Editor’s Note: Upon reading this post, some readers may say, “Oh, ‘Tangled‘ is just a movie!” Indeed, “Tangled” is a movie, but not just one. Stories, whether in books or movies or television programs, teach us about ourselves, about what we value, about what we love, about what we hate. No “real-life Rapunzel” or “real-life Mother Gothel” may have existed, but for the myriad daughters with NPD mothers, the story itself is not too unlike their own stories.
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Quick, name the cruelest Disney villain… Did you name Mother Gothel? As a parental figure with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), Mother Gothel rates high on the list for her twisted, abusive and relentless treatment of her “adopted” daughter, Rapunzel.
I recently re-watched “Tangled” and took note of the destructive NPD characteristics demonstrated by Mother Gothel. (Spoilers abound from this point on.)
19 NPD Traits of Mother Gothel
From the back story narration at the start of the film, the viewer learns that an ancient woman named “Gothel” has been using a magical plant’s restorative powers to maintain her beauty and youth. When the infant princess in the kingdom where Mother Gothel dwells is dying, the castle guards retrieve the legendary plant to heal the princess, and it does.
1. Mother Gothel isolates her child
Movie: When Mother Gothel finds out the plant is gone, she sneaks into the castle tower to steal the plant. Not finding it, she kidnaps Rapunzel (whose hair has the same restorative powers when a spell-song is sung) and whisks her away to a tower.
Flash-forward to the present… Now, Rapunzel is a teenager. She has spent her entire life so far in isolation. Mother Gothel comes and goes from the castle as she wishes (though uses Rapunzel’s hair like a fire-escape rope through the tower window to do so), but Rapunzel cannot. She must never leave the tower. No family. No friends. No one else in her world except her so-called mother and a chameleon pet that she has anthropomorphized.
Real-life equivalent: NPD parents make it difficult for their children to form bonds outside the family unit (and often even within members of the immediate family). They do not put the time, effort, and energy required to take their children to sports practices, school events, or play dates, all of which make forming friendships exceedingly difficult for their children.
NPD parents want to be the sun to their children, so any outside influence is banned or severely limited. If the child manages to make a friend, a NPD parent will make fun of the friend, mock the friend, twist the child’s image of the friend, all in small phrases here and there in time, so the child will find him/herself either giving up the friendship or maintaining a secret one.
2. She presents a false image of herself
Movie: Mother Gothel assumes the role of a mother (albeit an abusive one), never letting Rapunzel know that she is the lost princess. Mother Gothel pretends to care about Rapunzel’s well-being; she only keeps her hidden because bad people will want to steal her magic hair!
Mother Gothel pretends to be a loving mother, but she insults her daughter, does not listen to her, keeps her isolated, does not properly clothe or feed her, keeps her intellectually starved (the poor kid has three books on her bookshelf), lies to her, berates her, mocks her, and so forth.
Her real self is cruel, self-centered, violent, destructive, vain, and scheming. Rapunzel sees all that in flashes, but having been brought up in isolation, she has no basis for comparison to truly loving behavior.
Real-life equivalent: NPD parents are not the same in public as they are in private. They often portray themselves as loving, caring, and concerned parents to people that they know.
In some cases, they talk about their children in glowing terms, so that all who hear assume the parents talk to their children in the same loving way. (They are wrong; NPD parents will shred their children’s self-esteem in private though they praise the children in public.)
In other cases, NPD parents talk about how concerned they are about their children’s depression, moodiness, etc., setting up the parent as a martyr while casting the child as troubled or disturbed. (That will come in handy when the adult child decides to break free the NPD parents; the NPD parent can then say the child has always been troubled and disturbed. Poor parent!)
The NPD parent is a master of manipulation and wearer of many masks. Only the scapegoat child knows the naked truth.
3. She presents a false view of the world
Movie: In the song “Mother Knows Best,” Mother Gothel presents a frightening view of the world:
Real-life equivalent: The child of NPD parents is taught that the outside world is scary, cold, and hate-filled. To go into the world and try to make friends, be educated, get a job, have a romantic relationship, and so forth is to risk doom. Only by following the family’s code of behavior will the child be “safe.”
If the child or adult child does manage any achievements outside the home, the NPD parent will be sure to attribute the success to good parenting or to spoil it by making fun of it or adding so much pressure that the child grows weary and exhausted by his/her efforts and abandons it.
