Nationalize Rapunzel: A Modest Proposal for Magical Hair-Based Universal Healthcare

[Enjoy this guest post by frequent OTI contributor and resident expert on all things British, Timothy Swann.]

Healthcare is currently big news on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the Supreme Court recently upheld most of the provisions of “Obamacare,” leading the way to the expansion of government’s role in the healthcare system. Meanwhile, in Britain, things are moving in the opposite direction: increased privatization of the National Health Service. These current events served as the backdrop for my recent viewing of Tangled (Disney’s recent re-imaging of the Rapunzel story), which led me to some surprising revelations on the problems with the confluence of money, politics, and healthcare.

The socialist takeover of the health care system never looked so perky and adorable, until now.

Tangled opens with the key magical element of the film: a plant capable of healing any wound, up to and including death itself, which has been used for centuries by Gothel, a crone, a traditional healer. Its use passes from that of the crone to the preserve of the rich, that is to say, to save the life of the Queen of this Roman-inspired Mediaeval-like kingdom, and her daughter. The princess, rather than the plant, now has the power of healing. It has come under human control: once, a plant, sung to in the right way, would heal, but now, a human must choose to sing in order to do so. Gothel, who will die without the magic, being unnaturally old, kidnaps Princess Rapunzel and locks her up in a tower.

So far, so fairytale. But the control of healing, or medicine, and the purposes for which that control is exercised, is a key political issue. We live in a world where pharmaceutical companies use patent law to restrict drugs from nations that need them, where research is focused not on the areas that will save the most lives but those that will make the most money. Where does this tally with Tangled?

Well, the way I introduced the tale focused on the evolution of Gothel, whose relationship to the sun-plant is very similar to that of traditional medicine men and women with plants that have later become pharmaceuticals (digitalis being an often-cited example, so too penicillin). She knew where the plant was and how to use it for the purposes of healing; however, she, being a Disney villain, did not use it for the aid of her village or the like, but kept it for herself. Nevertheless, the plant is sufficiently under-understood and hidden that she has no need to take protective measures to continue using it.

Rapunzel – take once daily.

When the Queen is ill, the search goes out across the kingdom for any cure. The flower is found, and somehow successfully used. The first focus of the use of this magical medicine in a more practical, methodical manner is to help the very richest in the society. Rapunzel’s birth puts medicine into the hands of full human control. These miraculous abilities can and do preserve life far beyond what was previously possible. Gothel does not want to see such power leaving her control. Keeping Rapunzel for herself echoes with the actions of modern drug companies in a few key ways. The use of lies to keep Rapunzel in her tower, restricted from the people, reminded me distinctly of the use of lies by pharmaceutical companies to prevent generics entering the market. The EU Competition Commission criticized large drugs companies for misleading campaigns and other misuse of marketing to slow down cheaper, generic competitors to their products entering the market. AstraZeneca, for example, had previously been censured for using small-scale samples and unbalanced doses to claim that its refinement of a product nearly out of patent constituted a new, more effective, and separately patentable drug. Gothel’s lies focus on the danger of leaving the tower, especially on “ruffians,” and are built up over years and years to engender a paralyzing fear that keeps Rapunzel within her control. Just as the authorities don’t seem to be able to curtail this ongoing activity by the drugs companies, the authorities of this land seem only able to make the token gesture of the Sky Lantern ceremony in their efforts to retrieve their supposedly-beloved magical princess.

How does the character of Flynn factor into this healthcare system? While Rapunzel serves as a metaphor for all medication, Flynn can be found in the doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières who have defied patent law in order to make affordable AIDS medication for use in Africa. They may be breaking the law, but they’re certainly lovable while doing it. Okay, so Flynn has more reformation than that. He’s trying to steal the crown to buy a castle and only becomes noble through the course of the story. Sadly I can’t find some charming tale of illegal drug smugglers handing out antiretrovirals like a modern-day Robin Hood. Yet.

