Movies

Gothel and Maleficent: A Study in Contrasts

I recently watched both Tangled* and Maleficent* for the first time, and I was absolutely enchanted by both! Tangled is a feat of pure Disney magic, easily one of the best “Disney Princess” movies I’ve ever seen, and hilarious to boot. As for Maleficent… talk about a powerful film that turned an old and, quite frankly, two-dimensional story on its head!

The odd thing about these movies, however, is that our family was always warned away from them. Maleficent* was, according to our sources, a movie that glorified the villain and made the good guys “bad.” As for Tangled*, it apparently encouraged young girls to rebel against their protective parents.

I’d like to set the record straight for both of these movies, since I have a feeling I’m not the only one who was told these things once upon a time.

Tangled* is the story of Rapunzel, a beautiful princess with magical golden hair, and Gothel, the witch who stole Rapunzel from her devoted parents. Knowing that this magnificent hair will prolong her own fading youth, Gothel is obsessed with keeping the oblivious Rapunzel in her possession–even to the point of locking her in a tower and crushing Rapunzel’s budding dreams at every opportunity.

Mother knows best
Take it from your mumsy
On your own, you won’t survive!
Sloppy, underdressed
Immature, clumsy
Please, they’ll eat you up alive!
Gullible, naïve
Positively grubby
Ditzy and a bit, well, hmm vague
Plus, I believe
Gettin’ kinda chubby
I’m just saying, ’cause I wuv you
Mother understands
Mother’s here to help you
All I have is one request…

Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again.

As Gothel’s narcissism and cruelty become more apparent, Rapunzel realizes that not only is she controlling and abusive, but she’s not even her real mother. Her true mother is grieving her loss and keeping her memory alive in the nearby castle. Tangled, I would argue, is as much about Rapunzel trying to reunite with her parents as it is about her adorable relationship with the lovable scoundrel, Flynn Rider.

Herein lies another point, though: Rapunzel never shows disrespect or contempt towards her presumed mother. Yes, she flees the tower against Gothel’s orders–but Rapunzel is not a child. She is an intelligent adult who suspects things are not as they seem. Having never been allowed the dignity of a logical conversation with Gothel, she seeks out the truth herself. Yet even then, she tries her best to be a dutiful daughter…until she finally realizes she’s in the clutches of an evil witch who has no real love for her at all.

Are there movies that portray parents (real parents, not kidnapping, murderous sorcerers) as buffoons and control freaks? Yes. Are there movies that encourage devil-may-care rebellion from children? Of course. But is Tangled* one of these movies? I offer an emphatic “NO.”

Tangled does, however, eloquently show the realities of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Parents should definitely discuss this with their children as they watch Gothel manipulate and abuse Rapunzel, and implore them to watch out for these damaging character traits in themselves and in others.

But how does Gothel’s story connect with Maleficent’s? It connects as a contrast–and a stark one.

Maleficent* is NOT a live-action revisionist version of the Sleeping Beauty cartoon. It is, instead, a retelling of a fairytale that’s far older than Disney Studios. Maleficent is not a witch, but the fierce and beautiful Fairy-Queen of an enchanted world. The cruel betrayal and ambition of her childhood sweetheart, however, fills her with bitterness. Determined to make him pay, she curses his baby daughter Aurora: on her sixteenth birthday the child will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a sleep like death. Only true love’s kiss will break the spell–and no power on earth can undo the curse.

In her agonizing pain, Maleficent has convinced herself that true love can’t possibly exist, which would make Aurora’s doom even more certain. But not even the powerful, embittered Fairy can resist the innocence, goodness, and beauty of the little princess. Before long she finds herself taking care of Aurora from afar; when they finally meet face-to-face, Aurora even assumes, joyfully, that Maleficent must be her Fairy Godmother. As their relationship grows, Aurora awakens a fierce, tender, protective love in Maleficent that can only be described as motherly.

Maleficent* does a great job in turning many tired old clichés and tropes on their head–but it utterly demolishes the notion that a handsome prince can bestow true love’s kiss after knowing a girl for, like, ten minutes. Let’s face it: the idea is a bit rubbish. But a mother’s kiss?

Ah. That is something else entirely.

Gothel did not love Rapunzel for Rapunzel’s sake. She loved Rapunzel’s hair. In order to keep the hair, Gothel isolated, used, guilt-tripped, threatened, and lied to Rapunzel. And in the end, her own greed, self-obsession, and cruelty became her undoing.

But Maleficent loved Aurora. In spite of her anger towards the girl’s father, Maleficent gave herself, heart and soul, to Aurora’s well-being and happiness. She experienced deep remorse and repentance over the curse she laid on Aurora, and did everything in her power to undo it. She offered Aurora everything she had, and her true, self-sacrificial love eventually broke the spell.

Gothel and Maleficent may be the most formidable mother figures in recent Disney history–but as polar opposites, they teach extremely valuable lessons for today’s audiences. One is a textbook example of the insidious narcissism that permeates our society…while the other is a startling picture of the triumph of love over heartache.

