In “Rapunzel” Brothers Grimm depict the harsh reality of gendered dynamics with a female’s need for a heroic male to satisfy her desires.
The brothers do this through the select details of the sorceress, the symbolism of Rapunzel’s hair, and the punishment of women’s desires.
In the fairytale, the sorceress, just from her name, evokes a bias response. Due to the word and its suffix, it’s presumed that a female villain manipulates vulnerable individuals, utilizing witch-like tendencies. As noted, this sorceress “possessed great power and was feared by everyone” by harnessing her autonomy. However, it is important to note that she only seeks vengeance against Rapunzel’s father after she catches him stealing from her enclosed garden. Thus, she uses her feared attributes to achieve her biological desire, having a child. She promises to “take care of the child like a mother”, revealing her femininity and maternal instinct. However, the audience is unable to empathize with the sorceress because she preyed and manipulated a male, which society disapproves of. The sorceress is further portrayed as a villain with undesirable masculine characteristics. When Rapunzel ponders why it is “more difficult to pull up the sorceress than the…prince”, the audience envisions the sorceress as rotund and grotesque in comparison to the strong prince. Her “wicked and poisonous looks” consume her identity when navigating the grief of betrayal, enabling her emotions to dictate actions. In this fairytale, an independent unmarried woman is depicted as the enemy, who is criticized with any use of her own agency.
The notable symbol within this fairytale is Rapunzel’s “splendid long hair, as fine as spun gold.” Her hair resembles an enchanting, extraordinary, or identifiable characteristic of femininity. In other words, Rapunzel is depicted as something to be desired by men. Overall, Rapunzel is an innocent and beautiful girl, fulfilling the stereotype of a desirable homemaker with her sweet voice and ability to weave a silk ladder for escape. “When she was twelve years old, the sorceress locked her in a tower” with only a little window at the top. This occurred around the age of maturation, so it can be assumed that Rapunzel preserves the persona of innocence through the lack of connection to the outside world. Her hair is the channel connecting her to the civilization. It is only when the sorceress hears that she has been deceived by her adopted daughter that she grabs “Rapunzel’s beautiful hair, wraps it around her left hand… and cuts it off”, leaving her in the wilderness to suffer. The sorceress reasserts her dominance over Rapunzel, punishing her for going against expectations. This not only strips Rapunzel of her divine attribute, but defeminizes her, keeping her further isolated from society.
Finally, “Rapunzel” reinforces the stereotype that women are unable to accomplish anything without a heroic man and will be punished for pursuing their desires. The males within the story only face conflict when acting on female wishes, signaling that women should not desire. This is first seen when Rapunzel’s mother prays for the lush plant behind her house, enticing her husband to get it by saying “if I do not get some rapunzel from the garden behind our house, I shall die.” In order to satisfy this desire, she relies on a male. This act is later punished by the heinous compromise of giving up their child, depriving them from unconditional love. This instance’s message alludes to The Garden of Eden and Eve tempting Adam to get the apple, although forbidden. Like Rapunzel’s parents, Adam and Eve are condemned, living a life of repentance. Additionally, Rapunzel is punished for her desire to escape. She is helpless and does not even think to escape from the tower until she is entranced by the prince’s presence. Her plan, however, is fully reliant on his aide: “when the silk ladder is finished I will climb down, and you can take me away.” Her desire to live a life of royalty with the prince is dismissed when the old sorceress condemns her to life of wretchedness. Rapunzel withers in the absence of a masculine figure. Finally, the sorceress, in a sense, is punished for her desire to have a child and for selfishfully raising her without a present father. Cutting Rapunzel’s hair signifies the bond between the two women as severed. Although Rapunzel is commonly seen as the victim, the sorceress too is left without the love of the child she raised. Thus, it is evident that the Brothers Grimm disapprove of females who desire through the depiction of their cruel punishment.
Irrefutably, within this fairytale, women are seen in a binary terms, either as a vulnerable individual or as sly manipulator who abuses her power, while males are only seen in a valiant representation. However, all of the women fall victim to the underlying message that to desire something is immoral and unattainable without the presence of a heroic male.