It must be confessed that Gothel doesn’t hate Rapunzel. She does not abuse her, though her behaviour extends towards neglect. She shows tenderness to her that goes beyond merely the need to control her and her power (though this is open to interpretation; after all, it is really Rapunzel’s decision as to whether she sings and prolongs Gothel’s life). Similarly, few would argue that drugs companies are openly “evil.” Gothel has supplanted Rapunzel’s real parents and keeps her confined because she wants to be young forever, an understandable if usually unrealistic wish. Well, not as unrealistic as we might think. Presently, research funding focuses not on the killers of the young in poorer nations, but to prolong the lives of the old in richer nations. The fiat of philanthropists such as Bill Gates has changed some of this for diseases like malaria, but African Sleeping Sickness, despite the number of people it kills, is way down the funding list. By contrast, cancer and Alzheimer’s, both diseases associated with aging populations, are at the heart of modern medical research. That is well and good, but it’s harder to justify the estimated $50 billion market in anti-aging treatment in the United States, which has little evidence of efficacy to show for its largess. Gothel has crossed that line of desperation just as many first-worlders have: not to just be made well from sickness, but to reverse age and stave off death indefinitely, regardless of the cost.

British socialist pinko liberal commie doctors take their next logical step.

So what should be done to solve the problem of Rapunzel? The film [SPOILERS] has Flynn make her magic unavailable to anyone, even though it would save his life. (Disney kindly spare him, with the magic of Rapunzel’s tears, which of course nullifies the solution, but only after Gothel has been dealt with.) But the kingdom must surely, like our nations, have the constant trouble of sickness. Rapunzel’s hair can only grow longer and longer. The responsibility of the King and Queen should be to distribute a strand of this hair through every part of the land to form hospitals built around this hair, and Rapunzel to sing, say once a day, to give this healing magic not merely to one selfish witch, a single desperate Queen or a charming rogue whom she loves, but every person in the nation, people who by the evidence of the Sky Lantern ceremony are dedicated to her even in her long absence.

The people of this land need, and deserve, a National Hair Service to treat their ills, their aches and pains, and even to extend their lives universally. This life extension would come without, it would seem (barring, of course, dependence on the magic hair), the problems that developed nations are facing in a shortage of care provision for the increasing frail and old population, with only the effort of a woman singing once each day. Nationalize Rapunzel! Don’t just save her from the evil witch, but save her for the good of everyone! As for drugs and drug companies? Well, you can make your own mind up on what’s best to do with them. I know what I would choose to do.

Timothy Swann is that one with the British accent. He talks this sort of nonsense about psychology on the Psycomedia Podcast at psycomedia.wordpress.com and he twitterates on @tetrarchangel.

16 Comments on “Nationalize Rapunzel: A Modest Proposal for Magical Hair-Based Universal Healthcare”

  1. Evenstarwen #

    In a several scenes, it’s revealed that Rapunzel’s hair loses power when it’s cut (when Gothel does so before kidnapping her, when she explains her abilities to Flynn one night, and of course when Flynn cuts it himself). Its magic doesn’t merely depend on her singing, because if that were the case then she could still have used the shorn locks to heal Flynn. The magic must be in Rapunzel’s body itself, with the hair as the conduit, if you will.

    So I don’t understand how strands of hair already separated from her scalp would be effective. Unless you mean to keep the strands alive by creating some sort of network with Rapunzel at the center, unable to move while her hair snakes out across the country to far-flung hospitals, giving life to others while the princess is unable to live her own. This reminds me very much of Ursula K. Le Guin’s fictional city Omelas. In the story, she asks: Could you live in a Utopia free of disease or sadness knowing an innocent soul is paying the price for your happiness?

     
    • cat #

      Agreed, Evenstarwen. Shoddy research, Tim. If Rapunzel hadn’t had her hair cut and she had somehow freed herself from Gothel the only way she would have been able to heal people is to constantly be traveling out to every sick person in the world. Someone make a Biblical reference. I’m sure there’s an applicable quote from Jesus that would serve well here.

       
    • Timothy J Swann #

      Yes, I definitively meant a network. I based this plausibility on my own hair and its extent.

