Series: Archetypal Looking Glass
Spoiler Warning: Mild thematic spoilers for Maleficent
Trigger Warning: Discussion of rape
Image Description: This Pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Burne-Jones shows a sleeping maiden surrounded by her slumbering courtiers. The painting is the last major painting in a series of four entitled The Legend of Briar Rose. A poem was written by William Morris to accompany the paintings, which can be read here.
In the last century there have been a number of movies, tv shows, and books which made use of or adapted the Sleeping Beauty story in various ways. Disney’s Maleficent, Fairie Tale Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty, Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, Jane Yolen’s novel Briar Rose—all these and more. Interestingly I had a much harder time finding movies and tv shows based on Sleeping Beauty than ones based on, for example, Cinderella—the Cinderella story being an entire sub-genre by itself. Perhaps this merely reflects my own viewing preferences, or perhaps it is due to modern preferences in storytelling. Cinderella is very relevant to the modern world, but making Sleeping Beauty relevant and relatable can be harder. Still, many people have tried, and I’ll be looking at a lot of these and how they re-imagine the story of Sleeping Beauty. First though, let’s look at some of the earlier European versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, and at what is undoubtedly the most famous version in modern times: the Disney animated movie. (I have restricted this post quite a bit due to time and space constraints. Hopefully I will get to talk about similar stories which appear in other cultures at a later time, and if you’re interested, I’ve linked to an article at the end of the post which discusses them.)
Once Upon a Time….
In a very early version of the story, written in France during the first half of the 14th century, the role which, in modern tellings, is typically taken by fairies, is instead filled by three goddesses: Lucina, Themis, and Venus. Themis, insulted by the inferior quality of her cutlery, curses the child, called Zelandine, and Venus is the one who softens the curse so that Zelandine can be saved. When the curse takes effect, Zelandine’s lover, Troylus, makes his way to the tower where Zelandine is sleeping. Like in many early versions of the story, he does not kiss her, but has sex with the sleeping Zelandine instead, after first attempting to rouse her and apologizing for “taking liberties.” It is not the sex that wakes her, however, or even the delivery of the child who is conceived as a result of the sex. Instead, she wakes when the child, attempting to nurse, sucks out the poison from her body. In one version of the story “Sun, Moon, and Talia”, found in a manuscript from 1634, follows much the same lines, with an additional plot following Talia’s revival. In this version, Talia and her two children return to the castle of the king who raped her, who is already married. His wife attempts to kill and eat them, but they are rescued.
The Story We Know
Image Description: In this black and white illustration of Perrault’s story, drawn by Gustave Doré, the prince approaches the sleeping princess in her room, which is filled with vines. Image from ArtPassions.net.
There are a number of obvious differences between these older versions of Sleeping Beauty and the version that most people today know, the version which Disney’s Sleeping Beauty follows. The removal of the rape and the change in catalyst for Sleeping Beauty’s revival, from the nursing of her child to a kiss, are an obvious example. The Charles Perrault version, written in the late 17th century, removes the the sexual element completely from the prince and princesses first meeting, and simply has the curse come to the end of its hundred years, although the good fairy’s spell says that at the end of a hundred years “a prince will awaken her.” Once the princess is awake, she and the prince talk at length, falling immediately in love with each other. They get married that very night. For two years the prince leads a double life, keeping his marriage a secret. When they finally go to his castle, the princess’s mother, here specified as an ogress, tries to eat the princess—then queen—and her two children, but the cook tricks her.
In Grimm’s version of Sleeping Beauty, the fairies are instead 13 wise women. Like a number of these early versions, the issue arises due to a lack of appropriate dishes: the king and queen don’t invite the 13th fairy simply because they do not have enough golden plates, due to either oversight or miserliness. When the princess, named Rosamund, is fifteen, the curse—here described as more of a prophecy, though evidently one determined by the wise women—takes effect and she and everyone else in the castle fall asleep. Many princes try to get past the brier which surrounds the castle, in order to rescue her, but all fail until one, a hundred years later—fulfilling the revised prophecy given by the last wise woman. His kiss wakes the princess (and the rest of her castle), and they get married.
So how have these changes affected the implications of the story, and its portrayal of women and relationships? The removal of the rape means that the protagonist is no longer marrying her rapist. That said, a kiss often serves as a euphemism for sex, and by making the kiss (rather than the children) the method of Sleeping Beauty’s salvation, the link between nonconsensual sex and salvation is in some ways strengthened. The history of rape being used for “conversion,” as an attempt to “save” people, makes this connection a pretty terrible one, as does the fact that many people suggest that victims of rape should be in some way grateful for the sex.
