Analyzing the Tale of Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm From a Feminist Perspective
Analyzing the Tale of “Rapunzel” by the Brothers Grimm: A Feminist Perspective In this essay I aim to deconstruct the classic folk-tale, “Rapunzel/Rampion”, with specific attention to the Brothers Grimm iteration from their seventh version of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I am focusing particularly on the function of the tale within a feminist framework, and how it perpetuates conservative gender-representations, misogyny, and other problematic ideologies. I think it is valuable to begin by discussing why it is important to analyze “Rapunzel” and other folk-tales with regards to feminism. There is no doubt that the Kinder- und Hausmärchen had a profound cultural effect on the world. In the introduction of Selected Folktales/Ausgewählte Märchen: A Dual-Language Book, Stanley Appelbaum, the editor and translator of the text, specifies that “it has inspired retellings and adaptations in all public media; and it has become an integral part of the childhood experience of millions” (Appelbaum 8). Therefore, it is important to understand the fundamental workings of culture, and how media, like folk-tales, can affect people.
The Welsh, sociolist, academic theorist (Williams, Politics and Letters 7), Raymond Williams, details his thoughts on culture in The Long Revolution (1961). He lists three categories of defining culture: the ‘ideal’, the ‘documentary’, and the ‘social’. I will focus primarily on Williams’s third definition, “in which culture is a description of a particular way of life, which expresses meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour” (Williams, The Long Revolution 57). This definition coincides most with the idea that culture is ingrained within media, as art is often used in media, and a large amount of media is produced by large institutions. Moreover, it defines culture as a set of shared choices and lived experiences, i.e. “a way of life” (57). Using this definition we can understand popular culture as the most dominant set of values, art, and behaviour within a group of people. However, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that popular culture does not consist of the dominant tastes of all people within a group, but instead consists of the ideals of the people “whose economic position in society is strongest” (Adorno 95). This illustrates the theory that popular culture is curated by the people who hold the most financial power, and is used as a means to manipulate the general public into enjoying it. “The culture industry” is an industry that pumps out the same stories, ideas, art, concepts, all made by the same people (Adorno 97).
If we are to believe that Adorno’s definition of popular culture is accurate, then it is clear why feminists would want to critique it or even dismantle the way in which pop culture is produced, and why the general public might want to be critical of it, provided it is possible for them to be aware of the manipulation. If individuals, all within the same class and social circle, decide what will be written, shown on television, in movies, in magazines, and on billboards, then popular culture does not represent all the members of our society but the ideals of a select group. Furthermore, since these few individuals are often wealthy, white, male, heterosexual, and cis-gendered, they do not have the lived experience of any group that is outside of those descriptors, which results in phenomenon such as the “male-gaze.” In 1972, John Berger theorizes that this male-gaze is not specific to the 1900s and onward, but is exemplified in art dating back as far the 1470’s, possibly further. He details that nude, European paintings always depict women as “the surveyed”, while men are the “surveyors”. What he means by this is that for generations women have been displayed as something to be looked at, an object, whereas men have always been the ones’ that look, or act (Berger 46). This concept can be seen in today’s popular culture, with women often being used as sexual objects, and men being in control and lucid. I will demonstrate the “male-gaze” as it relates to “Rampion” later in this paper.
Since the KHM had and still has an effect on culture, and can be defined as pop-culture, it clarifies the importance of studying the narratives within the tales. “Rapunzel” specifically contains some problematic ideologies that could be seen as dangerous to some feminists. I will now explore how “Rapunzel” reinforces compulsory-heterosexuality, and how these aspects perpetuate patriarchal gender norms. Compulsory-heterosexuality, as defined by Adrienne Rich, is the total supression of all sexual orientations other than heterosexual, and the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard or most common sexual preference (Rich 13). Compulsory-heterosexuality also focuses on the inherent sexist and misogynistic views within heterosexuality, and thrives on the institutionalization of heterosexual desire (namely marriage), which then creates a rippling effect into many other social areas (17).
