Thoughts on the Rapunzel Exhibit -
The Rapunzel story, as illustrated by many painters and artists, has done a great deal to promote what have become stereotypical characterizations of senior women as evil witches, "ugly" people as bad, and "pretty" people as innocent and good. Viewing the "Rapunzel Exhibit", currently on display at the National Museum for Women in the Arts was an exercise in tolerance as I observed gray haired, wrinkled, witch after witch, often with a cane, depicted in threatening colors and facial expressions inside the pages of children’s books. Gustaf Tenggren’s witch, with a stooped torso, sports a cane, long bony fingers, nose and chin. Belleke Duhhan’s witch is wrinkled, with a long nose, cane and pointy hat. Trina Schart Hyman made her woman gray haired, stooped, with cane, pointy nose and chin, and bony pointy fingers. Alex Berenzy’s is the classic ugly, evil witch, with gray hair, wrinkled face, fat and dumpy body,and black wings. Her colors are rich and vivid in her portrayal of this woman outdoors at night, stirring something in a large black kettle over a fire.Why is it so easy to promote these images of the evil elderly, the wicked "ugly", and the Godly "gorgeous"? Is it simply a matter of passing on what we were raised with? As children we read these same folk and fairy tales, looked at these same illustrations. Is it the insidious workings of misogyny, classism, racism and other "isms"? The elderly a lower class with less economic power? Are the witches black costumes and the 'different" physical appearances of the "ugly" a refection of our intolerance for diversity, our racism?
The psycological impact on children is staggering, unfair and akin to crimes against humanity. Many children become afraid of the elderly as a direct reaction to these vivid, negative portrayals. God forbid a small child should be trapped in a fire and the only available rescue, an elderly woman with a cane. I was personally afraid to visit the death bed of my beloved Grandmother because she was, at that time, more wrinkled than I had ever seen her. I was literally terrified and had to be removed to the house porch to play with the bugs attracted to the porch lights, while others remained gathered at her bed. I had read most of the usual fairy tales, all the books next to my bed. It may be that I am just not in the mood for these irresponsible and unkind promotions, that I have lost all perspective since the September 11th "Attack on America". Or, it may be that my passion for justice has been newly, albeit rudely, awakened. Justice in the case of illustrations of the Rapunzel story would be to lighten up on the "old women as evil witches/ugly people as bad/gorgeous people as good" themes.In America we are often surpised when someone of "good" looks (ie, the right hair, face, body type and economic status) commits a heinous crime. In reaction to the Jeffry Daumer and Susan Smith murders, many friends and acquaintances were unable to cope with the reality. Remarks like these were common. "He was such a good child." "He doesn’t look like a murderer." "He looks like a regular guy." "To look at her I’d never think she could kill her own children." "She looks like the girl next door." Are these remarks the acception? Did other friends and acquaintances know or sense all along the "evil" lurking beneath the normalcy of Daumer and Smith? Were Daumers victims raised reading the same fairy tales I read? Of two choices for a one night stand, an "average looking" person or an "ugly" person, which would I choose? Could the choice mean my life?Everyday, all across America and all around the world, people of average and "good" looks, with financial stability and high economic status, murder, mutilate and maime "ugly" people who have questionable financial stablity and low economic status. No one class, race or age has the monopoly on murder, bad acts and evil behavior and crime. Betty Lewin, Rapunzel illustrator, appears to know this. In a cartoon style she has created a modern witch for Rapunzel as well as a modern Rapunzel, who is a whiney, spoiled brat, unappreciative of all her caretaker has done for her. Lewin’s witch is a gray dog with pink spiked hair. What are the chances of this image ruining my ability for sane social interaction with gray dogs, pink spiked hair or not?
Is there any hope that we will unlearn these vicious sterotypes and come to regard our elderly and our diversity as the gifts they really are? I believe so, with more artists like Betty Lewin. In the meantime, Diane Stanley says it all with her version of the Rapunzel witch, short, fat, wrinkled, grayish face, long bony fingers and nails, and the "coup de grace", fangs.