4. She plays the martyr
Movie: In the above song, Mother Gothel rattles off a dozen things then says, “Stop, you’ll just upset me” even though the whole song is her trying to frighten Rapunzel.
Rapunzel initiated a conversation with her mother to discuss what Rapunzel would like to do for her birthday. However, the entire conversation is derailed by Mother Gothel who turns it into a song about how scary the world is and how all Mother Gothel wants to do is protect her daughter from it.
When Rapunzel tries to steer the conversation back to the original point, Mother Gothel gets all self-pitying. “Oh, now, I’m the bad guy… sniffle.”
Yes, Mother Gothel is.
Real-life equivalent: Any action that an NPD parent does is an act of great sacrifice. Made dinner for the child? The poor parent had no energy and no desire to do so yet somehow struggled in an act of great love to make it so just to feed the child! Gone to work? The poor parent had a headache or hates his/her job or would rather be home, and yet somehow managed, out of great and tremendous love, to go to work all for the child!
NPD parents make everything they do “for the child” a huge deal.
Also, any attempt by the child to forge an existence outside the parent is seen as an act of rebellion or an act of condemnation against the parent… after all the poor parent has done! The parent has “sacrificed” so much for the child. Everyone knows so!
5. She threatens her daughter
Movie: Mother Gothel sings a threat that is bone-chilling: “Don’t forget it; you’ll regret it.”
Real-life equivalent: The child of an NPD parent is conditioned to do what the parent wants or ELSE. The “or else” can be the withdrawal of affection, the silent treatment, grounding, physical abuse, or very often, more emotional abuse (so much that an act of perceived rebellion will not be worth even attempting).
6. She views Rapunzel only as an instrument for her personal use, not as a person
Movie: She calls Rapunzel “my flower” because that’s all she sees in Rapunzel: the magic, healing flower, not the person she is.
When she kisses Rapunzel, she kisses her hair.
When she touches Rapunzel, she touches her hair.
The only thing that Mother Gothel sees when she looks at Rapunzel is her hair.
An NPD parent does not see her daughter for who she really is; that’s apparent from the “Mother Knows Best Song.” She considers Rapunzel chubby, vague, naive, clumsy, fragile as a flower, etc. As demonstrated by the rest of the film, none of those labels are true. Rapunzel is pretty, resourceful, smart, strong, and graceful.
But Mother Gothel has never cared enough to listen to her child. When Rapunzel talks, Mother Gothel does this:
Real-life equivalent: An NPD parent does not know his or her child, whether the child is still young or an adult child. The NPD parent may be able to rattle off facts about the child (such as the kid likes a show, the adult child is a dentist, etc.), but the parent will not know the child. The child may have a keen intelligence, a wonderful sense of humor, a fondness for growing flowers, a generous heart, etc… but the NPD parent will not acknowledge or even register mentally who the child is.
NPD parents cannot see beyond themselves to see their children nor can NPD parents see beyond who they want their children to be.
7. She puts down her daughter’s looks, personality, and abilities
Movie: Mother Gothel sings about how Rapunzel is ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties of life: “fragile as a flower,” “still a little sapling, just a sprout,””sloppy,” “underdressed,” “immature,” “clumsy,” “they’ll eat you up alive,” “gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy and a bit vague,” and “you’re getting kind of chubby.”
Other insults are scattered throughout the film.
Real-life equivalent: Same. Without the singing.
8. She pretends that love is making her sound critical when the opposite is true
Movie: Mother Gothel says the reason she rattles off all those perceived traits is “I’m just saying ’cause I wuv you.”
Real-life equivalent: For the most part, the slights and insults from an NPD parent to a child are subtle… and they work together, one cut at a time, to bleed the child’s heart dry. However, sometimes (and later in life, the NPD parents grow more obvious and rougher in their comments as they age), the insults are obvious.
The NPD parent will always say that the comment comes “from love.” The comments are not meant to hurt the child, but to let the child know the truth of the matter. An NPD parent will say such things as: “I’m only saying this so you know the truth,” “I’m telling you this because I love you,” “I just want you to know what everyone is thinking,” and “I don’t think this, but other people do.”