We can see themes of compulsory-heterosexuality throughout “Rapunzel.’ In the first sentence of the tale, the audience is introduced to a husband and wife who have wanted a child for a long time: ‘There once lived a husband and wife who had long been wishing in vain for a child; finally, the woman had reason to believe that God was granting her wish’ (Grimm 39). We never learn the names of the husband and the wife, nor are we told what they do, their values, their hobbies, or what they look like. The reader is given only two characteristics: that these two people are in a heterosexual marriage, and that they want a child. Indeed, we are to believe that this is the only thing important to know about this couple, and are therefore reductively defined through this narrow lense of hetero-normativity. We are then introduced to the heroine of the tale, Rapunzel, who, upon meeting a man, decides very quickly that she will marry him. Rapunzel is portrayed as the ideal male fantasy in this tale: a woman who accepts her role as wife very quickly and submissively. When the prince first arrived ‘Rampion was terribly frightened,’ but after one compliment about her voice, ‘she thought: ‘He will love me more than old lady Gothel does” (Grimm 43), and she agreed to marriage. Furthermore, when the prince finally finds Rapunzel at the end, she and their two children happily join him in his castle, where ‘they lived in happiness and contentment for a long time afterward’ (Grimm 45).
The ending of the tale is presented as a heterocentric dream that it presumed to be wanted by all men and women, and this dream includes marriage and having kids together. This is another example of marriage and child-birth being seen as advantageous and normal for both partners. However, Rich argues that marriage is a way in which men held and hold power over women (Rich 18) and further claims that through pop-culture and other methods, men convince women that marriage is equally advantageous (11). Another example of compulsory-heterosexuality is the way in which the husband sells his unborn daughter to the witch. When the husband tries to steal more rampion for his wife, he is stopped by the witch, who promises to give him all the rampion he desires in exchange for his unborn child. For some reason the husband, instead of discussing with his wife, decides that she will be okay with this trade (Grimm 41). There are two prominent issues with this example. The first issue is that the husband believes he has the right to his wife’s body and child, and the second is the selling of Rapunzel.
In some ways, this conversation can be seen as a metaphor for abortion or adoption, and as such, we can better understand the lack of autonomy from the wife in this situation. Although the child will be carried, and birthed by the wife, the husband decides his opinion is the only one worth considering. He makes this decision to attempt to save the wife, which informs the audience that the loss of their child is the wife’s fault, and the man is merely trying to be helpful. This is a perfect example of the male-domination aspect of compulsory-heterosexuality. The wife gets no choice in the matter, even though it has to do with her body, and the tale attempts to place all the blame on the wife because of her “greedy” desires. I think Gary Forster puts it perfectly when he argues that the mother acts as “a silent vessel for the heroine”, the heroine in this case being Rapunzel (Forster 38). Furthermore, the act of selling Rapunzel to the witch demonstrates the control that the husband has over his wife and daughter. Rapunzel is portrayed as a commodity of sorts, and her life is willingly traded despite being a person. In Rich’s list of “characteristics of male power,” she outlines how “legal kidnapping” is an example of how men control women (Rich 19). She continues to state that “we are confronting not a simple maintenance of inequality and property possession, but a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness” (20). Indeed it would seem that the husband in “Rapunzel” controls his wife and daughter in such a way that he can speak for them and sell them to the witch.
This method of control is not depicted as malicious in the tale, but as benevolent. Through deciding to give away his wife’s child, in turn deciding that Rapunzel should live her life with the witch, the husband denies the agency of two characters at once. This depiction of paternalism, defined as “interfering with a person [and her life]… without her consent, motivated solely by the aim of advancing her good” (Christman 371), does not necessarily show the husband’s behaviour as heroic or righteous, but as at least justified. In this way, his deeply paternalistic behaviour is casted as an unfortunate duty tied to his role as husband and protector, to which the audience is meant to be sympathetic. Thus, the fact that he does not first discuss the decision with his wife suggests his lack of faith in her to do what is best for her, and so he takes it upon himself to do it for her. This leads to my next point, which is that within compulsory-heterosexuality, there is the construction and maintenance of gender roles. As defined in The Encyclopedia of Adolescence, gender roles are specific emotions, actions, and ways of being that are attached to specific genders (Levesque). An example of this would be that people associate strength with men, and submissiveness with women. Unfortunately, the use of gender roles can be damaging, as it creates stereotypes about men and women, that people have to conform to (Parenthood). There are many examples of gender roles within “Rapunzel” that are inherently damaging to women. As was previously discussed, John Berger presents a compelling argument on the social presence of men and women. Berger states that “a man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you”, while “a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself” (Berger 49). He continues to argue that a woman is defined by the way she talks, looks, sings, smells, and is ultimately concerned with how she appears to men. Men will decide to act based on the appearance of the woman, and will exercise power onto her (49). This idea of the active and the surveyor can be attributed to gender roles, and as such, we can witness them within “Rapunzel”.
