By Priscilla Hobbs
Here’s the story: An older person lusts for a young girl, so abducts her to be the sole possessor of her beauty. The girl is hidden away, and her mother is filled with profound sadness; she struggles to function while mourning her lost daughter. With the aid of a hermetic figure, the girl finds her way home, and mother and daughter are reunited. Oh yeah, there’s even a flower involved.
This simplified plot should be recognizable to readers of this blog as the story of Demeter and Persephone. However, in this case, it’s the plot of another well-known Persephone story: Disney’s Tangled (2010), which is based loosely on the classic fairy tale about Rapunzel. Mother Gothel is a witch who harnesses the healing magic of the rapunzel flower to guarantee eternal youth. The queen gets sick during childbirth, and the soldiers of the kingdom seek the rapunzel flower to heal her. She drinks the flower, and her daughter, named Rapunzel in tribute, is born with golden hair and infectious happiness. Mother Gothel believes that a lock of Rapunzel’s hair will replace the coveted flower, but discovers that her hair turns brown when cut. She takes the baby on the eve of her birth celebrations and raises her as her own daughter in an isolated, hidden tower. She teaches Rapunzel the spell that activates her hair, and the simple act of having contact with the glowing hair is enough to rejuvenate Mother Gothel.
The untold element of Rapunzel’s adventure and eventual return home is the queen’s mourning. In the youth-driven culture of modern America, Persephone’s journey is more compelling: her involvement with Hades and her passage through the Jungian shadow resonate with today’s culture, while Demeter’s agony is kept silent. Teen novels and TV shows promote the Persephone/Hades dynamic, equating the passion of a girl’s first love with the underworld journey that it is. Meanwhile, mothers are expected to watch supportively as their precious girls stumble into womanhood, and to willingly relinquish their central roles in their daughters’ lives.
Tangled speaks to a different kind of Demeter anguish: Rapunzel is taken from the queen as an infant, before the mother-daughter bond can be reinforced outside the body. The only hint the film gives us that the queen is mourning the loss of her daughter and continues to hope for her return comes in Rapunzel’s introductory song, “When Will My Life Begin?”, sung on the eve of her eighteenth birthday: “Tomorrow night, lights will appear. Just like they do on my birthday each year. What is it like, out there where they glow? Now that I’m older, Mother might just let me go.” These lights are paper lanterns, lit by the entire kingdom to celebrate the princess’s birthday. They were lit on the night she was born, and every year since, like annual beacons calling her home. Rapunzel feels the call, and decides that this birthday will mark the year she will see them up close, thus prompting the entire film narrative: her excursion to see the lanterns, the great awakening they inspire, and her awareness of Mother Gothel’s lies.
The only instance in which we see the queen during this portion of the film is when it’s time to light the annual lanterns. With no dialogue, she and the king share a look of profound sadness. We are made to feel her pain in that magical Disney sort of way, but beyond the empathy it inspires in the audience, the scene resonates more deeply for anyone who has experienced a similar loss. American mothers are told that they need to be happy about parenting, that motherhood is a joy, but American mothers who have experienced miscarriage, abortion, or adoption are treated as taboo. Those who suffer from postpartum depression and feel as though they have lost their child, even if she’s gurgling nearby, also are treated as taboo. In a few short seconds, Disney pays tribute to their pain.
So what about Mother Gothel? She is the negative mother, attempting to possess the maiden. Her role represents the Hades function of the story, but there’s more to the dark mother. This is a character typically painted as a detriment to the psychic health of the myth: she is abusive and possessive, the complete opposite of the positive mother. More importantly, however, she’s the mother who impels a girl to develop into a strong woman. She challenges the girl to think independently and pushes her—perhaps unintentionally—to acquire a personal strength that allows her to overcome any obstacle. When Rapunzel decides to leave her tower, she is conflicted between the thrill of following her dream and the sense of betrayal that Mother Gothel is sure to feel. Nevertheless, she swings down out of her tower on the very hair that Mother Gothel refused to cut.
Just as mothers are expected to embrace motherhood with a smile and a song, they also are expected to be positive and supportive of their children. Women like Mother Gothel are blamed for long-term therapy and “mommy issues.” They are labeled “helicopter” parents. Because Rapunzel is willing to separate from Mother Gothel, she’s able to pursue her dream. As she sings to the ruffians in The Snuggly Duckling, a tavern for thieves, “I have a dream! I just want to see the floating lanterns gleam. With every passing hour, I’m so glad I left my tower!”
It’s only when Mother Gothel realizes that Rapunzel might not be planning to come back to the tower that the true nature of her character becomes apparent. After Rapunzel returns from seeing the lanterns, Mother Gothel literally deflowers her hair and offers to make her hazelnut soup. Rapunzel confronts her about being the lost princess, and they fight. As Eugene, or Flynn Rider, the thief who escorts Rapunzel from her tower to the kingdom, tries to rescue Rapunzel, Mother Gothel attempts to forcibly drag her down the hidden tower stairs, a scene reminiscent of Persephone’s descent. Rapunzel makes a deal with Mother Gothel: if she can heal Eugene, who is dying from a stab wound, she’ll go willingly with Mother Gothel. Unexpectedly, however, Eugene cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, and the spell keeping Mother Gothel alive is broken. Rapunzel is now free to leave the tower.
Rapunzel returns to the kingdom. Again without any words, mother and daughter recognize each other and embrace at the end of the film for the first time in eighteen years. Eugene, Rapunzel’s friend and hermetic guide on her journey home, notes in his final narration that the kingdom prospered as it never had before. Her return restores her parents, but also the entire kingdom.
The Hymn of Demeter helps us to understand the pain and suffering from the loss of a daughter, and we see this reflected in Tangled through the brief scenes of the queen, Rapunzel’s mother. Rather than explore questions of marriage and innocence, which are raised in Persephone’s journey, Tangled shows us that motherhood is far more complicated than it usually is depicted. In its portrayal of the queen and Mother Gothel, Disney has adapted a classic fairy tale into a myth for mothers. Both of these women represent the spectrum of emotions that mothers of all backgrounds experience: the desire for the relationship with her child versus the pain caused by separation. Persephone and Rapunzel both are a unifying force for their mothers, helping to heal the mother-daughter relationship and allowing it to transition into a lifelong friendship.
 While at the birthday celebration, Rapunzel’s hair is braided and decorated with flowers. After the celebration, she returns to the tower, and Mother Gothel removes the flowers, commenting, “There. It never happened.” Much can be read into Rapunzel’s hair as a symbol for her sexuality and identity, but that is a discussion for another project.
 Mother Gothel has been trying to make hazelnut soup for Rapunzel since the start of the film. Whether intentional or not on the part of the Disney animators, the hazelnuts could possibly evoke two meanings: one is a parallel to Persephone’s pomegranate seeds, in the sense that if Rapunzel eats this special soup, she’ll be in the Underworld forever. Hazelnuts, however, also could point to the Celtic myth of Hazel and her affiliation with tree of life symbolism.
Priscilla Hobbs, Ph.D., is a cultural mythologist and Disney scholar. She wrote the book Walt’s Utopia: Disneyland and American Mythmaking (McFarland, 2015) and has presented several articles on the Disney mythos at popular culture conferences. She lives with her family, including her own little Rapunzel, in New Hampshire and is a professor of humanities, mythology, and film history at Southern New Hampshire University.