17 thoughts on “Gothel and Maleficent: A Study in Contrasts”

  1. THIS POST. I agree one hundred percent with everything in it! IMO, Rapunzel is one the sweetest, kindest, and most loving Disney princesses and she has an amazing relationship with her parents. Her REAL parents. (Just don’t watch the new TV show. The characters are now horribly unrecognizable.)

    And little kids won’t get the idea to rebel and run away from home because of Tangled. Rapunzel is running TO her parents!

    Honestly, Tangled is amazing and so wholesome. Love it. ❤

    And Maleficent! I shied away from it at first because it looked like there was some pretty dark magic in it (it’s nothing worse than the OG Disney film IMO – just more creepy?) but I adored it when I finally saw it. Stories that show the villain’s side I’d things are great. (I still wouldn’t show it to my little siblings, just bc they’d be creeped out.) LOVED the kiss and the themes and the aesthetic. Soooo good.

    Anyway, thanks for this post! It’s awesome.

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    1. EXACTLY, Eva! Rapunzel is running TO her parents! That’s the point I’ve been making ever since I saw the movie: Gothel wasn’t even her real mother, her real parents were searching high and low for her and GRIEVING over her loss–AND YET there are people who think Rapunzel should’ve submitted and kept her head down for a kidnapping murdering sorceress who essentially had her in bondage? Nuh-uh. I ain’t buyin’ that.

      I’m glad you did like Maleficent! It was so much better than I would’ve expected. Even my dad, who isn’t a big fantasy fan (The Lord of the Rings excepted), thoroughly enjoyed it. I think probably my two youngest sisters would’ve been a bit spooked by it as well, but I have a feeling they’ll love it eventually!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. Everyone who says that Rapunzel is rebellious seems to forget the fact that Mother Gothel is a TERRIBLE person who isn’t even Rapunzel’s real mother! (By blood OR actions.) And even if she was, the amount of emotional (and eventually physical) abuse that Gothel puts Rapunzel through would be more than ample grounds for Rapunzel to leave.

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  2. Yes yes yes!! Both of those movies are soooo good. I love the animated “Sleeping Beauty”, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy “Maleficent” so much – but it’s a gorgeous, well-told take on the fairy tale and it contains a lot of really insightful principles, as you noted.

    “Tangled”, on the other hand, I was definitely warned away from. I remember reading an article by a well-known pair of homeschool-grad sisters (who will remain unnamed) that simply ripped the movie apart. When I watched it, I had to agree with other commentators that it illustrates very poignantly just what it’s like to break away from controlling relationships. While I absolutely agree with your analysis, I would venture to add that even if Gothel WERE Rapunzel’s real mother, Rapuzel’s handling of the situation would have been completely appropriate. The fact that Gothel isn’t makes the opposition to this film simply laughable.

    I do wish they wouldn’t do a sequel, though. It’s really hard for sequels to live up to the originals, and Disney doesn’t have a super good track record on that.

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    1. I just saw that you submitted two comments, Hannah–so I kept this longer, original one! Hope that’s okay. You probably just didn’t see the original one right away because of my moderation settings 🙂

      BUT ANYWAY–YES. I know exactly who you’re talking about, regarding the article about Tangled…and while I never named them outright, I was thinking of the exact same people when I talked about how we were warned away from this movie. And yours is an excellent and important point as well: even if Gothel had been Rapunzel’s real mother, Rapunzel handled that situation with such realistic thoughtfulness, care, and inner conflict. I know I’ve observed/experienced real-life situations with very difficult people, and sometimes you simply HAVE to say “NO” and establish clear boundaries. You can certainly do it with respect, but it’s never an easy, cut-and-dry thing to do–and no matter how hard you try to keep peace on your own end, the other person may not respond well at all. That’s not your responsibility, though–you’re only accountable to God for your own actions and responses.

      I’ll just never understand why someone would castigate a character like Rapunzel for resisting the kidnapping, murdering sorceress who kept her in bondage. That’s just too much of a stretch–and smacks too much of “Submit to your abuser,” in my opinion.

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      1. Well put! This hits close to home for me, because I dealt with this exact type of situation in my home and as you said, sometimes boundaries just have to be set. (God is gracious and merciful, and gave us good relationships on the other side of it.)

        I think sometimes the reason people want to castigate Rapunzel as a sinful rebel, honestly, is because the actions and the stated motives of Mother Gothel are eerily similar to those of some fundamentalist homeschool parents – with one key difference: they actually are sincere in wanting the best for their kids. Unfortunately, good motives don’t negate the harm of abusive actions, and (even more unfortunately) power tends to corrupt, meaning the honest motives of protectiveness often get infected with self-serving destructiveness. In other words, many times people see too much of themselves (or their worldview) in Mother Gothel, and instead of prompting self-examination and a hard look at your system of thought, they react with very human defensiveness.

        Clearly I’ve given this a lot of thought, haha! But as I said, I’ve seen and experienced all of this myself. I’m so grateful to a God who can redeem relationships even when they contain destructive elements. There is hope, and there is always grace, and none of us deserve either.

