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"A Feminist Analysis of 'Barbie as Rapunzel': Examining Powerlessness of Girl Power" by Cloe Loosz

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A Feminist Analysis of “Barbie as Rapunzel”: Examining the Powerlessness of Girl Power

Cloe Loosz, Point Park University

Abstract: Hot pink, Barbie dolls and unfulfilling promises of girl power dominated the early 2000s. This essay examines the true powerlessness of girl power through a critical feminist analysis of the movie, “Barbie as Rapunzel.” The unfortunate reality of the girl power movement is that it limited true empowerment by catering to the patriarchal male gaze. Rapunzel was subsequently robbed of her freedom, identity, and the right to diverge from dominant social norms. This harmful portrayal of girl power sends a false message to little girls that empowerment is only reserved for the “ideal” woman; a woman who conforms. The lack of diversity and female comradery in this film also limits the promoted message of uniqueness. Young girls need to see representations of female friendships to understand that comradery provides a space for validation and realization. It is crucial for the future of girlhood that we critically examine media such as “Barbie as Rapunzel” through a critical lens to make positive progressive media that creates a space for true empowerment.


The animated Barbie movie series captivated Gen Z youth with hot pink color palettes and promising portrayals of girl power. I remember watching “Barbie as Rapunzel” when I was around six years old, and being terrified of the talking dragon, but loving Barbie’s pretty pink dress. I learned from rewatching the film that my fears may have resulted from the choppy, blocky, computer-generated animations. Regardless, no matter what animated Barbie film I watched, I remember thinking, “I want to be Barbie.” I admired Barbie’s kindness and her prioritization of moral values. She showed me that pink was a color to be proud of and that women deserve to be the heroes of their own stories. However, I also wanted to have Barbie’s minuscule waist and flawless skin. She became my unattainable obsession. After re-watching “Barbie as Rapunzel,” I recognized the distorted definition of girl power that was communicated throughout the film. Rapunzel was allowed to feel empowered, as long as it fit into the convenience of the male gaze. Rapunzel was robbed of her empowering ending and tossed into the pit of convenient and conventional cinematic marriage.

“Barbie as Rapunzel” begins with Barbie, playing herself, serving as the narrator of the story. She tells the story of Rapunzel to her younger sister, Kelly, in order to reveal that her ideas are wonderful and powerful because they are uniquely hers. This is a blatant attempt to promote the girl power culture that was spreading like wildfire in the early 2000s. Hit teen movies like “Mean Girls” worked to reveal the toxic culture that surrounded popularity, but also promoted the mysterious, shy, sweet, smart, and most importantly, conventionally attractive girl as the ideal. The main character in “Mean Girls,” Cady Heron, played by Lindsey Lohan, recognized after being consumed by social status that she lost her sense of personal identity and spent the end of the movie reestablishing it. Like Cady, Rapunzel is depicted as overcoming her own loss of self-identity after escaping Gothel. However, both women end up in relationships with men and succumb to the convenience of a marriage and relationship plot. These endings communicate that a woman’s identity must be dependent on a man.

The girl power movement also aimed to promote the idea that girls can be smart, pretty, and kind – shocker, right? However, its impact was seriously hindered by the concurrent rise of an intense diet culture during the early 2000s. It became challenging to see Cady Heron without seeing Lindsey Lohan, who, just two years after the release of Mean Girls, openly admitted to struggling with an eating disorder and drug use. Lohan revealed in a 2006 Vanity Fair article, "I was sick. Everyone was scared. And I was scared, too. I had people sit me down and say, 'You're going to die if you don't take care of yourself'” (Peretz). Hollywood has a reputation for tearing apart talented women like Lohan for profit, and unfortunately, this criticism spills over into the general population. Personally, I found it difficult to feel unique and powerful with tabloids featuring headlines like “Get Slim Fast,” “Perfect Skin Secrets,” and “Best Body Ever” peering down at me like hungry vultures in the Giant Eagle checkout line. Despite the girl power movement's active fight against bimbo stereotypes that were often used against conventionally attractive and intelligent women, it ended up gatekeeping girl power for only the ideal woman.

Culturally, these standards are disappointing yet not surprising, considering the time of the movie’s production. “Barbie as Rapunzel” was released in 2002 and directed by Owen Hurley. In addition to this film, Owen directed three other fairytale-themed Barbie movies including “Barbie in the Nutcracker”, “Barbie of Swan Lake”, and “Barbie in the Pink Shoes.” Owen also worked in video game cinematics for the “Company of Heroes” series. His stylistic choices consistently involve computer-generated animations. The film’s screenwriter is Elana Lesser, who has written scripts for many successful children’s shows including “Arthur,” “Curious George,” and “Dragon Tales.” In addition to these shows, Lesser has also written for eight other Barbie projects. She worked with director Owen Hurley for a second time in “Barbie of Swan Lake.” As a child who did not have access to cable TV until I began my middle school years, shows that aired on PBS Kids served as my after-school specials. Barbie movies were watched nightly before bed on DVD. The earliest movies served as my sleep aids, encouraging dreams filled with princes, princesses, and somewhat unsettling talking animals.

