- Something Else Besides a Daughter?: Maternal Melodrama Meets Postfeminist Girlhood in Tangled and Brave
Even Disney is bored with the prince. Snow White perched on a well, wishing he would come. Sleeping Beauty waited for his redemptive kiss to wake her up. Ariel traded voice and tail for the legs she hoped would get his attention. But instead of hanging on for a lipped-locked happily ever after with a charming man, twenty-first-century princesses Rapunzel and Merida anxiously yearn for the warm, soft hug . . . of their mothers. These daughters’ anxiety about the approval of their maternal figures is just one emotional dynamic at work in Disney’s Tangled (2010) and Disney Pixar’s Brave (2012). Both films depict mothers and daughters locked in tender embraces, passionate quarrels, and tearful reconciliations, presenting more complex visions of mother-daughter relationships than any Disney-princess film before them. In doing so, Tangled and Brave adhere to the generic conventions of the cinematic maternal melodrama, representing—but also critiquing—contemporary discourses of girlhood in this postfeminist moment.
By showing the princess-daughters’ ambivalence and hysteria about becoming independent women separate from their mothers, the films confront the problems of postfeminism for both girls and women. As Rosalind Gill has influentially theorized, postfeminist media culture is comprised of “interrelated themes” contradictorily promoting conventional femininity and feminist subjects, which end up serving an overarching neoliberal ideology that demands individual responsibility in the service of late capitalism. Gill details how postfeminist media consistently emphasize youthful beautification as a means for empowerment, encouraging retrograde and essentialist representations of gender and sexuality and, at the same time, privileging middle-upper-class white womanhood. Disney’s princess media [End Page 39] has contributed actively to this postfeminist “sensibility,” as Gill terms it, especially in girl culture.
Beginning in the early 2000s, the studio sought to empower princesses, who are granted some spirited wit and physical prowess, such as Mia in The Princess Diaries. Hoi Cheu suggests Disney’s postfeminist films fail to measure up to their “liberating” promises (55), which is the usual story in postfeminist media culture—empowerment, but that which serves the forces of hegemony. Princess Mia’s rough edges and frizzy hair are smoothed out so that she can assume the duties of a rich Genovian royal. Even The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, partially progressive for her role as the first African-American princess (see Lester, “Disney’s”), is a capitalist entrepreneur in the end. With their spunky girl protagonists, Tangled and Brave do belong to what Cheu calls “Disney’s ‘postfeminist’ revision” (55)—but the newer films confront the pressures of postfeminism at the same time.
Tangled and Brave are maternal melodramas, a generic association that reveals the films’ reflection, negotiation, and confrontation with postfeminism, especially as it informs the social construction of girlhood. Although these films are produced by Disney, a media conglomerate not known for its progressive expressions of gender, melodrama can work as a critical mode of discourse even when shrouded in a conservative dress. In short, melodrama’s excess allows for a critique of the very things melodrama represents. Paying close attention to mother-daughter interactions, especially over Rapunzel’s and Merida’s excesses of hair, reveal the following postfeminist themes as debilitating for girls and detrimental to their relationships with older women: normative femininity and consumerism as empowerment, competing generational feminisms, and the conflicting pressures to articulate individual identity while belonging to female community.
Maternal Melodrama, Postfeminism, and Hair
Tangled and Brave elevate female characters’ intimacy and its complex emotional consequences while downplaying the prominence of the redemptive prince. Brave was even “inspired . . . into being” by the daughter of film’s creator and co-director, Brenda Chapman, who credits the girl in her Academy Award speech. These box-office successes established a tone subsequent Disney films have followed. The massively popular Frozen (2013) is essentially a family drama celebrating the love between sisters. Disney’s Maleficent (2014) imbues the studio’s own animated Sleeping Beauty narrative with a mother-daughter sensibility as the sorceress develops protective affection for the girl she regrets cursing. That kind of live-action mother-daughter drama, reminiscent of the...