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  3. Great post! I know licensed counselors who have used Tangled to teach about manipulative relationships to their teenage clients because it really is textbook. Many Disney Princess movies involve the heroine going against advice/parental orders/trying to solve things on their own (Mulan, The Little Mermaid, Brave, Pocahontas) because they are coming-of-age movies, and pushing boundaries is a natural process for most adolescents.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post! And yes, I noticed while doing some preliminary research for this article that Gothel is often used as a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder! I’d argue, though, that the difference between Tangled and Mulan/The Little Mermaid/Brave/Pocahontas is that neither Mulan’s parents, nor Ariel’s nor Merida’s nor Pocahontas’, were EVIL. In fact, Mulan and Merida’s parents, at least, are definitely good people having (mostly) understandable conflicts with their daughters! (Same thing going on in How To Train Your Dragon, by the way–another movie we were warned away from before we actually saw it and realized how good it is.)

      But Rapunzel was fighting an abusive sorceress. That’s a totally different situation there. Mulan and Merida had to work through differences of opinion and personality with their parents. Rapunzel is escaping literal bondage.

      Makes you realize just how awesome a character she really is, haha!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right! Which is why it is confusing to me why Tangled would be singled out by anyone as more negative. The freedom she finds is not just “self-empowerment” but is literal freedom from captivity.

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      2. Mother Gothel set up a truth system for Rapunzel: the world outside is dangerous and all other people are evil. I would argue that Rapunzel leaving the tower is not so much an act of rebellion, but her disagreeing with her mother and choosing to find out the truth for herself. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

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  4. I’d never heard that there was opposition to Tangled, I thought it was fairly obvious Mother Gothel was the bad “guy” just in a new way, well maybe not all that new, she’s like Lady Tremaine in the passive-aggressive, manipulativeness. I actually thought Rapunzel was too mild and forbearing, of course, I AM rebellious whether justified or not. My favorite example of being gracious and standing up to emotional/mental abuse is Cinderella in the live action version, of course, I think that movie is just about perfect.

    I watched Maleficent, but I’m not drawn to that version, also there was some super disturbing imagery/implications from what I remember which I’m not a fan of and why I don’t care for the fairytale originals.

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  5. This was a fantastic post, Maribeth!! Thank you for sharing it!!
    You may be amused to know that your Twitter thread about Tangled from a couple of weeks ago led me to harass my entire family into watching it with me. 😂 It was the first time my mom and youngest sister had seen it, and we all enjoyed watching it together. 😊

    I was curious to know what my mom would think of it, given the response of some conservatives that you mentioned here and on Twitter. We both decided that, as well as not having any of the supposed issues that some apparently saw in it, it actually DOES include a disturbingly familiar theme: The manner in which Gothel treats Rapunzel is sadly similar to situations we’ve heard of ourselves, with the exception that the parents in these situations had far more genuine motives, and that the children truly *did* rebel and ended up in far worse situations than Rapunzel.

    Now I’m not saying that that message is the core theme of the story or anything. Obviously, Gothel was all bad and Rapunzel was in the right to leave her (I would even argue that the movie made a deliberate effort to distance itself from the “controlling parent/rebellious teen” trope by outright confirming that Rapunzel was 18 – an actual legal *adult* in most of the US.) But IMO, if Tangled IS trying to send any subtle message about “controlling parents,” I would say that it’s a needed one, cautioning authority figures to be careful in the way they choose to “shelter” their children from the outside world, as doing so in the demeaning, narcissistic, even abusive manner Gothel used is a quick path to actual rebellion and generally a lot of pain and heartbreak.

    Alright, this comment has gotten very long. I’m done with my mini-rant. 😂

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    1. Really great point there, Shay: I’d argue that Tangled is a tremendously important movie for adults, especially in this day and age. I’m so, so grateful that my parents have always allowed us to ask honest questions and have thoughtful, “grown-up” conversations with them–but like you, I’ve also observed situations where that is sadly not the case. In some cases the parents really had good intentions–but in others, it was painfully obvious that they didn’t. As for the parents who only want what’s truly best for their kids, we need to recognize that they really are doing their best in an increasingly hostile world! It would be horribly, horribly wrong for us to assume that all protective parents are Gothels in disguise! But I do think that parents need to be gracious and honest with their kids about the decisions they’ve made and the convictions they hold, and 100% willing to admit that though they will never be perfect, they’re always doing their best. I know from experience that that kind of humility goes a long way towards earning a child’s respect, honor, and love.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This was BEEEEEAUTIFUL!! I loved it so much! I never actually knew the Christian community criticized Tangled for the “rebellious” reason, but I can certainly see it happening. Luckily, I saw the film when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

    Heeheehee, anyways, I loved reading this post. I haven’t seen Maleficent in a long time, but I remember how much I loved the way she showed such love (after a radical transformation) towards Aurora. The love shown in BOTH films contrasts the other. One mother figure is over protective and manipulative, and the other isn’t even a mother at all. It’s like their roles were reversed.

    I loved reading this! I’ll think of it now every time I watch these films! Thanks for writing this…it was so *whimsical*

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