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.

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Curbing Male Violence

Women should not have to curb their freedoms.

Have you ever noticed that people always talk about the number of women who were raped each year, rather than the number of men who were rapists each year? Why is that? I think it’s because, whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a twisted bias in the world that if women get raped, they’ve somehow asked for it. When it comes to violence against women, it’s the women who get to “own” the crime as well as the statistics.

It has been ever thus. Women are expected to limit their freedoms to curb male violence. If you don’t want to get assaulted, ladies, you should avoid going out at night. You shouldn’t be in that parking garage. You shouldn’t dress like that. Don’t take male-oriented jobs. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be quiet. Never travel alone.

I genuinely believe that more is not done to curb male violence precisely because that violence helps keep us women in our place. I’d call it a disgusting trend, but a trend implies that change occasionally happens. This is more aptly described as a disgusting culture.

Sadly, the focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator isn’t going to change if we sit back and wait for the men to make the changes. Women need to speak out to adjust the focus to the ones committing the crimes. We need to raise our boys to understand that violence is never okay. I also wish more women would take self defense classes. We are not, nor do we ever have to be, helpless.

And yes, I know that men are raped, too, and that most men are not violent. But every woman I know has been the victim of some form of violence, abuse, or harrassment or another, so you do the math. It’s time to claim our freedoms and make these criminals sweat.

To show you how pervasive the culture of having women own victimhood really is, I must confess that I almost included a picture of a woman as a victim here, rather than one taking charge. Shame on me.

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Helpless Stress

Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.

No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.

It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.

The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”

If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.

You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.

Helpless Stress

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On Being Politically Violated

The mansion had been locked up for so long that most of us had never glimpsed the interior. There was no need, we thought. It looked beautiful from the outside. Grand. Stately. Well-landscaped. We were proud that it was the blueprint for mansions around the world. We were proud that it was ours.

And then cracks began to appear, in the windows, walls and roof. The foundation started to crumble. We began to wonder if its residents were actually doing anything to maintain this landmark edifice. This problem seemed to be one of long-standing, but we hadn’t been paying attention.

Then, about a year ago, an ungodly stench started to emanate from the bowels of the building. A coppery smell, like blood. The odor of stinking, raw sewage. Something was not right. We all knew this, but seemed at a loss to do anything about it.

The newest residents of the mansion didn’t seem to care. They actually seemed to delight in the decay, or at least were indifferent to it. They made all sorts of bizarre excuses. They pointed a finger at everyone except themselves. There were even feeble attempts at fireworks displays to distract us from the real problem.

There was talk of putting up a great big wall around the mansion, to keep out the undesirables. Perhaps, too, that would keep us from peeking in the windows and seeing the criminal neglect that we have allowed, and in some cases even encouraged, and the illegal acts that are causing this decay and this acrid pong of corruption and defilement. All this, in our house. OUR HOUSE.

There has been quite a bit of talk about this, actually. So much talk. And yet, no action.

Now, here we sit, feeling helpless and frustrated and sick, watching as this beautiful symbol slowly sinks back into the earth, and leaves behind an empty space, and a bittersweet memory of what we once had.

white house

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True confessions: When I’m angry, frustrated, upset, or feeling helpless, I either eat or spend money or both. I don’t need to be hungry or in need of something. I just do it. I know this about myself. I know it even as it’s happening. But I can’t seem to stop. (What a First World problem to have, right?)

After a recent, really, really bad day, I ordered three Japanese Maple trees (one yellow, one orange, and one red) and one Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar for my new yard. To the tune of $250. I have the money, but I really ought to spend it on something that’s a higher priority right now. This was not the wisest budgeting decision.

Yes, I’ve always wanted these trees. They’ll look great. They’ll result in less mowing and more privacy. But I only ordered them because I was pissed off.

It’s really rather interesting that when I’m angry or upset with someone or something else, it’s me whom I punish. I either spackle the fat directly to my hips or fire a cannon ball directly at my finances. Better to do that, I reason, than lash out at someone else or actually be assertive for a change.

This is not healthy. And in the end, it really doesn’t make me feel any better. I berate myself. I lecture myself. I take myself on an epic guilt trip. And I pay. Oh, do I pay, in so many ways. And yet, I’ll do it again, no doubt.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of my shenanigans aren’t at the $250 level. I actually have stellar credit. Usually It’s more like a late night drive to Wendy’s for about 1800 calories worth of junk food and the accompanying regret. But it’s still self-destructive.

It could be worse. I kind of understand people who cut themselves. I just don’t like pain. Or blood. Or awkward explanations. So I cover myself in a layer of fat and financial stress instead.

Even so, I really am looking forward to planting those trees…

Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar. Needless to say, mine will be much smaller.

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Growing up, I was bullied enough to know that children can be extremely cruel. They can also be devious, manipulative, and disingenuous. Even as a child, I avoided them. I spent more time with books and adults. When my mother tried to make me join the Girl Scouts, I looked upon it as punishment and went on strike. Being a Brownie had been humiliating enough.

Needless to say, I never had children of my own. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I haven’t regretted it for a second. I can think of nothing worse than being a secretly (or not so secretly) resentful parent.

Don’t get me wrong. There are amazing children out there. My niece and nephew may be adults now, but they were wonderful kids, and I was always happy to see them. My next door neighbor’s son is pretty awesome, too. And babies are fun to hold, as long as they can be handed back eventually.

I just never know what to say to kids, and that makes me uncomfortable. I feel pressure to entertain them, and I don’t think of myself as an exceptionally demonstrative individual. When they cry, I feel both helpless and irritated. They seem like bottomless pits of need. And I hate the thought of inadvertently screwing one up for life, you know? It’s a huge responsibility, influencing young minds.

So, yeah, being trapped in a room with a young person is not my idea of a good time. But at least I know this about myself. Beware of those who feel that way and are in denial about it.

I do enjoy watching kids grow up and turn into unique and wonderful human beings. I’ve been proud of more than one over the years. But, all things being equal, I prefer to observe from a safe distance.


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When Someone Has a Sad

Many years ago, I came across a woman who was crying. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know the reason for her tears. It didn’t really matter. I just knew she was sad, so I gave her a hug. Sometimes you just need a hug.

She clung to me like I was a life raft for a minute. And I actually felt her emotional pain pass through my chest and out my back. It was the strangest thing. It was palpable. I’ll never forget that.

I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t. She just gave me a weak smile and we went our separate ways, both of us, I hope, feeling a little better about ourselves.

Quite often when we need comforting the most, we are hesitant to ask for it. We don’t want to impose. We don’t want to be a burden.

But I submit that allowing someone to comfort you is like giving a gift to the comforter. It feels good to be helpful rather than feel helpless. It’s as nice to give love as to receive it. It’s wonderful to think that this gesture will be reciprocated if the situation is ever reversed.

I remember another time when I had a disagreement with the person I loved most in the world. We lay in utter silence, marinating in the tension, and I felt like my heart would break in two. Then, out of the darkness his hand reached for mine, and it felt as though life flooded back into my body. We hadn’t resolved our conflict. We still had work to do. But that gesture reassured me that it could be done, and at that moment, that was all that mattered.

Comfort, either given or received, is the most wonderful feeling on earth.

having a sad

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Feeling Helpless About Syria

Unless you live in a cave somewhere, you know what’s going on in Aleppo, Syria right now. And if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty darned helpless about it. People are being slaughtered and I’m looking at my empty guest room. I’d take them all in if I could. I’d stack ‘em up like cordwood. At least they’d be warm and not have to worry about the world exploding around them.

But it’s not that simple. I wish it were. Contrary to what the Republicans would have you believe, it is extremely difficult to sponsor a refugee. I’ve looked into it.

This is the same level of helplessness I felt during the slaughter in Rwanda. And it’s the same frustration I continue to feel about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. No government seems to be willing to step up and do something about this atrocity. Everyone is looking the other way. People are starving. Children are dying. Women are committing suicide rather than be raped. Men are being blown to bits. And even the UN, despite various resolutions, seems loathe to intervene.

I did find a little comfort in this fundraiser for The White Helmets. This group of heroes has been saving lives in Syria, on a purely volunteer basis, since 2013. They’ve put themselves in the path of the bombs to pull people out of the rubble, and according to their website, have saved 73,530 lives to date. The stories on this website will break your heart.

They risk their lives every single day, while I stare at my empty guest room. I feel sick. And while raising money for this amazing group of people doesn’t seem like nearly enough to do, it’s all I can think of to do at this time. Won’t you help? Even as little as $5.00 will buy them a pair of safety goggles to protect their eyes. That’s better than sitting here watching the tears flow from mine.

I just donated enough for 5 goggles. I wish I could afford to contribute enough money for a gas mask or a defibrillator. I wish I could do more. But together, we can do a lot more than just sit and wring our hands. That counts for something, right?


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A Thousand Origami Cranes

Many years ago I helped a friend fold a thousand origami cranes for someone who had a brain tumor. I’ve always found the Japanese legend of the thousand origami cranes to be delightful. Some say that they will bring you good luck, or a long life, or restored health. Most believe that you must fold them yourself, and complete them within one year, but I often see people making them for others. Fathers will give them as a wedding gift to their children, or they can be given to a baby for long life and good luck. They are also given to certain temples as a prayer for peace.

What I enjoy most about this tradition is that it’s sort of the physical manifestation of a prayer. I’m not one who prays. The only time I even think about doing so is when I feel helpless. Either I’m in a bad situation or someone I love is. Then I think about praying, but am fairly confident that it won’t do any good. So when feeling helpless like that, it would be comforting to be doing something. It would be good to at least live for a while in the illusion that I have some control. Folding cranes will do nicely.

Also, I do believe that it never hurts to make your positive desires visible to those around you. Saying that you wish someone well is a wonderful thing to do, but origami cranes last longer, take more effort and therefore demonstrate your sincerity, and hey, they’re pretty.

Ironically, after I had already written this entry, I came across this statue for the first time in Seattle’s Peace Park, not far from where I work. I have no idea how I overlooked it all this time.

[Image credit: historylink.org]

If you’d like to learn how to make an origami crane, check out this nifty tutorial:


And if you Google Origami Crane Kits, you’ll find all the supplies you need. Best wishes to you.


The Boy Who Gives Out Toys

Recently a friend of mine posted this video on her Facebook page. It is of a little boy who has lost both his parents, and one day he decided he was sick and tired of seeing everyone around him sad. So he bought a lot of tiny little toys, and started giving them out to random adults. The reactions range from smiles to hugs to tears. It’s a really moving bit of footage. What an amazing kid.

This video brought tears to my eyes, but not for the reason one might expect. It reminded me of a story that my late boyfriend once told me. He said his mother suffered from depression, and as the oldest child living at home, he felt a responsibility to try to do something about it. But he was just a little boy. So he decided to try to make her happy in the way that things made him happy at the time. Whenever he got allowance money, he’d go out and buy a little toy, a trinket, really, and he would give it to her. A little puzzle. A plastic car. Anything, anything, to make her smile.

God, that story still makes me cry. The thought of this powerless little boy trying so hard to make things better for his mom makes me want to travel back in time and hug him. I want to take all his worries away.

It might be a coincidence, but it doesn’t surprise me much that my boyfriend developed severe and debilitating asthma the same year his parents got divorced. He struggled to breathe for the rest of his life, and in the end, that’s what killed him. There was nothing I could have done to stop it as much as I desperately wish I could have, so I sort of understand how that helpless little boy felt.

On the first of his birthdays that we celebrated as a couple, one of the things I got him was a little toy. I wanted to make up for some of the toys he gave away as a child. I think that meant a lot to him.

Rest in Peace, Chuck. You can breathe easy now.

[image credit: wellesleyparade.com]
[image credit: wellesleyparade.com]