In the movie “Barbie as Rapunzel,” Rapunzel takes on the role of a Cinderella-style character, serving her magical yet evil Mother Gothel by working to “keep the manor in perfect order,” with no help besides her two animal friends: a sparkly purple dragon with extravagant eyelashes and a small male rabbit. For a character who is expected to sweep, wax, and polish the floors amongst dozens of other chores, Rapunzel’s extravagant pink gown remains flawless throughout the film. While making tea for Mother Gothel, she stumbles upon a secret basement and discovers a secret passage below it. After finding a hairbrush that her birth parents gifted to her for her first birthday, she follows the underground tunnel to a nearby village. The village is populated by kind, happy, white people preparing for the young prince’s upcoming 18th birthday celebration. The severe lack of diversity in this film speaks for its time. The animation demonstrates the director's deliberately exclusionary choices.

Outside of the village, Rapunzel encounters a little girl named Katrina and her sisters. Katrina falls into a hole dug by the enemy kingdom, and Rapunzel attempts to save her. Unfortunately, Katrina slips back into the trap, dragging Rapunzel down with her. Predictably, a handsome young man dressed in blue saves Rapunzel and his little sister. Herein lies the catch to the notion of girl power – misogynistic social standards are always involved, especially when they are unnecessary to the story’s plotline. After the rescue, the man explains the kingdom’s rivalry with the neighboring kingdom. Rapunzel asks him why the two kingdoms could not communicate and solve their differences. This reveals the theme of kindness as a universal solution. However, she is immediately shut down and told that things are too complicated to be solved through simple conversation. Rapunzel is naive and lacks knowledge of current political events, which piques the young man’s interest. She is innocent, malleable, and different from most girls. Rapunzel has now become the embodiment of the “cool girl.”

When Gothel discovers that Rapunzel went to the village, she reacts by destroying all of her paintings, which served as Rapunzel’s only sense of identity besides being a servant in the manor. Gothel then demands that Rapunzel reveal the name of the man she met, but since Rapunzel never asked for his name, she cannot tell her. Gothel calls her a liar and turns her bedroom into a tower, casting a spell to trap all with a lying heart inside forever. Banishing Rapunzel from town and destroying her prized possessions parallel Disney’s adaptation of “The Little Mermaid,” released in 1989. Parental control is a common theme in these fairytale adaptations, as most of the princesses are children or teenagers. Notably, it is the female characters in these fairytales and retellings who are closely monitored, perpetuating the idea that women are mere accessories and prized possessions to be owned and diminished.

Meanwhile, the viewer learns that the young man whom Rapunzel met in town is the prince, and he has been sending his knights all over the kingdom to search for her. Overnight, the hairbrush Rapunzel found in the secret basement turns into a magic paintbrush. With her paintings destroyed, she attempts to brighten her spirits by painting on her walls with the magic paintbrush. To her surprise, she paints what is revealed as a magic portal that allows her to return to the village. She finds the prince and asks if he can lead her to the maker of her magic paintbrush. The two discover that its maker lives in the neighboring kingdom. The prince then invites her to the palace for a ball that evening, but Rapunzel needs to be made aware of his true royal identity. When she tells him that she does not want to know his name as it would be in her worst interest, he refers to her as “mysterious.” Rapunzel is a puzzle to the prince, and he enjoys toying with the idea of her. She is inherently objectified.

According to journalist Julia Tabach, “the manic pixie dream girl helps to romanticize the control of women’s body and thoughts” (Tabach, 2020). Rapunzel is appealing to the prince because she embodies his own personal version of the manic pixie dream girl fantasy. He likes that she doesn’t know his royal social status and that she doesn’t care to. The attraction to the manic pixie dream girl trope lies not only in effortless beauty but in mystery. Manic pixie dream girls are given a minuscule amount of personal autonomy to attract male suitors without intimidating them. Rapunzel is a perfect balance.

When Rapunzel returns to her tower with the help of Penelope the dragon and her rabbit friend, she styles her hair and makes a beautiful gown with her new magic paintbrush. Unlike Cinderella, Rapunzel uses her own resources to create a beautiful gown to wear to the prince’s ball. The lack of a fairy godmother character is intentional as it showcases another girl power moment for the viewer to enjoy. Rapunzel’s power is connected to her magic paintbrush, which is laced with the undying love of her parents. Unfortunately, Mother Gothel discovers Rapunzel’s plans to attend the prince’s ball from her evil pet otter and destroys Rapunzel’s magic hairbrush. She also cuts Rapunzel’s hair and uses it as a disguise to attend the prince’s ball herself.

