Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Disney and the DSM-IV | Could Rapunzel's Mother Gothel Have BPD?

When I first saw "Tangled", I kept thinking that Mother Gothel acted and reacted like my mother. So many similarities exist between Mother Gothel and my mother (including their appearance!) that the movie really hit 'home' for me. Manipulative, evil, jealous, arrogant, greedy, selfish, rude, vain, and spiteful are just a few of the words one can use to describe Mother Gothel. She looks after herself  and doesn't care about anything else. She's also extremely theatrical, and melodramatic, loves her own jokes, and is narcissistic enough not to care if nobody else gets the funny bit. Even the song, "Mother Knows Best" rang a chord for me, with the lyrics so poignantly descriptive of my mother's guilt-ridden, controlling, and manipulative verbiage: 

Me, I'm just your mother, what do I know?
I only bathed and changed and nursed you
Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it
Let me die alone here, be my guest
When it's too late, you'll see - just wait
Mother knows best

So, without further ado, give the following a read (even if you haven't seen the movie). Love it!

Rapunzel! Rapunzel! What can the woman in your hair teach us about borderline personality disorder (BPD)?

As a villain, Mother Gothel in Disney’s Tangled is unique.  She’s not motivated by revenge, greed, or lust for power. Gothel, terrified of growing older, is motivated by fear. As a result, she begins to display symptoms of BPD- to the point where she will literally die without Rapunzel and her magic hair.

What are the Symptoms of BPD?
According to the DSM-IV, there are nine criteria for BPD. In order to merit BPD diagnosis, the patient must meet five of them. According to HealthyPlace, the criteria are:

  • frantic efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment (not including self-harm or suicidal behavior)
  • a pattern of intense, unstable relationships alternating between idealization and devaluation
  • persistently unstable self-image
  • impulsivity in two self-damaging areas (drinking heavily, spending too much money, driving too fast, etc.)
  • recurring suicidal behavior or threats
  • unstable mood
  • chronic emptiness
  • inappropriate, intense anger
  • stress-related paranoia or dissociation

I believe Gothel would meet criteria 1, 2, 3, 6 and 8 were she a real human. So, as an example of one way BPD can manifest, this is a hypothetical case.

Criterion Two: Gothel’s Two Views of Rapunzel

Early in the movie, Gothel attempts to dote on Rapunzel: telling her she loves her, making her favorite hazelnut soup, even leaving on a three-day journey to make a special paint. However, when Rapunzel asks to leave the tower to find out why floating lanterns appear in the sky on her birthday, Gothel refuses. Her “adorable” daughter is now “sloppy, underdressed, immature, clumsy” and too weak to handle herself. Gothel’s needs determine how she views Rapunzel.

Criterion Three: Gothel’s Identity and Rapunzel’s Views

Gothel repeatedly tries to convince Rapunzel that she has her best interests in heart. She excels at playing the victim card, repeatedly saying “Great, now I’mthe bad guy.” As long as Rapunzel believes Gothel is her mother, Gothel seems to believe she is. Only when Rapunzel finds out the truth does Gothel quit the charade.  “You want me to be the bad guy?” she growls. ”Fine.  Now I’m the bad guy.”

Criteria Six and Eight:  Gothel’s Anger and Happiness

Gothel ‘s emotional state depends entirely on Rapunzel’s. If Rapunzel is happy, so is Gothel. She needs Rapunzel to be happy in order to be happy, and becomes depressed or angry whenever Rapunzel is unhappy. The more curious Rapunzel becomes about life outside the tower, the more angry Gothel becomes, resulting in an argument ended when Gothel screams “You are not leaving this tower–EVER!”

Criterion One: A Manufactured Crisis

After Rapunzel leaves the tower, Gothel pursues. Upon finding that Rapunzel is happy about her choice to leave, Gothel quickly enlists the help of two thugs. As the thugs attempt to kidnap Rapunzel, Gothel double-crosses them and knocks them out with a piece of driftwood. If manufacturing a crisis in order to appear to be the rescuer isn’t a “frantic effort” to avoid abandonment, I don’t know what is.

