Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays

Issue 12 – 2023 (2)


Joseph M. Johnson (University of Massachusetts-Amherst)

How to cite this article: Johnson, Joseph M. (2023). Rapuncelia. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 12, 2023(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

Childhood fairy tales echo throughout the rest of our lives, regulating our conduct in society. Indeed, this would seem to have been their main function from the very beginning, beyond their value as entertainment for children. Where women are concerned, such stories have been intended to reinforce hetero-patriarchal norms, describing the ruin that awaits women who ignore their warnings. And women have collaborated in passing these norms from generation to generation, condemning their daughters and their granddaughters to an existence as abject as had been their own. As Karen Rowe puts it: 

“If a daughter rebels, then she risks social denunciations of her femininity, nagging internal doubts about her gender identity, and rejection by a mother who covertly envying the daughter’s courage must yet overtly defend her own choices. Furthermore, romantic tales point to the complicity of women within a patriarchal culture, since as primary transmitters and models for female attitudes, mothers enforce their daughters’ conformity. Yet, traditional patterns, no less than fantasy characterizations and actions, contribute to the fairy tale’s potency as a purveyor of romantic archetypes and, thereby, of cultural precepts for young women.” (Rowe, 238) 

But a new generation is questioning these stories, proposing modern interpretations that undo the fears and prejudices of their forebearers. Women have taken the helm of a great deal of cinematic production in Spain, staking out a new moral to the old stories, updating the cultural software of the fairy tale.

Pilar Palomero reconstructs the iconic story of “Rapunzel” with her film Las niñas (Schoolgirls, 2020), offering a vision of a transgressive damsel, expelled by the witch from her protective tower. She lives in exile with her daughter, the fruit of her sin; the prince, father of the girl and equally guilty of the sin that conceived her, has also been expelled, to Rapunzel-knows-not-where. In her modern version, Palomero gives us a Rapunzel whose exile is filled with penitence and shame, obeying the expectations from her cloistered childhood, recreating the witch’s prison in an attempt to keep her daughter, Celia, safe from the dangers that had shattered her own life. Once more, a prince arrives to frustrate the witch’s plan – but in the form of a new classmate, a girl more advanced in adolescence, who befriends Celia and inspires her to challenge the limits imposed by her mother. Brisa, or “Breeze,” loosens Celia’s hair, and she questions her imprisonment, which consists not only of her mother’s tower/apartment but also of a Catholic school, ruled by watchful, witch-like nuns.

The subtext of rebellion against religious sexual morality comes through in several images: Celia, brushing her teeth, questions the existence of God; dissatisfied with her mother’s lazy, hackneyed reply, Celia undoes her braid, the same gesture of rebellion as in the original story. But she also leans to spit into the sink, and onto the image of a cross, formed by the reflection of the handle on the bathroom’s open door. Later, she and Brisa, the source of Celia’s religious doubts, flout the nuns’ prohibitions and bounce vigorously on the bed in one of the nuns’ cells, just as Rapunzel and her prince had done in the witch’s tower, provoking the fury of their guardians. Brisa invites Celia to come with her to her kingdom, Barcelona…but Celia demurs, arguing that her mother would never allow it. The echoes of the Grimm brothers’ tale are inescapable.

But this time, Celia breaks the cycle, and subverts the magic that springs from her suffering – her tears – using them to cure the blindness, not of the wandering prince…but of her mother, the victim – the last victim – of cloisters and towers. Celia uses the magic to effect a new solution to the true problem, which only she has been able to discern. Her miraculous tears reveal the truth to her mother: That the “dangers” that had moved her to guard her daughter’s virginity so jealously are nothing more than stories and legends; rather than condemnation to the wilderness, theirs was a story of escape, from protective fathers and jealous witches. Celia rewrites the story, and becomes its heroine. The true ruin of Rapunzel had been her captivity, and her exile, her liberation. 



  • Goldstein, Hank (2016). Fare Thee Well [Song]. Music of Freeplay. 
  • Hermanos Grimm (2018). Cuentos de los Hermanos Grimm. Editorial Austral. 
  • Palomero, Pilar (Directora). (2020). Las niñas [Film]. BTeam Pictures.
  • Rowe, Karen E (1979). Feminism and Fairy Tales. Women’s Studies, 6(3), 237-257.

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid