loved one, please seek help from an anti-abuse charity, such as Living Without Abuse.
- Words by Josh Pappenheim.