A Feminist Takes on Rapunzel

I’ve had a problem with the Rapunzel story my whole adult life.

Let me start by saying that if you only know the Rapunzel story because you’ve seen the Disney movie Tangled, then you don’t know the story. Lucky for you, it’s a quick read. It won’t take but a minute. Check it out here, on the Grimm’s Fairy Tale website. I’ll wait.

Tap… tap… tap…

Okay. Assuming you’ve done your homework, I’ll tell you exactly why I’ve had a problem with the Rapunzel story my whole adult life. But be warned that once you’ve heard my interpretation, the story will most likely bug you, too. So if you wish to remain blissfully ignorant, stop right here.

People have been telling helpless-maiden-trapped-in-tower stories for centuries. Check out this Wikipedia entry to learn this particular fairy tale’s history. Here’s a teaser though: As per usual, the Grimm Brothers didn’t have an original thought. They didn’t even come up with the name Rapunzel themselves. And Rapunzel was definitely not the first trapped and helpless maiden, even if she is the most well-known.

As with all fairy tales, Rapunzel was created to teach us a lesson. The world has to be taught that women are helpless, or else things might get out of control. We don’t want our women just running about, willy-nilly, thinking for themselves and making their own choices, now, do we? Of course not! What might they do next? Ask for the vote?

But Rapunzel is not just a story of one woman. It’s actually a story about three women. And all three have been used to give us twisted messages about women in general.

First, there’s the nameless wife, the poor dear. She’s got all sorts of issues. She has been longing for a child, but has had no luck with that to date. The message, of course, is that all women should long for children. (Somehow that particular urge passed me by entirely.) She also has a craving that’s so acute that it’s practically killing her, but the only way that craving will be satisfied is if her husband takes action, so to speak. No woman should satisfy her own cravings, after all.

Many scholars interpret that unquenchable craving as the wife already being pregnant, and that makes sense. In Europe hundreds of years ago, people genuinely believed that if you didn’t satisfy a pregnant woman’s food cravings, she might just die. (Now we believe that if you don’t satisfy a pregnant woman’s cravings, she might just kill you. But I digress.) That’s why her husband is so frantic to fulfill her wishes.

Next, we have the witch, because, of course, women, especially after a certain age, can become witches, or old crones, with all the foul moods and selfish greed that comes along with that title. Did you know that the word crone, with all its negative connotations, comes from the same root as the words carnage, carrion, carnivorous, incarnate, scar, scrap and scrub? But crone is also closely linked to the words carnival and incarnation, because women are powerful, magical things that are ever-so-slightly beyond being tamed. Woman are scary if you aren’t careful.

And the husband in this story isn’t careful at all. He actually breaks into the witch’s garden and steals her produce. It always amuses me that readers are then shocked that she is pissed off. I mean, come on. I’d be pissed off, too, if I caught someone making off with my heirloom tomatoes, or whatever.

And that begs the question: why not just ask for the damned rampions if you’re so afraid of this woman’s wrath? The worst she could do is say no. But I bet she wouldn’t have, if you had asked her nicely and respected her boundaries. She might have even turned out to be a nice old lady that you could call on to babysit on the occasional Friday night. But no, you had to steal from her.

And why can’t the wife solve her own problem? Why can’t she just go next door and chat the witch up, or learn how to plant her own damned rampions? Yeah, I know there wasn’t a YouTube video to consult back then, but I’m sure someone, including the sweet old lady next door, could show you how to get the job done. Take some initiative, wifey.

But no. Wife has to beg her husband to solve her problem, and of course he goes and does something stupid. And when he’s caught in the act, what does he do? To save his own stupid skin, he promises to give away their child, without even consulting his wife at all.

There’s absolutely no mention in the story of the wife’s outrage or sadness. We don’t even know if she knew about the situation before the witch shows up at the door and leaves with her kid without so much as a by-your-leave. (On second thought, maybe the old bat really is a witch.) In fact, we never hear of the wife or the husband ever again.

And this is when we first meet Rapunzel—when she’s in the process of being abducted. There’s no mention of the pregnancy, and for the love of God, please do not, do not describe the childbirth! That would be a little too much reality for male sensibilities. (And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that fairy tales were originally for adults rather than children. They were teaching tools in preliterate societies.) It’s the witch that names the child Rapunzel, another name for rampion. So in essence, the witch is getting back what was taken from her.

Anyway, Rapunzel apparently is allowed to roam free under the care of the witch until the age of 12, when she gets locked up in the tower. Most likely this sequestration is because she had “come into her womanhood”. We want our women to be obedient and chaste, of course. And the only way to do that is to “Lock her up!”

So now she’s up there, without internet or Netflix, and seems to be attempting to cope by singing. Every day when the witch comes, she has to lower her hair “20 ells” so that the witch can climb up. 20 ells is the equivalent of 150 feet, folks. She must have had split ends for miles.

And why doesn’t anyone ever ask how the witch got her up there the first time around? If it was by magic or by broomstick or something, then the witch wouldn’t have had to pull Rapunzel’s hair on a daily basis to come visit. These are things I think about all the time. And was there plumbing? If not, what a nightmare. No toilet, no shower… and how the hell do you keep 150 feet of hair clean, let alone brush it? Did the witch bring her prepared meals every day? You’d think your average crone would lose patience with that right quick.

Another thing: If Rapunzel could stand the weight of someone climbing up her hair, then she should have been able to use her own hair to make a sturdy rope to rappel down. Just loop it around the window mullion and away we go. Yeah, it might be scary, but I think after the first week or so of sheer boredom, you’d believe it was well worth the risk. But of course no woman is supposed to have her own abilities, beyond the sexual. Which must be kept in check. By someone else.

