Whenever people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I almost always had the same answer: Ariel.
I wanted nothing more than her thick, red hair, tiny waist, and natural gift for song. Her codependent fish friend Flounder, stern babysitter crab Sebastian, and scatterbrained seagull Scuttle were unlike any friends I could ever hope for. Much more, I wanted Prince Eric. I used to recreate with my Barbies the wedding scene on the giant boat where Ursula is finally unmasked as the evil octopus witch she is and King Triton, Ariel’s father, immediately hands Ariel over to her prince having never spoken a word to him. Their prompt boat wedding was the perfect Disney princess ending; at least my generation seemed to think so.
For years after I struggled to learn that the Disney princess narrative is not one that is readily recreated or one for which I should strive. Typical high school heartbreaks taught me that not all men are princes and some princes should end up with other princesses. When I met my prince at 18, it took us almost six years of dating, some long distance, negotiation, and world traveling before we finally had our big royal wedding. Though I didn’t grow up to be Ariel, I am indeed living a fairytale of my own.
Having spent years with the Disney princess narrative, however, you can imagine my surprise when I sat down in the overstuffed movie theater seats to watch “Tangled,” a newly released Disney adaptation of the story of Rapunzel. Though the traditional story of Rapunzel is one of ultimate passivity (the strapping prince discovers a helpless girl trapped in a tower by a witch and immediately asks her to marry him), “Tangled” depicts an active, brave, and charming 18-year-old Rapunzel who bargains with the criminal Flynn Rider to escort her from the tower, through the woods, and ultimately on an adventure of mutual self-discovery. In other words, their relationship is not love at first sight as that of Ariel and Eric, but rather begins with trust, reciprocity, and a negotiation.
As Flynn and Rapunzel battle their way through thick forests, initially off-putting thugs, and an incredibly law-abiding horse, their relationship stays mostly neutral. With every passing trial, however, they share more of their stories and begin to learn from each other.
At one turning point Rapunzel and Flynn sit in a rowboat (very similar to the one Ariel and Eric sat in) on waters just outside the castle waiting for a moment for which Rapunzel has been dreaming of for years. She shares with Flynn that she is scared for the moment to happen because it could either disappoint her or leave her without her dream. Flynn then suggests that when this particular dream is realized it is time for her to get a new dream, implying that self-discovery in life is a continual, unfolding process (quite a different narrative than that of “The Little Mermaid”).
Eventually both Rapunzel and Flynn discover a new sense of identity (that Rapunzel is the lost princess stolen away at infancy, and Flynn is not a selfish criminal but a discarded orphan trying to survive), and only after they have found themselves do they independently decide to strive for a new dream: to share life with each other.
Finally, just before the credits, the retrospective voices of Flynn and Rapunzel tell the audience that only after years and years of dating does Rapunzel finally agree to marry Flynn.
While it’s quite obvious (at least from my perspective) that Disney has “tangled” the old and new narratives of the princess in the story of Rapunzel and Flynn, I am left wondering, “Why add the new elements?”
Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled Disney has revised the princess narrative to incorporate a higher level of mutuality and self-discovery between the hero and heroine, but I am still curious as to what provoked the change and how this next generation of kids will receive it. I suspect the change has quite a bit to do with what my generation wants for our kids. We want our kids to take their time in adolescence, get to know themselves, then get to know each other, wait until they are 18 before they date for a really long time, and then finally get married.
Unfortunately, just as I had to struggle against the Disney princess narrative throughout my adolescence and discover my own story, I suspect this next generation of children will also struggle. While Rapunzel and Flynn’s narrative reflects what my generation has been somewhat able to accomplish, the story is ultimately more normative than it is descriptive. Though we may wish it so, our children probably will not wait until they are 18 to rebel, find themselves, and date. Much more, their love stories may not end in marriage.
A recent article published by the New York Times reveals that in France civil unions have gained favor over marriages amongst heterosexual couples, defying the assumptions of many that heterosexual couples prefer marriage. When interviewing couples who chose a civil union over a marriage, many shared they needed the legal recognition of their relationship status but did not want the full commitment of a marriage. Some treated the civil union as a precursor to marriage, but that was not necessarily a belief held by all.
With the rise in divorce rates, ambiguous gender roles in families, and arguable decline of traditional religious authority, it isn’t any wonder that the Disney princess narrative is adapting, but is it a generation too late? Much more, is it providing this generation of children with a helpful narrative about what it means to find self and love in life?
Ultimately, narratives (like that of the Disney princess) have deep impacts on the ways in which the people I serve find meaning in life. As a future pastor, any time a metanarrative shifts in my culture, I need to at least be aware of it and at most be engaged with it. But what does that really mean? While I am far more concerned with hearing the pain and needs of the people I serve rather than protecting an institution or clinging to normative descriptions of how the world should be, I can’t help but wonder what the church has to offer when it comes to relationships, self-discovery, and marriage. Has the church been able to adapt its narratives as successfully as Disney?