       
      • Evenstarwen #

        Given the hair’s powers this would create an immortal population with Rapunzel forever bound in servitude. Countless stories how shown how quickly concern for other people’s rights and liberties fly out of the window when immortality is on the line.

         
        • Dr_Demento #

          Ah, but now we have the Atlas Shrugged moment. An entire leacherous society dependant on the forced servitude of an individual who is punished merely for daring to be good at what she does. Only this time it is actually true instead of self delusion. With Repunzal refuse to sing and doom millions, but save her own dignity? Or we she toil or way as the martyr queen?

           
          • cat #

            This discussion actually brings up something interesting that the film avoids dealing with by having Flynn cut her hair. Is magical blond Rapunzel immortal? Clearly she has aged so she doesn’t have eternal youth. But if she had continued on under the influence of the magic flower, would it have given her immortality or would the magic have died with her. What if she and Flynn had a child before she lost the magic (reasonable given the original Rapunzel story)? Would that child have inherited the magic?

            Also, a bit disappointed that the “Modest Proposal” wasn’t more in the vein of Jonathan Swift.

             
          • Timothy J Swann #

            I didn’t use Modest Proposal in the original title, it was much more like a propaganda poster: “NATIONALISE RAPUNZEL!”

            I think the idea of a healing dynasty is plausible, given the plant passed in utero to Rapunzel, it would surely be passed to a child (given we’ve assumed that she’s not had her hair cut in this scenario).

             
  2. cat #

    I would argue that Tangled (which, full disclosure, I saw in theaters and disliked immensely) tells a different story. An older, independent woman, the basic “witch” type, has knowledge of traditional healing. But the authority figures (royalty, knights who go searching the land, and whatever doctor I presume they consulted) do not and so they cut the flower (destroying it) in their attempts to heal the queen instead of preserving its healing powers.

    I see this as a story about the apparent selfishness of a traditional, subaltern group (I know it’s just Gothel, but taking it as an allegory let’s say she represents a small community). When the established dominant power grows desperate THEN they are willing to acknowledge the traditions of this group and the “legends” of the flower. But in trying it use it for their own purposes, they end up destroying it. Again, it’s only one flower but you can assume this is the equivalent of using up all of a natural resource.

     
    • Timothy J Swann #

      This does seem a more natural interpretation, though I must confess my above interpretation came to me as I watched the film, so was very natural and clear to me – maybe a better analogy to the Brazilian rainforest or similar?

       
  3. cat #

    The oddness comes in with Rapunzel. There is really no sensible interpretation where using up all of a drug curing a pregnant woman creates a child with healing powers. I mean, you could make an awkward argument about immunity but I don’t think the continuing adventures of Rapunzel will show that her child gets magical hair.

    Another complication is the traditional Rapunzel story. We can’t forget that this is a story about an older, childless woman who takes a child from another family to raise as her own. I haven’t worked it out yet but perhaps it is not only about reclaiming her magic but taking a part of the dominant society to use as her instrument in furthering her own traditions. That is, Mother Gothel teaches Rapunzel the song/traditional healing wisdom. (If you want to call what Mandy Moore does singing…Sorry, sorry!) Unfortunately, Gothel doesn’t seem to have read Audre Lorde.

     
  4. cat #

    I don’t remember the movie very clearly, but I have the vague sense that Rapunzel’s goal was not to see the world out there (a la Quasimodo and Ariel) but to get back to her family and discover where she came from…and see the pretty lanterns. This would mean that Gothel is preventing her from being assimilated back into the dominant power structure and not exactly from helping people. There is no suggestion that the king and queen would want/allow her to spend her time healing people (especially after the whole kidnapping thing) or that she would want to use her abilities that way (especially after the whole Gothel trauma thing).

    Perhaps Gothel lying to Rapunzel particularly about ruffians, can represent a traditional culture fearing/spreading frightening propaganda about the corrupting influence of the outside world. You could also equate it to healers and practitioners who advocate natural remedies vs. drugs even if those drugs contain the same active ingredients (e.g. aspirin).

