Newsflash: Disney’s Tangled is one big allegory for queer identity and finding your community
by Alyssa Sileo
Newsflash: Disney’s Tangled is one big allegory for queer identity and finding your community. I’ve loved the film since its release in 2010, but after recently happening upon this theory, I love it even more!
To review Tangled’s story to those who haven’t seen it in a while (or — gasp! — haven’t seen it at all) — it’s Disney’s take on Rapunzel’s tale. She grows up in a tower, unaware that her guardian, Mother Gothel, stole her away as a baby from the king and queen. This is because Rapunzel’s hair has magical healing powers which Mother Gothel uses to stay young.
Rapunzel longs to see the outside world, and on her 18th birthday she asks once again to go see the floating lights festival that she watches from her window. Mother Gothel demands that she cannot leave her tower because, according to her, the outside world is dangerous, and Rapunzel is not capable of fending off its perils.
With Mother Gothel away for a couple days, Flynn Rider finds refuge in Rapunzel’s towel after his heist of the royal crown. Rapunzel makes a deal to return the crown to him if he takes her to the kingdom to see the floating lights.
In the outside world, Rapunzel is both overjoyed and doubtful, but ultimately decides to go on with the journey. Both of these characters go on adventures, fall in love, and go to the kingdom to see the lights. Rapunzel then understands that this festival is in honor of the kingdom’s lost princess. Soon after, both are deceived when Flynn is jumped and Rapunzel is captured and taken back to her tower. This is when Rapunzel realizes that she is the lost princess.
Flynn finds his way back to the tower, and Mother Gothel mortally wounds him, and when Rapunzel goes to save him with her hair, Flynn cuts it off and renders her powers ineffective, causing Mother Gothel to shrivel up and lose all of her youth. Rapunzel’s tears still have the healing power so they save Flynn. The two live happily ever after in the kingdom as the found princess (and prince!)
Earlier this year, I watched the film on my senior trip to Disney and this theory came to me. So this winter break I watched the movie again to connect all of the dots: here they are!
1) This year I’ve been reading more about what many people in the community call queer magic — and this is what I relate to Rapunzel’s healing powers. I’ve come to understand queer magic as the special kind of spirituality that so many queer and trans people engage in, which has much to do with healing the world and bringing justice. Queer and trans people make incredible art, and this is only a part of what we contribute to the world, but large one at that.
In accordance with this allegory, I see Rapunzel as queer person possessing this magic (specifically, I loved headcanoning her as pansexual!). Mother Gothel exploits Rapunzel’s magic, keeping her locked up in the tower, which inhibits Rapunzel’s ability to live her true life. This action of Gothel’s is much like how society will repeatedly engage with the contributions and accomplishments of queer and trans people, but will erase their queer or trans identity from the picture. Think about statutes like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and religious institutions that only half-accept queer and trans members. There’s also the biographical works of queer and trans artists that deliberately never mention their queer or trans identity, even if it is integral to their work and story, to make the story more “palatable.” It’s like writing an essay about Sappho without ever mentioning that her poems were written romantically towards women. (I’ve read one of those essays. It was exasperating.) On the other hand, the way Flynn values Rapunzel for all of herself, not just her magic, reflects what it takes to be a good ally. Queer and trans people must be humanized, because we are more than our identity.
2) On their adventure through the kingdom, Rapunzel and Flynn visit a pub full of ruffians. When Rapunzel shares that she has a dream to see the lights, the ruffians’ demeanor change from vicious to gracious, as they take turns sharing their own dreams. Rapunzel’s kindness enabling this celebration (and a bop of a musical number on Disney’s part) connects to how, in many instances, queer and trans people have banded together to fight for those who are not always seen for who they are. Our own experiences of being marginalized have the power to make us compassionate for others. A particular story that comes to mind is the British coalition Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners, who, in the 80s, raised funds for individual mining communities who were being deprived of decent wages by the Thatcher administration. (This story was also chronicled in a wonderful 2014 film called Pride.)
3) Mother Gothel’s character symbolizes queer- and transphobic society, and especially how it too often takes hold of parents and guardians. Gothel is emotionally manipulative as she demonizes the outside world, hiding all that’s beautiful in it in order to keep Rapunzel from deciding it’s better than her tower and leaving for good. Connecting this to the queer narrative, it is much like how queer- and transphobic society calls queerness and transness evil, and uses this to suppress these identities in their young people. I can speak to how there is a special kind of beauty within our queer community that someone who hates it would never be able to see. So much of the violence of oppression is denying people to find those who love them and understand them.
4) Speaking of this act of finding your people, the series of scenes that lead Rapunzel to finding out who she is were always emotional to me from the first time I watched the film. Now I know why: it is so much like the coming out journey. When Rapunzel first sees her rightful kingdom, she relates to the people, as she dances, makes art, and brings joy to the community. I relate to this joyful discovery the first moments of my coming out journey, in which I found myself among fellow queers. Rapunzel discovering that she is the lost princess shows how she knows who she is inside, but needs help from the outside world to fully understand this.
That’s why healthy, positive depictions of queer and trans identity in media and society is necessary for people to find themselves without having to go through processes of guilt or self-loathing.
Rapunzel initially has so much baggage with finally seeking her dream (or in the allegory, being her true self), but when she understands that not the reality but rather Mother Gothel’s interpretation (a.k.a. society) that gives it a negative connotation, she loses all inhibition.
5) Without even knowing who she is, Rapunzel is so loved by her community, so much so that they set the lights every year in the hopes of finding her. This is like how the queer and trans community fights for our siblings, especially those yet to come. We are united by the diversity of our stories and our identities, and work our hardest to be generous in our advocacy and care-taking.
I love how so many Disney tales are about discovering identity. That’s one of life’s biggest adventures, anyway: finding out who you are. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing my theory, and if you find anything else in this story that connects to the allegory, please leave a comment!
I’ll leave you with this quote from Rapunzel as she lives in her newly realized identity, which should be an advocate’s mantra: “I won’t stop. For every minute for the rest of my life I will fight.”
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.