“Love” is the NPD parents excuse for being hateful towards their children. But love is not like that. Love is gentle, love is kind. Remember that.
9. She prevents her daughter from sharing her gift with others
Movie: Because of Rapunzel’s gift (when Rapunzel sings a certain song, her hair glows and magically restores youth and vitality to people who are old and injured and in contact with her hair), she could work wonders for the people in the kingdom.
Judging from the horses and clothing of the movie, this takes place during the medieval period, the medicine and understanding of the human body was limited, so any illness must have been devastating. Rapunzel’s gift of healing could have saved myriad people in the kingdom, but, because of Mother Gothel’s self-centeredness, Rapunzel was unable to use her gift for others.
Worst of all, Mother Gothel makes Rapunzel think that her gift is something that people will hurt her for. Mother Gothel takes something beautiful inherent to Rapunzel and turns it into something shameful.
Real-life equivalent: The NPD parent’s focus is and will always be him/herself.
And for the child of an NPD to have any special gift or talent, a lovely personality, a gentle heart, etc. will not be tolerated by the NPD parent. The NPD parent will mock or shame the child for “trying to be special” or for “wanting to stand out.” Or an NPD parent will ground the child for showing such a gift or even take away the child’s art supplies, music, etc. as punishment. Unless the NPD parent can glean some attention from the child’s gift (“Oh, I have such a talented child!”), the parent will not support the talent.
Moreover, an NPD parent will make fun of the gift or belittle it to the child, making the talent, gift, or personality trait something despicable, ridiculous, and insignificant. (“But really, does anyone care about the flute? It doesn’t save lives, does it?” “Oh, so you can do math in your head? Well, can you make money from that?”)
10. She wants to one-up her daughter whenever possible
Mother Gothel presents herself as prettier and smarter than Rapunzel. She looks in the mirror and says, “When I look in the mirror, I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady…. Oh, look, you’re here, too.” She also cannot let Rapunzel’s declaration of love go without trying to do her one better.
Rapunzel: I love you.
MG: I love you MOST.
Real-life equivalent: The unspoken rule in the household of an NPD parent is that the NPD parent is the bright shining light. Everyone else must revolve around the parent. No child would dare outshine that parent.
11. She conditions her daughter to serve her
Movie: When Mother Gothel asks Rapunzel to sing for her and then they’ll talk, she is setting conditions for Rapunzel and the exchange that needs to happen for Mother Gothel to pay attention to her. It is suggested that Mother Gothel would not listen to Rapunzel if she did not sing for her.
Mother Gothel wants what she wants FIRST.
Real-life equivalent: The children of NPD parents are conditioned, as infants, to bend their will to the will of their parents. What matters is not the child’s own needs, dreams, hopes, friendships, studies, job, lives… but the parents’. When an NPD parent asks for help, the child will jump to serve. When an NPD parent complains, the child is quick to ease the parent’s suffering. When an NPD parent expresses a desire, the child leaps at the opportunity to fulfill that desire. The child, even long into adulthood, often will not know better, will not know that they have their own person to care for, their own lives to life.
The child has been conditioned to serve and to serve quickly and to serve the NPD parent at whatever cost.
12. She gaslights her daughter
Movie: Every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, candle-lit lanterns are released by everyone in the kingdom as a symbol of hope that the missing princess would return. Rapunzel sees them from her tower, and she mentions wanting to see them to Mother Gothel. Her captor scoffs at her saying they are not lanterns at all.
Real-life equivalent: An NPD parent plays mind games. (Here’s a deeper look at gaslighting.)
13. She puts her own needs above those of her daughter
Movie: Mother Gothel has fashionable clothes, fantastic make-up, and a life outside the tower, judging from her comings and goings. However, Rapunzel wears clothes that do not fit her and doesn’t even have shoes. She is also ridiculously skinny.
Rapunzel only has three books in her tower. She needs more art supplies (she’s run out of room on the walls). She sews a dress for her chameleon but the material is from dress. She doesn’t have any furniture. Her wardrobe is empty. Her sewing dummy doesn’t have materials.
Real-life equivalent: An NPD parent doesn’t think about the needs of his or her child. NPD parents may maintain the basics (food, shelter, and clothing) but even those may be done poorly. And the child is conditioned to not ask for anything.
