My amazing mother’s birthday was this past Friday. Her children were all scattered across the country—as we are wont to be—and I’m sure we each took turns calling her, stopping in to see her, kiss her on the cheek, and congratulate her on her life so-far well lived.
As it happened, I was driving on Friday from Pittsburgh to Grand Rapids, so I spent about an hour of that long drive chatting with my mother (on a hands-free device, I promise). I spent the hour following that one listening to the soundtrack to Tangled. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of talking to my own mother and then hearing the song “Mother Knows Best,” but something got me thinking about just how extraordinarily disturbing Mother Gothel is to me as a villain.
The Disney movies available to me during my most formative years were Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. I did not like those movies or watch them much, because Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and their various tactics and minions would give me nightmares. They were both drawn with evil looking eyes and tall, slender, imposing bodies, and their dialogue was written without a drop of humor.
I think if Tangled had existed when I was a child, I might not have even known to be scared of Mother Gothel. Sure, the movie makes it clear that she’s got bad intentions, and she’s never nice or even pleasant, especially to Rapunzel, but she doesn’t have any evil minions, and her figure isn’t exactly imposing. She doesn’t turn into a dragon, brew a poison, or speak with a creepy voice that sounds like it belongs to the worst version of Katharine Hepburn.
As an adult, I’m still not a fan of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, though now it’s because the music isn’t as fun as more recent Disney movies, and the problematic gender roles make me gag. The villains of these movies no longer scare me: I can appreciate how Maleficent’s flashing yellow eyes once haunted my dreams, but, by now, I’ve seen worse things.
However, Mother Gothel now gives me the shivers. I believe there are sociological theories of the Western ideals surrounding motherhood, and how representations of bad mothers can offend us more easily than, say, representations of bad teachers or bad politicians. Mother Gothel is the perfect example of a repulsive failure of the ideal mother. First, she steals a child away from her actual parents—people who display in every way they can, the perfect parental bond, by fighting through all odds to both deliver and then celebrate their child, and then suffer patiently for eighteen years, hoping that their child will return. But then, Mother Gothel takes her treachery a step further and spends eighteen years pretending to be Rapunzel’s mother.
She lies to her, tells her to stay in the tower to protect herself, when really she just wants to keep the power of Rapunzel’s hair to herself. She breaks down her confidence, telling Rapunzel over and over that she could never make it in the outside world. She neglects Rapunzel to go off doing whatever it is she does outside of that tower, leaving Rapunzel for multiple days at a time to stay at home, cook, clean, and reread three books for hours on end.
But for me, the most villainous act that sets Mother Gothel apart from all the other Disney bad folks is the little routine she’s established with Rapunzel. It comes at the end of “Mother Knows Best,” after Gothel snaps, saying, “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again.”
Gothel: I love you very much.
Rapunzel: I love you more.
Gothel: I love you most.
Rapunzel’s whole life is spent believing that this is what love looks like, which, in and of itself is a very sad story. Mother Gothel goes through this entire charade of motherhood to help herself and get what she wants, and in the process never considers even for a moment the kind of irreparable harm she’s inflicting on this girl. She could have been like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, a captor and a jailor, used some spell or prison to keep Rapunzel where she wanted her. She could have pulled a Scar from The Lion King, and emotionally traumatized Rapunzel so much that she left her parents and never wanted to go back. But instead she does a horrible impersonation of a mother, and replaces what could have been Rapunzel’s very happy life with her real parents with a shadowy, twisted version with herself at the epicenter.
Maybe it’s because motherhood is sacred in our society, or maybe it’s because bad mothers aren’t just characters in fairy tales, but whatever the psychology behind it, Gothel is the kind of villain who haunts my nightmares now. Her tactics are both feasible and devastating; Rapunzel’s eighteen wasted years are reminiscent of some of the long-term captivity narratives that have come out of other, real-life child abductions.
Luckily for Rapunzel that, as a Disney Princess, she is implacable and “grotesquely optimistic,” and so can go from “My whole life is a lie!” to “Let’s get married!” in a matter of a few movie minutes. If only all children with bad mother figures could be so lucky.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.