What’s the deal with how Gothel is treated in Tangled?

I’m generally a big fan of animated films, and the recent slew of animated features from Disney are actually pretty good. Perhaps understanding that times have changed, Disney seems to be focusing on retelling fairy tales and classical tales but with a fresher, modern twist. Take Frozen and the surprisingly progressive “twist” at the end of the movie that stray from the expected “guy gets girl” trope.

Before Frozen came Tangled, a retelling of the Rapunzel story. I quite enjoyed Tangled as a light and funny romp with enough heartfelt “Disneyness” about it that gave it my tick of approval. But there was one thing that annoyed me about the movie, and that’s the way it depicts the villian, Gothel, who is Rapunzel’s adopted mother/kidnapper. Spoilers ahoy!

Oh yeah, suck up that magic.

Oh yeah, suck up that magic.

At the beginning of the film, Gothel is described as a centuries-old woman who found a magical flower that is able to heal the sick and injured if one sings to it. Gothel visits the flower periodically to sing to it to regain her youth. While she does hide the flower, she doesn’t disturb it from the spot it grows. Instead, she simply visits it when she needs her youth restored.

A Queen from a Generic Disney Kingdom™ falls pregnant and becomes sick. To save her life, the King sends his army to search far and wide for the magical flower. Once they find it (without any resistance from Gothel), they cut down the flower in order to brew it into a tea for the Queen. This was a magical, forever growing flower that could benefit all that comes to it, and they just cut it down. Imperialism, everybody!

So the magical flower is gone forever but the Queen is saved. She births a little girl who happens to have absorbed the magic of the flower through her hair. The ever resourceful Gothel sneaks into the baby’s room and discovers that when she sings the magic song, Rapunzel’s hair reacts and replenishes Gothel’s youth just like the flower did.

Now, Gothel isn’t out to snatch the kid, in fact, the first thing she does is cut a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, probably intending to keep a lock of the magic with her. If the magic had stayed in the lock, Gothel would’ve gone her merry away without further disturbing the princess or the kingdom. But unfortunately, the magic is somehow attached to Rapunzel herself, so the cut hair has no magic. Gothel has no choice but to kidnap the princess if she wants to stay alive. She just wants to live people, is that such a crime??

Anyway, so Rapunzel is kidnapped and locked in a high tower to live out her childhood. Unlike the traditional story where the princess is kept all alone, it is highly implied in the movie that Gothel generally lives with her in the tower. Not only does Gothel look after her, but she also tries to keep Rapunzel happy, by bringing her paints and books. The only thing that Gothel can’t do is let Rapunzel leave the tower.

Rapunzel and Gothel

Perhaps the land IS riddled with the plague as Gothel warned, but Rapzunel’s hair keeps her immune?

I’m not justifying Gothel’s actions of keeping Rapunzel in a gilded cage as being a good thing. It’s not. I’m sure she could’ve gone about it a more civil way, perhaps trying to negotiate with the King and Queen to allow periodic visits to Rapuznel to get that magic hair juju. Kidnapping was definitely a pretty drastic move. However, for a Disney villian, kidnapping and raising a child as a single mother in order to stay alive is pretty low on the list of villainous acts. Certainly lower than cursing a baby to die on her 16th birthday because you didn’t get invited to said baby’s birthday party.

Anyway, Gothel tries to keep Rapunzel in the tower by warning her of the dangers of the outside world via the best song in the movie, Mother Knows Best. It doesn’t work and Rapunzel sneaks out anyway. She encounters the very things that Gothel warned her about, ruffians and thugs, but thanks to contrived Disney logic, said thugs turn out to be warm-hearted fellas, who become instant BFFs with Rapunzel. Don’t listen to your parents kids, strangers are all way cool!