14. She neglects the emotional needs of her daughter
Movie: In addition to everything else on this list, Mother Gothel is a soul-killer, for she fails to feed the natural talents and very basic emotional needs Rapunzel has. Mother Gothel is irritated by Rapunzel’s mentioning of her birthday (“I distinctly remember you had a birthday last year.”), ignores Rapunzel’s obvious exciting news when Mother Gothel comes back from getting hazelnuts for that soup, breaks into song about herself rather than focusing on Rapunzel, and abandons the conversation when it no longer suits her. (Considering they are the only two people in the tower, Mother Gothel does precious little to engage in conversation with her daughter, especially after being gone for a long time.)
Real-life equivalent: NPD parents do not build up their children. They neglect to provide the unwavering love that growing children need (or that even adult children need from their parents). They do not support their children in their endeavors nor understand the difference between encouragement and nagging.
NPD parents do not listen to their children or allow them to express the myriad emotions that make up the human heart.
15. She attributes great meaning to small matters in her life and little meaning to great matters in her child’s
Movie: Mother Gothel makes a big deal about that hazelnut soup…. but she doesn’t care about Rapunzel’s upcoming birthday. Typical of an NPD parent, she has a distorted view of the importance of events.
Real-life equivalent: A child will seldom know what is a big deal and what isn’t a big deal in the eyes of the NPD parent. A flicker in the child’s eyes can unhinge an NPD parent. However, anything important in a child’s life will be seen as no big deal.
16. She abuses her daughter in secret
Movie: Mother Gothel spies on Rapunzel and Flynn in the camp, and in typical NPD fashion, she confronts her daughter in secret rather than in front of others.
Real-life equivalent: NPDs are notorious for showing their true sides to the abused child and hiding all the abuse behind a false pleasant self in front of strangers.
17. She belittles her daughter for wanting to have her own life
Movie: When Mother Gothel speaks to Rapunzel, she belittles her for asserting her independence and mocks her for assuming Rapunzel can decide what is best for herself.
Real-life equivalent: Same thing. An NPD parent cannot handle the idea, let alone the reality, of his or her child having a life that does not revolve around the parent.
18. She makes her daughter feel like no one could possibly love her
Real-life equivalent: The NPD parent will belittle those who love her child. In some cases, the parent may express bewilderment that anyone would love the child. In most cases, the NPD parent is adamant that no one will love their child. “How could anyone love a child who [fill in the blank]?” “Why would anyone love someone who is so [fill in the blank]?” “No one could ever love someone who [fill in the blank]!”
19. She kills what her daughter loves
Movie: She also takes what Rapunzel loves and attempts to ruin it. She mocks Rapunzel’s growing feelings for Flynn (“A wanted criminal? I’m so proud.”) and then sows seeds of disinterest in Rapunzel’s heart. This distrust will lead to the capture of Flynn and an impending execution.
Real-life equivalent: NPD parents will destroy what a child loves or use that loved item or person as a weapon to be wielded against the child. A relationship will be poisoned by the hand of the NPD parent. A task will be tainted by the NPD parent. An item that the child loves will be “accidentally lost” by the NPD parent or withheld as punishment.
This behavior, like all those mentioned on the list, extends from the child’s early years and into the child’s adulthood.
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Watching the movie “Tangled” can be exhausting or triggering for the adult child of emotional child abuse (especially abuse by an NPD parent). Even though the movie is geared towards children, however, much can be learned by those adult survivors:
- You can escape the tower. Really. You need not be locked up forever by the parent. You’ve always had the ability to escape your enslavement. Take that opportunity now.
- You will be conflicted once you’ve left… but it’ll be all right. Rapunzel was torn between returning to the tower and her alleged “safe” life and the freedom of life outside the castle. That conflict is normal for adult survivors of emotional child abuse.
- You are stronger and smarter than you think. Even in captivity, Rapunzel was able to forge some talents and develop her inner strength. You may have been held emotionally captive by your NPD parent, but you can move forward. You are braver, better, stronger, smarter, kinder, and more lovable than you can possibly imagine.
- You are worthy of love. You really are. You can be loved for who you really are… (Don’t expect that love from NPD parents, though; they can only “love” themselves). But you can be loved by good friends and the new family that you forge from friendships.
Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications.