Posted by: thealienist | July 14, 2011

“Tangled” Up in Knots

Everyone in my family is a big fan of Disney movies.  Last week, my daughter wanted to watch “Tangled” again, so we took a few hours out of our Saturday and watched it together.  Although (like most Disney movies) the story was significantly altered from the known early versions, I was struck by the portrayal of the relationship between the “mother” and her “daughter.”  The story opens up interesting issues that touch on trauma and “care-giving” run amok.

In the movie, Rapunzel was an 18 year old girl who had been stolen from royal parents.  She was stolen because she possessed the power to turn back time and prolong life.  This power had previously been stolen from an old woman who had found it embodied in a magic flower.  It was stolen from her in order to heal Rapunzel’s mother as she was giving birth.  The old woman then stole Rapunzel and regained the power she now embodied.

The creepy thing about the story is that for 18 years, Rapunzel has been kept in a tower by the old woman (who now looks forever young due to Rapunzel’s power).  She has been told that she is incapable of living outside the tower and that she absolutely needs her “mother’s” protection or else she will die.  Rapunzel dreams of getting out of the tower, but she obeys and works for her “mother.”  The song “Mother Knows Best” is one of the creepiest songs in the Disney repertoire (IMHO).

Later in the movie, a young man (a thief) comes to the tower and discovers Rapunzel.  She subdues him and makes him take her from the tower while her “mother” is gone.  He does so in order to recover a crown that he had stolen but Rapunzel had hidden.  The rest of the story is fun but beyond the scope of this post.

I thought of his movie while we were discussing involuntary hospitalization on this blog.  Rapunzel is certainly involuntarily imprisoned in her tower.  Not exactly like involuntary hospitalization, but close enough for this discussion.  I wondered, who is the psychiatrist in this picture?  I thought that many might see the psychiatrist in the “mother,” but in my experience, I think the young man fits the role better.  Here’s why.

It is true that Rapunzel is held against her will, but the “mother” and the young man each treat her very differently.  The mother sees Rapunzel as a treasure to hoard and protect.  Her aim is to hide Rapunzel away so that she cannot be stolen again.  The young man, however, is someone who can walk with her wherever she is.  He enables Rapunzel to leave the tower and try new activities to see how they work.

If you watch the movie, do you ever wonder why Rapunzel didn’t simply just leave?  She had the only access (her hair).  She could have left any time her “mother” was not around.  Before the young man arrived, she was stuck.  She could not make use of the abilities she possessed.  Once she had someone to help her, she was able to grow into a young woman able to make choices for her own benefit and act on them.  Though the movie is not a perfect metaphor, I would urge mental health caregivers to see ourselves in the role of the young man.  All of what Rapunzel accomplished, she did on her own.  What she needed was someone to walk with her and give her the courage to take control of her life.

With regard to the Rapunzel story and trauma, “The Inner World of Trauma” by Donald Kalsched uses the story of Rapunzel as a myth that illustrates the mind’s way of dealing the trauma.  In this view, the “mother” is Rapunzel’s real protector, but she has gotten too powerful and controlling.  Any wish to re-engage with the real world is severely punished.  In this way, the “mother” is the nightmare that warns against resuming contact with society.  The “mother” is the anger that leads to avoidance of living one’s normal life.  “Mother” will keep you safe in your room.  “Mother” is all you need.  On the other hand, the young man represents the urge to engage in life, grow, and be productive.  He tries to rescue the traumatized self from its imprisonment and so represents a threat (seen through the eyes of the “mother”).  These two representatives then fight for the future of the self.  Each on is a bitter enemy of the other but both are acting at least in part in the interest of the self.

Seen in this light, the Rapunzel story is resolved when the young man and Rapunzel overcome the “mother”, who once served a purpose but whose function is no longer needed.  The tower that was once a needed protective device can be left behind.  The world can be re-engaged.  Urges and appetites can be expressed.  Choices can be made.  Joy and suffering can be freely experienced.

Finally, mental health providers need to resist the urge to be the “mothers” in this story.  Like the young man, we can be protective, but we do so as we walk with our patients and as we encourage them to engage the world.


  1. I didn’t see the movie, but now I’m tempted. Here’s another psychiatric angle on the young lady’s story: Rapunzel may have felt “stuck” but in fact her liberation was a possible and available to her. The change, liberation, came from within her. The young man/psychiatrist helped her understand this crucial fact of life.

    Would that all of psychiatry were like this! (sorry for the subjunctive case, my synapses are firing double-time)


    • Rob,

      I think you’re right. The young man did not “liberate” her. He merely accompanied her on her own self-liberation.

      Thanks for the post.


  2. Now I’ve thought of 20 different ways the title “Tangled” applies to this movie. I completely agree with you about “Mother Knows Best” – it’s far creepier than Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
    Disney deals with very big issues, but it makes the scariest and most conniving of villains playful and interesting.
    It also still amazes me how Disney portrays mothers.
    Disney characters with a father and no mother: Pinocchio, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, Ariel
    Dead mother: Tarzan, Bambi, Snow White, Nemo, Mowgli, Quasimodo

    It’s a scary trend, and that’s before we discuss the wicked step-mothers, or mother figures.
    I guess the question isn’t why Disney does this. The question is – Why do we like it?


  3. Thanks for finally talking about >Tangled Up in Knots | The Alienist’s Blog <Loved it!


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