Fortunately, Penelope, the dragon, saves Rapunzel from the tower and takes her to the prince’s ball. It is refreshing that a prince does not come to her rescue, let alone plummet into a patch of thorns as he did in the original Grimm’s fairytale. It is a heartwarming moment, showcasing the power of female comradery. However, I couldn’t help but notice the strategic use of animal companionship. The evil Mother Gothel has an otter, who serves as her evil henchman. She asserts power and dominance through her control over him. This film reveals a common theme in fairytale film adaptations. Snow White had woodland creatures, Cinderella had mice and birds, and now Rapunzel has a talking rabbit and dragon. Yet, in none of these films do we as the viewers see any depiction of strong female friendships or comradery between human characters. While there are mentorships and elder relations that are kept with the princesses, these do not equate to strong female friendships. How can a film truly promote girl power and “uniqueness” without showing meaningful relationships between different women?

In the final few scenes of the film, Gothel is shown attempting to attack the prince and his siblings. Whenever the prince’s younger siblings try to fight back, Gothel expresses her distaste for children. In fairytales, matronly qualities are seen as protagonist characteristics, and this comment serves to reinforce Gothel’s villainous nature. The movie resolves with the two kingdoms reuniting by defeating Mother Gothel and discovering that Rapunzel is King Wilhelm’s long-lost daughter. With the source of the feud resolved, the two rival kingdoms are finally at peace. Rapunzel then marries the prince shortly after this resolution. In the Grimm’s fairytale version, Rapunzel agrees to marry the prince as soon as he invades her tower. Although she was terrified, she states in the story that he was “much better than old Mother Gothel.” The prince takes advantage of Rapunzel’s innocence in both versions of the story. In the Barbie retelling, the prince takes away Rapunzel’s chance of achieving full autonomy through self-discovery by trapping her in the ultimate marriage plot.

This marriage plot is not only unsatisfying but completely dismantles any autonomy that Rapunzel gains after escaping the tower. Throughout the movie, Rapunzel’s honesty and integrity are portrayed as moral virtues. However, when the prince finally reveals his identity to Rapunzel at the end of the movie, his lie is not viewed as moral corruption. The happily ever after in this film is based on a lie, and the prince wins his game. He was able to secure his mysterious dream girl. This is problematic because the prince lied about his royal identity to appeal to Rapunzel. He saw her as a peasant until the end of the film, so he acted as a common citizen to convince Rapunzel that he was safe and trustworthy. This would raise the question if there was tension between the monarchy and the common citizens of the kingdom which were not revealed in the film. The prince’s lie immediately eliminates any chance of political opposition from Rapunzel and communicates a distorted sense of socioeconomic relations to a young audience. It also highlights the double standard where men are excused from certain standards that women are unjustly held to.

After the resolution between the two kingdoms, Mother Gothel is banished to Rapunzel’s tower after refusing to accept Rapunzel’s forgiveness for kidnapping her as a child. This ending left me confused and unfulfilled because Rapunzel’s complacency was completely unrealistic. Despite suffering years of trauma and verbal abuse from Gothel, she was willing to forgive her much too easily. In the original Grimm’s Rapunzel tale, there was no resolution to the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel. The Barbie retelling attempts to add a resolution and lesson but fails terribly at doing so. The ending sends a message to children everywhere that forgiveness is always the key. However, this message is harmful, especially for survivors of abuse, as it completely disregards the power of acknowledging and processing anger as part of the healing process.

I remember falling in love with Rapunzel’s room as a child. I wanted to live in her tower, dedicated to my artistic pursuits, surrounded by pink walls, and sleeping in purple bed sheets. I wanted to be divinely feminine. However, after analyzing the movie’s failed attempt to promote girl power and the subsequent destruction of Rapunzel’s chance at personal freedom, I cannot recommend this film. I enjoyed certain moments of “Barbie as Rapunzel” that promoted empowerment, such as Rapunzel acting as her own fairy godmother and banishing her abuser to the magic tower. However, the severe lack of diversity in this film is intolerable. Rapunzel appears too perfect within the eyes of the male gaze. Young girls deserve a princess that they can look up to without expecting a marriage plot. Barbie could have pursued her painting or become an esteemed ruler, but instead, she becomes passive. When women face abuse, they do not have to endure it with a smile and prioritize forgiveness. The concept of girl power and the emphasis on uniqueness seem to have been used merely as marketing tools to promote Barbie’s early 2000s brand shift toward a false projection of female empowerment. “Barbie as Rapunzel” falls short of empowering its audience and serves as a prime example of the powerlessness of the girl power movement.

Works Cited

Peretz, Evgenia. “CONFESSIONS OF a TEENAGE MOVIE QUEEN.” Vanity Fair | the Complete Archive, 1 Feb. 2006,

Tabach, Julia. 2020. "Why The “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” Is A Problematic Character?".


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