Things happen but Rapunzel is brought back to the tower by Gothel. There, Rapunzel puts together that she must be the missing princess. And this is the part that gets to me the most, she immediately rejects Gothel. Despite the fact that Gothel had raised her and was the only person she knew all her life, because of the newly discovered fact that Gothel is not her biological parent and had dared to deprive Rapunzel the right to live as a princess, she now hates Gothel.

Flynn comes to rescue Rapunzel who is now chained up by Gothel to stop her from escaping. Flynn gets shived by Gothel and Rapunzel promises to go with Gothel if she is allowed to save Flynn.  Gothel agrees and Rapunzel tries to use her hair to save him. What does he do? He cuts her hair, which kills the magic and reverses Gothel’s youth. In her shock and despair, Gothel stumbles towards the window and the stupid chameleon uses Rapunzel’s hair to trip Gothel so that she falls out the window to her death. WTF animal side-kick??

Not a single word is said about Gothel for the remainder of the movie. Rapunzel is reunited with her biological parents, the people whom she’s never spoken to, seen or know anything about. They welcome her with open arms and the end.

It's not easy being a single mother.

It’s not easy being a single mother.

This movie teaches us that biological parents you don’t know are waaaay better than adoptive parents. Forget how an adoptive parent might have “bathed and changed and nursed you”, it’s okay to completely move on from them if you discover that you have “real” parents out there. Gothel may have kidnapped Rapunzel for selfish reasons, but who’s to say that she didn’t grow to love Rapunzel? Couldn’t she both be protective of her daughter and her daughter’s magical hair?

Imagine if Gothel was the protagonist of the movie. Perhaps the reason she always leaves the tower is to find an alternate way to keep her youth without having to rely on Rapunzel. Perhaps she finally finds this alternative source of magic and realises that she no longer has to rely on Rapunzel, meaning she can finally tell Rapunzel the truth.  But before she’s able to finalise her plans, her liar revealed moment occurs when Rapunzel realises that she’s a kidnapped princess. With time running out, Gothel chains Rapunzel up to take control of the situation, but in the end, all is for nought when Rapunzel’s hair is cut and Gothel falls to her death because of a freaking lizard.  Gothel’s long life ends, and she is never able to redeem herself in the eyes of her daughter.

I am certainly not advocating kidnapping. Yes, Gothel’s motives are definitely selfish, and she’s can be pretty crummy as a mother (chaining up your kids is a no-no). The movie certainly implies that Rapunzel’s picture-perfect, royal biological parents would have been way better parents than Gothel. I am just puzzled by the themes of this movie, which on one hand, has a villian whose biggest crime is committed out of selfishness, and on the other, has a hero (Flynn) who also acts out of selfishness, yet is given the chance to redeem himself.

Skip the drama

Skip the drama.

Out of all the Disney villians that come to mind, Gothel is the one who I would say is the least “evil”. She doesn’t have lofty “evil” ambitions, she doesn’t derive joy from seeing others suffer, she’s not vengeful or jealous.  She had a sustainable method to keep herself alive (without hurting anyone) and she had to make do once the method is unthinkingly destroyed by the supposed “good guys”. She’s a complex character who could’ve been given the opportunity to redeem herself but I guess that would’ve been too difficult for Disney to pull off.

Instead, Disney seems to advocate the uncomfortable idea that biological parents are the best, even if you know nothing about them, as opposed to lame adoptive parents who had cared for you all your life and who impose stupid rules on you for your protection.

I had pretty strict parents when growing up and there were rules I had to obey, especially when I was a teen. I try to imagine how I would react if I found out that my parents weren’t biologically related to me, but had kidnapped me for whatever reason when I was a baby, and I have now found my biological parents.  Would I immediately jump ship? Could I abandon the people who raised me and more importantly, could I deny them something that would save their lives which was in my control, just because they had lied to me about my origins? What is Disney trying to say if the protagonist of their movie would say “yes” to all of the above in a heartbeat?

But forget all that! The guy and the girl got together! The horse is funny! Happy ending, hooray, right?

