A Princess for All Seasons / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I am completely fascinated by the kerfuffle over Disney’s retelling of Rapunzel, and the marketing of the movie. A quick primer: Disney, concerned about the extent to which the audience for their animated family movies skews female at the expense of potential profits, decided to adapt the Rapunzel story to include a dashing male character who has a prickly back-and-forth with the famously-tressed heroine, and to name the movie Tangled, rather than Rapunzel. The changes have prompted charges that Disney is concerned only with profits, or that it’s abandoning female audiences, or something. It seems to me that there are issues worth exploring both particular to this project, and about animated movies and gender roles more generally.First, I think it’s fascinating, and telling, that it’s taken this long for a Rapunzel movie to get made. I’ve always found it to be the most profoundly disturbing of the fairy tales. Snow White may be dumb enough to get duped by her wicked stepmother, and Cinderella really should have called the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division on hers, but at least those women went out and did things. Rapunzel’s physically as well as emotionally bounded, and that’s unsettling, as well as relatively poor material for an adventure movie. Both from a perspective of providing agency, and for beefing up the plot, it absolutely makes sense to beef up the prince character, and to make Rapunzel herself something other than desperate to be carried away by the first man who comes along. And this picture of her looking snarky and using her hair as rope in a very different way has sold me on the execution of these changes:

But it disappoints me to hear that instead of working on creating girl-centric stories that will appeal to audiences across gender lines, Disney’s responding by shelving a project with a female lead. As the LA Times points out, Pixar’s become the shop that produces movies with male leads, something that I hadn’t thought about before, but is true, and is sort of worrisome. Pixar movies I think generally appeal to both male and female audiences strongly. But Disney appears to have little faith that they can make movies with female leads where their gender isn’t determinative of audience. That, to me, speaks to a paucity of imagination, a troubling assumption that male is the only thing that people can really see as universal, and that femaleness is somehow necessarily specific, segmented, unrelateable.And that’s just not true. Take Mulan, one of my all-time favorite Disney movies, which works by making gender issues and expectations explicit. The main character is getting pushed into stereotypical female behavior by her mother and grandmother, though her father loves her and supports her essentially as she is. When it’s clear he’s not physically fit to return to combat, she responds not by trying to find a solution that’s gendered-female: instead, she opts to take on a male role. That opens up some great possibilities. In one of the movie’s most famous musical numbers, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” as Mulan struggles through military training camp, her struggles to transcend her gender are deliberately put alongside her comrades struggles to live up to masculine ideals themselves:


None of them are real men in the eyes of their commander. Ultimately, Mulan becomes a military hero because she masters military skills and deploys them bravely, not because she changes the rules to suit her gender. And because she succeeds on masculine terms, she has credibility to ask her fellow soldiers to take on feminine roles and use stereotypically feminine skills when she finds a moment where it’ll be advantageous to them to do so:

Not every movie is going to be able to play with gender tropes like this (and given the sheer number of cross-dressing jokes in Mulan, I’m kind of shocked it never ran into Focus on the Family trouble). But there’s still a broader lesson I think Disney can draw from it. It’s fun to watch main characters, be they boys or girls, do things and have adventures. Make those adventures and the growth they demand from the main characters exciting enough, and you’ll find your audience. Mulan treats romance as a decidedly minor subplot. The movie is a reminder that women can do more than wear dresses, and that a kiss is not the only way to have a big finish.