The Cost of BPD

What would be ironic in real life is justice in an animated movie. Gothel perishes in one of the most creative and memorable death scenes in a Disney movie. In a way, Gothel died because she was unable to accept herself. Gothel had to be young and could not live any other way.

However, we don’t have to share that fate. According to NAMI, BPD is highly treatable. Whether it’s DBT or schema therapy or some other therapy, there is hope for recovery. We can learn to accept ourselves and accept the ups and downs of life.

We can get the villain of BPD out of our hair.


  1. Oh, this post kind of makes me giggle. I nearly bawled my eyes out in the theater when I first saw this movie. It hit so close to home. My sister and I have said that Mother Gothel is like the "nice" version of our mom. Whoever wrote her character must have had experience with BPD. Seriously.

  2. I know, right!? But seriously though, its BPD or she's a sociopath. I promise I'm not overstating sociopathy, just relating it as defined in 'The Sociopath next door.' Either way she is very much like my step-mom and has a similar relationship with my half-sister.
    I think once you start looking for the thread of reality in fairy-tales like these, you will find the pathopsychology of real people and the endless rabble of victims-- and usually isn't it a lesson in how to survive? or how not to die?

  3. One of my favorite ACoN bloggers does refer to her mother as "Mother Goethel"....

    1. This blogger also has a post about "mother Gothel" and uses the exact same song to describe her mother.

  4. Denise here. Thanks for telling us about this movie. Yes my mother too. Yes character is BPD, a narcissist wouldn't say "just kidding dear" after name calling. The important thing is the girl refuses to be responsible for healing her abuser at the end.

    1. "the girl refuses to be responsible for healing her abuser at the end"-- excellent point.

  5. Gothel is absolutely BPD. My kids call their mom "Gothel". Whoever wrote the characters had a mother who was BPD. When my 18 year old daughter moved out (on her birthday) she ran the range of emotions just like Rapunzel did when she left. This movie spoke to my kids and me like no other movie ever has. Perfect example of BPD.

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  7. I also felt my mum was like this character, pretending to be all lovely and sweet, but firing out the odd biting comment that would rip you to shreds.

  8. I just wanted to say I ADORE your blog! I am putting you on my blog roll. As a social worker, and also a child of two "King and Queen" parents - I have found my new morning ritual - with coffee, of course. :D

    Take care and keep writing!

    Sarah Elizabeth aka rootedinbeing (www.rootedinbeing.wordpress.com)

  9. DivorcedAndLovingItDecember 28, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Did you see the story on Cincinnati.com about the college senior who had to get a court order to stop her parents from stalking her? They accused her of mental illness, promescuity, drug use, showed up unannounced, and put tracking software on her phone and computer. It screams bpd to me.

    1. No I didn't... thanks for the heads-up. Will go check it out right now.

  10. Ow my gosh! I am so happy to find this blog!! Really Rapunzel was the movie that was my eyeopener. After I saw it I thought: "What is wrong with my mom, she does exactly the same"! Did you guys watch Black Swan... What do you think of that mother?

    1. I have to watch that... thanks for the tip :)I found a bunch of research connecting "Black Swan" and BPD. For example: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/14/health/la-he-unreal-black-swan-20110214 and http://www.yourmindyourbody.org/borderline-personality-disorder/ and http://contemporarypsychotherapy.org/vol-3-no1-spring-2011/filmreview-black-swan/ Can't wait to watch.

  11. I just saw this movie recently and found myself bawling on the couch at the end. Both Mother Gothel's behaviors and Rapunzel's behaviors after leaving the tower (the back and forth between extreme happy and 'I'm a terrible human being!') rang so true for me. I felt ridiculous explaining to my boyfriend that those behaviors are things I've experienced and as ridiculous as they seemed in the movie, that was what life was like in my family. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who saw this similarity.

    1. Rapunzel's behavior (conflict) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4JxmGe1iGI are so how I felt too-- after walking on eggshells for so long and being controlled by guilt-trips, it's hard to simply stay in the moment of freedom's pure bliss. Breaking free of all the manipulations and head games can be challenging-- as Rapunzel showed us :) Hope all is well with you and yours. Thanks for stopping by!