Tangled is an animated Disney movie based on the fairy tale of Rapunzel (Conli, Lasseter, Keane, Greno, & Howard, 2010). I had the opportunity to watch this sweetly charming movie during the holiday season, and found some important themes in it.
Life is not exactly like a movie; events in life are usually not condensed in 120 minutes. However, somtimes we can learn a lot of life lessons through studying movies. Having discussions with others and reflecting on the themes can sometimes lead to great, meaningful insights.
Tangled, in a few short scenes, brilliantly shows us what mental abuse is (Conli et al., 2010). Because it is an animated movie, many viewers might take these scenes very lightly and not derive serious messages from them:
In the movie, Gothel, a wicked sorceress, kidnaps a child and locks her in an isolated tower for 18 years, in order to exploit the child’s abilities. In the world today, we sometimes do have tragic literal examples of abducted children. But it is much more common for children in seemingly ordinary families to be treated cruelly in a restricted environment, and virtually “held hostage” for 18 years. In this way, the movie shows us a metaphor for a type of child abuse situation that is all too common in modern society.
Gothel emotionally abuses Rapunzel by calling her names, putting her down, making fun of her, and then laughing it off. Day after day. Year after year… In the midst of this, Rapunzel, who has a gentle, beautiful temperament, still forms a loving, trusting bond with the abuser, as many children do in such circumstances. Because this terrible environment is all she knows, she is not able to reflect on its harmfulness, until she obtains her first glimpses of the outside world.
The movie shows us that abusers are not just “all bad” (Conli et al., 2010). Look at Gothel! She gives Rapunzel food to eat, a bed to sleep on, books to read, walls to paint, yarn to knit, musical instruments to play, opportunities to sing, a beautiful brush to comb her golden hair, a bedroom that looks beautiful and comfortable, etc. Not only that, Gothel hugs and kisses Rapunzel repeatedly and says, “I love you,” showing what Rapunzel feels to be love and kindness. She allows Rapunzel to do all different types of activities starting from her childhood to her adolescence, but all under Gothel’s control and command.
Some abusers do apparently kind acts to control the victim further: these “kind acts” are strategies used to keep the victim loyal and obedient. In some cases, abusers do “kind” acts out of guilt. And in some cases, abusers exploitatively gain a lot of benefits from victims.
The movie brilliantly illustrates how in the midst of abuse, the victim does not just hate the abusers! Rapunzel sincerely loves Gothel, trusts her, and obeys her until she gradually starts to realize the truth at age 18.
Running Back and Forth
In the movie, when Rapunzel finally escapes from the tower for the first time, she becomes a bit unstable. She runs back and forth in the forest: on the one hand, she screams and feels extremely excited for the freedom and the opportunity to see the lanterns! But on the other hand, she wallows in guilt, self-blame, and hopelessness for disobeying her mother (Conli et al., 2010)! She is taught to obey and to be a good daughter. For 18 years, she is repeatedly told that “Mother Knows Best.” Rapunzel has such a kind heart and strives to be an obedient, good daughter for 18 years.
Running back and forth, back and forth, back and forth….
In real life, sometimes victims of abuse run back and forth like this, not in the forest, but in their cognitions, behaviours, or emotions—during the abuse and after they escape the abuse. Why? Often an abusive home is all a person knows. It may be the only source of familiarity. The world outside the home may be feared. Also, of course, the abuser may have caused the victim to feel that leaving the home would be some kind of betrayal or sin. So a victim of abuse may feel ambivalent about leaving, due to the destabilizing effects of the traumatic events which they suffered, and due to the risks involved in attempting to leave. Therefore, in the process of escape, a person may literally be “running back and forth.”
If victims of abuse seem to behave in an unusual or inconsistent way, it is not because they are “crazy.” It is because the abuse they have suffered has caused temporary destabilizing effects on their behaviour. This instability will disappear when they have safety, freedom, and appropriate care.
How can we help stabilize a person who has experienced abuse? Psychotherapy can help. But good social support is needed—consistent, stable, genuine love and care from others. Most importantly, it requires the victim’s hard work, perseverance, and kindness! The person needs to put a lot of effort into jumping over the life’s hurdles himself or herself!
After 18 years of being locked in an isolated tower, living in a harmful home environment, and being abused, how can Rapunzel remain kind?
How is that possible?
In real life, many victims of abuse suffer from depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. Some victims develop more serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Domestic abuse often leaves the victim confused. The victim is tortured by the running back and forth. Some lack self-awareness and insights to realize their struggles and problems.
Recovery of abuse does not happen at the same pace as in a movie, within minutes or hours--this process can take many years. Most victims of abuse do not actually become like their abusers, despite their many years of painful experiences and struggles! They remain kind, and they progress in their recovery, provided they can find a healthier environment!
In the midst of all this adversity, it’s tempting to become pessimistic and fall into a kind of fatalistic hopelessness. It’s easy to overlook the amazing potential for resilience in us as human beings. Amazingly, even in the midst of trauma, people continue to smile, to love, to celebrate, to create, and to renew. In making this observation, we absolutely do not mean to belittle the impact of traumatic times or the suffering many have endured and continue to endure. Suffering is real, but resilience is also real. It is an incredible and encouraging fact about human nature that, contrary to popular belief, after a period of emotional turmoil, most trauma survivors eventually recover and return to their lives. They bounce back.
And in some cases, they do much more. They bounce forward, and in truly remarkable ways. “A significant minority, as a result of the trauma, feel called upon to engage in a wider world,” Herman writes. They refocus their energies on a new calling, on a new mission, on a new path, on helping others who have been victimized, on education, on legal reforms, or any number of other big goals. They move beyond mere resilience. They transform the meaning of their personal tragedies by making them bases for change.
We call these people supersurvivors (Feldman & Kravetz, 2015).
Eugene, one of those who genuinely cares for Rapunzel and has much wisdom, does not push Rapunzel to obey Gothel, and to reconcile with her after the truth is revealed! Eugene’s act of cutting off Rapunzel’s magical hair symbolically frees her from her evil, abusive mother.
I acknowledge that every case is different, and do not mean to overgeneralize here in my writing. Reconciliation is possible and can also be healthy, but only if the abusers acknowledge their wrongdoings and try to make amends. In many cases, attempts at reconciliation are harmful, and could even lead to a suffering person being exposed to an abusive situation yet again. We all like to see a “happily ever after” picture of reconciliation, but we must all think carefully before advising a traumatized person to attempt to continue a relationship with an abusive person from their past. In order to gain wisdom about helping people in such situations, it can be very helpful for all of us (even for most therapists) to obtain specialized education about the psychology and psychotherapy of abuse survivors.
Karma is the idea that would come up at one point or another, in psychotherapy, in social conversations, in movies, in religions… we can understand “karma” not as a superstition or religious idea, but as a type of theme that presents itself in human stories. In a story, if there is tension or injustice, the reader will have a strong desire for the tension or injustice to be relieved later on. In this way, karma could be understood as the author’s way of demonstrating an ideal of fairness and justice, in a world which is sometimes unfair or unjust.
In the movie, Gothel initially tries to mask her evilness, with Rapunzel’s golden, magical hair, with makeup, with nice clothes… (Conli et al., 2010).
In real life, abusers may mask their evil acts in front of certain groups, in order to maintain their reputations and to hide from justice. But we know that abusers rarely change their ways. Change usually requires long-term intervention from therapists, the community, and sometimes the criminal justice system.
In the movie, Gothel’s evilness is always present. People with wisdom can detect it right from the beginning! Finally, the truth is completely revealed in the end. Justice—and karma—prevail, in the sense that Gothel’s tyranny comes to an abrupt end.
Whether there is karma or not, what matters most is that you remain kind and be like Rapunzel! Believe that good things will happen to you, as long as you choose kindness. One of the most obvious blessings is a peaceful state in your heart. Kindness also draws you to people and situations that are genuinely kind and loving.
I See the Light by Mandy Moore
While this is meant to be a love song, some of the lyrics accurately describe the thoughts of someone who escaped an abusive environment. A person living in the midst of abuse could sometimes engage in dissociation, such that it may be hard for him or her to appreciate a beautiful flower and a singing bird…
All those days watching from the windows
All those years outside looking in
All that time never even knowing
Just how blind I've been
Now I'm here blinking in the starlight
Now I'm here suddenly I see
Standing here it's all so clear
I'm where I'm meant to be
And at last I see the light
And it's like the fog has lifted
And at last I see the light
And it's like the sky is new
And it's warm and real and bright
And the world has somehow shifted
All at once everything looks different
(Alan Menken and Glenn Slater)
After you escaped an abusive environment, you may feel thankful for being able to see the world much more accurately now. You may start to look at everything with so much curiosity, or you may experience a sense of novelty wherever you go. You may feel thankful for being able to live your life with much more gratitude, love, and peace. You may feel thankful for being able to stay in the present moment!
May you always remember your courage, which helped you escape!
The journey of healing takes much time and effort. May you persevere and hold tight onto kindness.
If you are a survivor of abuse....
Affirmations: I enrich my life when I seek psychotherapy. I enrich my life when I strive hard to bounce back or bounce forward. I enrich my life when I nurture kindness in my heart. And I enrich my life when I proudly say, “I am a survivor of abuse.”
If you are a friend of abuse survivors…
Affirmations: I enrich my life when I acquire knowledge about abuse and trauma. I enrich my life when I acknowledge that I am not my friend’s therapist, but that I can help him or her through spending quality time together.
Conli, R., Lasseter, J., & Keane, G. (Producers), & Greno, N., & Howard, B. (Directors). (2010). Tangled [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
Feldmna, D. B., & Kravetz, L. D. (2015). Supersurvivors: The surprising link between suffering and success. New York, NY: Harper Wave.