11 thoughts on “What’s the deal with how Gothel is treated in Tangled?

  1. Interesting the analysis. I guess I never paid much attention to the whole bit on the flower thing because I do not remember it! I guess next time I re-watch it, I’ll have to pay attention. (I watched the film at work with the kids, but it’s kind of hard to get into a film when you’re interrupted constantly with kids asking to use the restroom and such.)

    And yes, I know for one that biological parents are NOT always the best — so whatever Disney’s message is . . . it needs to be shot down LOL. I hadn’t considered all these points, so thanks for opening up my eyes on it!

  2. I haven’t yet seen Tangled or Frozen, which seems to surprise a lot of people. I just haven’t been in the mood to sit down and watch movies lately. From what you wrote, it seems as if Gothel is treated pretty badly – but my question is why does she want to be young and beautiful forever? Why didn’t she take some of the seeds of the flower and try to grow another one? It’s things like this in fairy tales that confuse me sometimes. But I can definitely see your point that they didn’t give her the respect that she deserved. 🙁

    • I don’t think the flower produces seeds, it’s a magic flower from the sun or something. I got a feeling that if Gothel was given a redemption arc, perhaps she would learn to let go of her appearance and youth?

  3. Oh wow o_O That is a very, very interesting way to look at the Tangled movie.

  4. Tim

    My favourite thought-experiment concerning Tangled would be if Gothel didn’t immediately age and die when Rapunzel’s hair was cut (I mean really, the flower’s sun-magic saved the Queen, too, did she immediately drop dead when it was cut?). In the movie, we see Rapunzel figuring out that she is the kidnapped princess, and flips out at her mother over her childhood of deprivation and isolation from presumed-to-be-loving biological parents. This is understandable, in a teenager sort of way, but if I recall correctly we never get to see Rapunzel engage with the fact that Gothel did what she did to stay alive, in the custom she had managed for centuries prior to the royals annexing the flower she’d discovered.

    Just imagine if Gothel hadn’t instantly started whithering and dying, and we had to deal with Rapunzel having to face her mother, now a broken, defeated woman, explaining that Rapunzel’s self-driven quest for independence has effectively killed her. Not the quick, dramatic passion of falling out a window and exploding into mummy-dust, but having a real conversation (angry or not) with the woman who raised you, about the fact that she is now going to rapidly age and die within a month, from an affliction you were unknowingly keeping her safe from.

    I like to imagine a really tragic, heavy-hearted alternative ending, where the deus-ex-machina tear of sadness Rapunzel sheds isn’t for that dick Flynn/Eugene (who of course, then dies, that ‘let me invalidate your choices and destroy your magic to save you’ asshole), but is instead shed for her mother, who had embraced the only stopgap solution available to her to maintain her life in the face of royal consumption that never thought to check if anyone had a sustainable means of using the magic flower.
    I like to imagine an ending where, rather than rushing off to the King Trusting and his magically-not-dead wife (seriously, she doesn’t even have the same hair colour as their missing daughter by then, thank god for cartoonish family resemblance), Rapunzel decides to spend the last month or two of Gothel’s life by her side, taking care of her and protecting her just as Gothel had once done. A candid acknowledgement that relationships are built out of shared experience, not blood, and that it is possible to do good things for ultimately selfish reasons.

    Either that, or play the current ending straight, but actually have the Queen die too when the hair is cut. The only person who deserved to die with Rapunzel angry at them was freaking Flynn/Eugene. “Thanks, dick, thanks for unthinkingly destroying the only known healing magic in the world, and preventing/undoing all the tremendous good that might’ve been done with it”. What an asshole, I swear…

    • I’d read that fanfic.

  5. Jea

    I’ve always thought of Gothel as a good person. She just has her needs (to live), just like what you pointed out. I was also thinking about the negotiating-with-the-king-and-queen thing.