    Flynn is celebrated for restoring Rapunzel to her parents. But he’s really just trapping her back within this the dominant power dynamic (albeit better than entrapment in Gothel’s tower but if Rapunzel had instead lived in a little village with a kindly old woman who loved her would this return be viewed as positively? …in an allegorical way…obviously she belongs with her parents). Flynn not only puts her back into this power structure which destroyed the plant (out of ignorance) in the first place, but he also destroys the magic of her hair by, horror of horrors, making her a brunette when he lops it off. Flynn actually becomes the villain in this scenario. He is so unwilling to let the traditional group have its healing object that he destroys its value to them.

    Uh oh…just had a moment where I realized the connection to corrupting the pure object with sex and violence. Shaking it off…

    See, this is what happens when you get me started on something I actually know about…

     
    • Evenstarwen #

      As far as I know, Rapunzel thinks Gothel is her mother. She has no reason to want to get back to her family because she doesn’t even know about them. Flynn is also unaware that he has the lost princess in his hands. It is Rapunzel herself who realizes it when she gets to the city and sees the kingdom’s sunburst emblem that she has also painted all around her tower, apparently from subliminal memories.

      Also, it’s difficult for me to view the denial of Rapunzel’s magic hair to Gothel as villainous when her use of it is absolutely selfish and exploitative. There is no indication that it’s ever used for anything other than one woman’s desire to stay young forever. (Rapunzel’s song about her daily routines doesn’t mention sessions of singing for sick villagers who surely would have come by droves to the tower if her powers were known.)Even the flower, when it was still alive, was used exclusively by Gothel and kept from whoever else might need it by hiding it under an overturned basket. The queen may also have exploited the flower similarly, but it may be argued that it benefits the people in some way by keeping a good and well-loved leader alive and ensuring the continuance of a line that by all accounts, has been good for the kingdom. This is confirmed in the part where Rapunzel and Flynn wander about in the city: it is a lively, bustling place, indicating that despite their grief at losing their daughter the king and queen have not neglected their responsibility.

      As for Rapunzel becoming a healer-princess…I am not so sure her hair will grow back, as this article assumes. At one point she shows Flynn a lock of brown hair hidden among the gold and explains that it lost its power when cut. Admittedly it may have been cut only the previous week and hasn’t had enough time to grow back yet, so there’s some leeway with that. If it does grow back, the only practical ways for her to become a healer would be to travel from place to place, as you said in another comment, or for the sick to come to the palace. Other kingdoms will no doubt hear about it and want their share of unlimited healthcare. Who wants to bet there’s going to be a world war soon?

       
      • cat #

        Very valid points. I don’t remember the plotline of Tangled as well as I can recall the rest of the Disney canon given how much I disliked it. I still think my interpretation has some likelihood but I agree it’s not an easy argument to make.

        Something kind of hit me when you said “exploitative”. Rapunzel is almost the personification of the magical flower. She is kind of what a natural resource would be like if it were given a voice. We feel her exploitation in a way that I don’t think a lot of us feel the exploitation of the plants, etc. that allow us to live our lives in the way we’re accustomed to.

        Your point about keeping a “good and well-loved leader” alive is probably supported by the movie but it makes me feel squicky for some reason.

         
        • Evenstarwen #

          It’s squicky because people who live in a democracy have the ability to “fire” their leaders when they’re no longer acting in the nation’s best interests. But for those who live under an absolute monarchy, like most fairytale kingdoms, if the king and queen die without an heir, they risk the chance of the throne being taken by another line which may not turn out to be as benevolent as the previous one. Or if the king goes wild with grief upon losing his wife and unborn child, that would suck for the people, too. What can I say, no world is perfect, even fairytale ones.

           
          • Timothy J Swann #

            “It’s squicky because people who live in a democracy have the ability to “fire” their leaders when they’re no longer acting in the nation’s best interests.”

            I am certainly more cynical than you on this point. I cannot vote for a government in my country that does not favour increased privatisation regardless of how against the public will that is and remains.

             
          • Timothy J Swann #

            Ivan the Terrible only went terrible after the death of his wife. So that is a big risk, yes.