One of the first examples of gender roles is when the wife decrees that if she can’t eat any rampions then she will die (Grimm 39). The wife’s predicament is one that is fairly ridiculous. She wants something so much that she will refuse to eat anything else, and kill herself if she does not get what she wants. Her temperament is comparable to a young child who is having a tantrum. Indeed, it would seem as though this is intentional as her actions are described as greedy, and she apparently “devours” the rampions (41). Meanwhile, the husband maintains a sense of composure and reasonableness, as he tries his best to satisfy the wife’s desires. The relationship is similar to a parent and child, rather than one of two equals. Unfortunately, both of these characters are displaying gendered stereotypes that are perpetuated in many pieces of media. The wife is displaying common symptoms of what was referred to as “hysteria”. Hysteria was believed to be an illness that affected only women, and caused them to be over-emotional, moody, over-sexual, etc (McVean). The myth of hysteria has been debunked, but unfortunately the ideology that women are over-emotional has prevailed. Therefore, the wife is demonstrating these symptoms of hysteria and perpetuating the myth that women are controlled by their emotions. The husband however, maintains the myth that men are always rational, regardless of the circumstances. Another example of gender-stereotypes is the passiveness of Rapunzel and the activeness of the prince. Rapunzel is locked in a tower at the age of twelve, and remains there for a few years, never trying to escape (Grimm 41).
Much like what Berger mentions about the female presence being tied to surface-level attributes, we know Rapunzel based off of her beauty, long hair, and lovely singing-voice. Furthermore, the prince is presented as the surveyor, as he hears Rapunzel’s song and deems it worthy of his actions (41). This is a classic example of the “male-gaze,” in that the man is acting and watching the woman, who is watching herslelf and has very little interaction with the outside world. In Angela Smith’s paper, Letting Down Rapunzel: Feminism’s Effects on Fairy Tales, she captures the characters’ perfectly when she argues that “these female characters are ‘heroines’ only in the sense that they are central to the tales, for they carry none of the heroic qualities of strength and bravery associated with traditional masculinity” (Smith 427). Indeed, if it were not for the prince then Rapunzel would not have attempted to escape the tower. Her role in this story is to be beautiful, while the prince climbs the tower, and searches for his princess while blind (45). Therefore, these characters satisfy the gender-stereotypes that were previously outlined by Berger. This point is further exemplified when we examine the words used in relation to Rapunzel and the prince. The prince is interacting with the world around him, he “climbed,” he “began to speak to her,” he “would visit”(Grimm 43). Whereas Rapunzel remains within herself, and the verbs used with her tend to focus less on her impact outside of herself: “she was frightened,” “she was no longer afraid,” “she thought” (43). Angela Smith also saw this in more recent adaptations of “Rapunzel,” which may indicate that the gender-roles within the folk-tale have remained untouched (Smith 432).
As a piece of pop culture that has endured centuries, ‘Rapunzel’ exemplifies the ‘male-gaze,’ maintains the myth of compulsory-heterosexuality, and preserves archaic gender norms. These ideas endure because they have been crafted by the elites of each society and are advantages to these groups. The Brothers Grimm were white, straight, middle-class men, who had access to sufficient resources to create media, something inextricably entangled with power (Appelbaum 5). Because of their narrow and self-reinforcing perspective, the dominant culture can be blind to minority cultures, which results in a lack of representation. Because of the success of these folk-tales, the problematic narratives are further perpetuated to the public. From a feminist perspective, this is one reason misogyny is so completely entrenched in our culture.
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