Now, enter the king’s son, who is never referred to as a prince. He might be a bastard by a courtesan, for all we know. And notice how he climbs up Rapunzel’s hair the first time to “seek his fortune”? He doesn’t care about the trapped chick at all. He just wants to see if she can improve his lot in life. (Which is further evidence that he wasn’t a prince, now that I think about it.)

The minute he’s up in the tower, he starts sweet talking her. Of course she falls for it. Anything has to be better than her current existence, after all. He then asks her to marry him. Apparently putting her hand in his is all it takes to be married in this story, because later it is stated that they are indeed married, but we were never invited to the nuptials. I think that’s kind of rude, given how invested we’ve been in their story.

He visits her daily, and we have no idea how long that goes on. The witch finds out through the girl’s foolishness. In some versions of the story, the witch can see her baby bump. In others, Rapunzel accidentally mentions the King’s son to her. And we don’t know how old Rapunzel is at this point. Here’s hoping baby daddy at least waited until she was an adult. That’s never really clarified.

Either way, Witchiepoo is pissed off, and cuts Rapunzel’s hair, and banishes her to God only knows where. (Incidentally, to digress again, did you know that the actress who played Witchiepoo on H.R. Pufnstuf died about a year ago? I didn’t. Why wasn’t that bigger news? She was 96.)

Another question: if the crone cut Rapunzel’s hair and left it in the tower for later, how did they both manage to get out of the tower to go to that “waste and desert place”? And if she had a waste and desert place lined up, why didn’t the crone put Rapunzel there in the first place? Would it have been a longer commute for her? Who knows. Instead she sticks Rapunzel into the tip of a big old phallic symbol.

Anyway, the witch goes back to the room in the tower, and again we have no idea how she pulls off that caper, but she then ties Rapunzel’s hair to the window hasp. (I still think the mullion would have been much sturdier from a physics standpoint, but who am I to criticize?) She does this to trick his royal highness’ randy bastard. (Maybe the kid is legit, but got disinherited because he was so dumb.)

As you can imagine, the encounter does not go well. He throws himself out of  the tower in utter despair and horror, drops 150 feet, lands face first in a thorn bush, and survives without even a visit to a chiropractor, having lost nothing but his eyesight. Then he wanders around helplessly for years, eating nothing but roots and berries and crying for his lost wife.

That, that is the guy who was supposed to rescue our helpless maiden? I mean, yes, her pickings were rather slim, but you’d think she’d wait for someone competent at least. But I have to give him this: he’s a survivor. And he always gets what he wants eventually.

Somehow he stumbles blindly upon Rapunzel’s place of banishment, and discovers he has twins. Rapunzel has been a successful single mom for all those years, and yet when she sets eyes on the guy, she throws herself in his arms and cries such tears that his sight is healed. (What the hell does she need him for? She could make a fortune with skills like that.) But then they go back to his kingdom and live happily ever after. So at least her living conditions experienced a hefty upgrade.

To recap: a baby named after a plant gets uprooted, and then, being potentially fertile, is transplanted to a tower where she is completely unable to achieve positive growth for herself and desperately needs a bad boy to come and make her bear fruit. Granny finds out and plucks that fruit and its bearer and throws them away, but they still manage to take root. After displaying such survival skills, our little plant still feels the need to fall back on her ability to seem helpless, and gets bad boy to commit transplantation again, and lands herself in a gilded pot, where, one can assume, she’ll eventually get root-bound. The end.

Rapunzel is not a story that children can read and come away with the idea that women are capable agents of their own lives. Little girls, especially, learn that, at the very least, manipulation is required to make it in a man’s world, but no one is going to even give you the credit for being a good manipulator. Not that I’m saying that’s a quality to strive for, but it sure beats being nothing but weak and fertile.

Sigh. The things we tell our children.

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

6 thoughts on “A Feminist Takes on Rapunzel”

  1. I see you as a child during story telling time with your hand up every few sentences. 🙂 At least in Tangled they made an effort to make Rapunzel less of a damsel in distress. Of course Disney’s changes were carefully crafted to increase profitability rather than as a progressive action in support of female empowerment. They were also trying to attract a male audience by changing the title to Tangled and not emphasizing the focus on just the female, Rapunzel, and giving the male, Flynn, an equal storyline. Let’s face it, if Disney ever followed the origins of most fairytales and nursery rhymes they would be cranking out horror tales, not kid friendly content. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhuUEYVYXfM&list=PLBcED6pQSldZmLyGHsajaZQyNGbekmAf8&index=2 We need more authors to come up with original, diverse, empowering stories for children and stop retelling archaic stories that have such obscure, often horrific, roots. Not saying we should do away with cautionary tales, but they need to be grounded in the present and be more relevant to the times to be effective. Having critiqued all the flaws in Rapunzel, you already know what shouldn’t go into a modern fairytale, so are you up for the challenge Barb? I’d read those tales.

    1. I have a million children’s stories in my head, but I have never been able to figure out how to break into the market. Do you send editors the text if you have no one to illustrate it? Do they pick the illustrators? I can’t get anyone to take me seriously.
      I’ve always thought that this particular blog post, greatly simplified, would make a great children’s book: https://theviewfromadrawbridge.com/2020/11/27/drawbridge-performance-art/

  2. If you’re thinking writing for children as a childless author is a deterrent: https://juliestroebelbarichello.com/2015/08/27/cca-club/#:~:text=Maurice%20Sendak%20had%20none.,order%20to%20write%20for%20them.
    “You just need to have been one, and to remember what it’s like.”
    I’ve known many parents who have forgotten their own childhoods and don’t have a clue what’s going on in their children’s inner lives. You have a lot of wisdom and personal history and memories that would be beneficial to children and could be a positive influence.

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