As for the the Sleeping Beauty character and her agency in the story, Sleeping Beauty is almost universally problematic. Without the post-curse portion of the story, the Sleeping Beauty character has no chance to develop—not that she develops much anyway, even within the scope usually allowed in a traditional fairy tale. In Perrault’s version Sleeping Beauty is at least awake and able to have a relationship with the prince. We don’t get much of a sense of her character, except that she is fairly confident when speaking to him, but given the style this is to be expected. The prince doesn’t get much development either. We can, however, assume that they got to know each other at least a little bit, and that Sleeping Beauty’s good characteristics extend beyond her physical appearance. That said, it is still a case of love at first sight. While love at first sight may be a time-honored literary tradition drawing on concepts like fate and religion, there’s still a pretty big problem with it: when characters fall in love as soon as they see each other, particularly when the story ends shortly after that, the idea that love is based purely on physical appearance, and that a woman’s most important quality is her appearance, is reinforced. As we will see when looking at other fairy tales, it is possible to stay within a fairy tale formula and still give some sense of character—but it’s not something that happens much for Sleeping Beauty.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
Image Description: The Sleeping Beauty poster above is split into two sections. Above the title of the movie is an image of Philip gazing lovingly at the sleeping Aurora, while the image below shows Philip fighting Maleficent in dragon form. Image found on IMDB.com.
Finally, let’s take a look at the Disney film, “Sleeping Beauty,” and at the way this story is sometimes perceived in modern times. Disney’s princess movies can be extremely divisive, and certain tropes are very strongly associated with them, though in recent years they seem to have made a conscious effort to move away from some of these tropes. Damsels in distress, love at first sight, women taking the role of prizes—all of these are, by some people, associated with Disney and, perhaps partially as a result, with fairy tales themselves. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are easily the worst culprits in this, perhaps not surprisingly since they were the first and third Disney Princess films produced. That said, the Disney Sleeping Beauty is much better in terms of female agency than it might have been. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is in fact based on Perrault’s version of the tale, though without the second half. The movie also contains some nice references—for instance, it takes place in the 14th century, and the names Aurora and Briar Rose reference Perrault and Grimm respectively. The bulk of the movie, however, doesn’t seem to come from any version I can find—for instance, Maleficent is much more fleshed out, and is portrayed as actually evil, rather than just petty and vengeful (traits fairly typical for fairies).
It’s true that Aurora has essentially no agency in this movie—as soon as she refuses her arranged marriage, she runs off and the curse takes effect, thus ending her only real chance for agency in this story. When she wakes, she learns that her problems have been very neatly solved by fate, for the stranger that she fell in love with in the forest, who rescued her from her cursed slumber, is in fact the very prince to whom she was betrothed. Disney tries to make the love a bit less, well, creepy, and perhaps to reference both the dreams mentioned in Perrault’s version and the literary traditions of fated love with “Once Upon a Dream” and Aurora and Philip’s meeting in the woods, though personally I don’t find it satisfying, for much the same reasons mentioned earlier.
The real issue with the film, though, is that Aurora is often treated as the protagonist—after all, it’s named after her, and she’s part of the Disney Princess line up—when she just…isn’t. And that’s actually okay, in my view: the protagonists are the fairies, and since they are also female characters I’m less bothered by Aurora’s lack of agency than I might be–though in the picture above it’s not the fairies who are being advertised, either, but Prince Philip. If Prince Philip is being touted as the sole protagonist of the film, that really is a problem. I don’t think every character necessarily needs to have a huge amount of agency, as long as the lack of agency is not specific to one group–which doesn’t happen in this movie, as long as the fairies are treated as protagonists in their own right, rather than just comic relief or Philip’s sidekicks. Not everyone needs to rescue themselves, because sometimes you just can’t. That said, others have made that point better and more deliberately. All in all, it’s not bad given the constraints of the story, though it could certainly be better. Which leaves the question: why did Disney choose to make this movie in the first place? It’s doubtful they were considering the implications of the story, sexist or not. One reason might be that it follows the same sort of lines as Snow White, which was quite successful. In any case, Disney has since moved on from this formula. They’ve also recently been exploring different kinds of love, such as in the movie Maleficent, which deals with a similar kind of love as that between the three fairies and Aurora in the animated movie, but makes it more clearly the center of the story.
So historically, Sleeping Beauty (at least in it’s European and US forms) has not done very well in terms of female agency. But as is often the case, the most problematic things can be the most inspiring to writers. Many writers have risen to the challenge of expanding on the story of Sleeping Beauty, some perhaps hoping to rise to the challenge of giving Sleeping Beauty a larger role in her own tale.
- Midori Snyder wrote a fascinating article on Sleeping Beauty, where she talks about some of the versions I discussed here as well as some others, including a version that comes from The Book of 1001 Nights.
- You can read Perrault’s Version of the tale.
- You can read both versions of Sun, Moon, and Talia, as well as some other versions of the story, at SagaBook. (Note: Some of these stories are not in English.)
- You can read about the versions I talked about here, including the 14th century story, at Swide.
What do you think of Sleeping Beauty? Which versions of the tale are you familiar with (mentioned here or not), and how do they resonate with you?