    This is a very deep analysis of Gothel. I’ve never thought of it this way and now it makes me wonder…

    And Max /is/ funny lmao

  6. I think one thing that Disney could’ve touched on (but they never would because Disney) is that Gothel is a narcissist first, mother second. When I watched Tangled, I saw that she did love Rapunzel, and her distress when she found her gone wasn’t just because she lost her source of youth, but also because her daughter is missing.

    That said, her needs come first. Narcissist love their children, but they love themselves more. It’s a complicated relationship mired in love and abuse at the same time. The other side to her song besides bad guys being out there, is Rapunzel is too clumsy, dumb, and ugly to be accepted in the outside world. She needs to bring her daughter down to lift herself up.

    I wish Rapunzel realized how toxic her relationship with her adoptive mother was, and then decide to leave and reconnect with her real parents. Not just because shared genes = happiness.

    • Mmmm I agree, it would be great if Rapunzel actually reflected on her situation a bit more. It would make her a much more complex character. But I guess it’s easier for her to just float from one situation to another and have the decisions she needs to make handed to her.

      I do agree that Gothel probably loved herself more than Rapunzel, she was certainly reluctant to adopt Rapunzel and only did so to save her own life. It’s a complicated situation I just found it frustrating that Disney kind of glossed over these interesting angles.

  7. Brian

    I started watching it earlier and got so annoyed with the kingdom that I googled “I’m on Gothel’s side” and it brought me here. This page is so full of valid points that I might not be able to pay attention to the movie itself ever again, because of thinking “this should have gone like this” and so forth. Seriously, stealing and killing a legendary, hundreds-of-years-old magical healing flower that can bring one very close to immortality… just to save YOUR wife and baby? …Worst king in the history of Disney, I think. And Rapunzel wants to go LIVE with these people?!

  8. Catherine Hughes

    SHE KIDNAPPED HER! It’s not like Rapunzel’s parents gave her up for adoption to Gothel. How anyone could give Gothel justification here is just sick. I mean I can’t imagine what that would feel like, a parent’s worst nightmare. Always searching,hoping and wondering. That is just half of the reason Gothel deserved to die. The other half is what she did to Rapunzel. She constantly belittled her,called her names. She is the most incredibly selfish person. Not only did she betray Rapunzel, she used her so she could stay young forever. She had a black heart and tried to make her feel as if she wasn’t good enough or smart all because of her obsessiveness for youth. Even if Gothel wasn’t killed, Rapunzel’s parents would have surely killed her. She couldn’t have escaped even if she tried because she was so weak. After 18 years of all that horribleness Rapunzel gets to finally be free and that is truly empowering for her.  In my opinion Gothel is worse than other Disney villains because for one she did technically murder Flynn. If Rapunzel had no powers, then he would have definitely stayed dead. So I am also not sympathetic with a murderer. The other Disney villains technically never killed anyone. Kidnapping and emotional manipulation also shouldn’t be downplayed as a crime, it’s a big one and happens every day. She kept Rapunzel for her own selfish manipulative reasons, there is no BUT there because everything she did was not out of kindness or love. If you look closely every time she looks at or shows Rapunzel “affection” (I’M BEING SARCASTIC) it was always with her hair, whether it was touching her hair or kissing it. She never kissed her forehead or showed true love. Flynn would kiss her forehead and he also made one of the biggest sacrifices so she would be free and live her own life, that is pure and selfless true love. Gothel also lied to Rapunzel at the end when Rapunzel asked her to not hurt Flynn and she would go with her. She also put her in chains and duct tape at the end to take her away. It was also always about Gothel,she also got the paint for Rapunzel so she wouldn’t think about leaving the tower, another manipulation tactic. In the beginning when she greeted Rapunzel it was with, why are you taking so long and not how are you. The flower was not technically HER flower. It says in the beginning it was growing there and she used it for her own selfish gain whereas the king used it to help save his wife and baby which was of course unselfish.She is a monster and worse than anyone.

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