Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 8: Sleeping Beauty

You'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.

It's interesting to look at which fairytales are the most popular, the most enduring, and the most adapted. When there are stories all over the world of women and young girls fighting forces of evil and magic, saving themselves and their families with their intelligence, strength, cleverness, and steely resolve, why are the ones with passive female protagonists so popular? And particularly, what it is about sleeping beauties?

The history of folklore is absolutely full of women in long and/or enchanted sleeps awaiting men to awake them. Some of the oldest are Brynhildr of Norse mythology and Sittukhan from "The Ninth Captain's Tale" in The 1001 Nights. Giambattista Basile's "Sole, Luna, e Talia" or "Sun, Moon, and Talia" very clearly influenced Perrault's "La Belle au Bois Dormant," which the Grimms cleaned up considerably for their version, "Briar Rose." Basile's story begins with the already-married king raping the sleeping princess, Talia, who awakens after the birth of her twins. The king stops to check in on them later, finds Talia and the twins, and returns home, speaking of them often. The queen jealously demands her servant find and kill the children and feed them to the king, but the servant cannot bear to kill the children and kills goats in their stead. The queen decides she must have Talia dead, too, and prepares a fire in the courtyard in which to burn Talia to death. Naturally the king appears at the last moment to save Talia, they discover the children still alive and well, and the queen is herself burned in the flames. Perrault's version changes the king's first wife into the king's mother, because cannibalism and rape are acceptable, but adultery is where we cross the line. Interestingly, the Grimms have a fragment story, "The Evil Mother-in-Law," which includes Perrault's queen mother, but the heroine, not the cook, suggests serving animals instead of the children. The story was not finished and never published.

What the Grimms did publish, however, is much closer to the Disney film of 1959 than Perrault's version. Where Basile and Perrault have their heroines wake up closer to the beginning, maybe just a little before the halfway mark of the story, Briar Rose's awakening is the climax of the Grimms' version. Briar Rose as a story seems to fit better with the Disney formula for fairytale movies; obviously they weren't going to have a cannibalistic queen or mother-in-law gleefully devouring her rival's children or her grandchildren. The Grimms also have Briar Rose awakened by a kiss, which was not, in fact, common to sleeping beauty stories; Talia and Sittukhan were awakened by the piece of flax being removed from their fingers, and Perrault's heroine awakes after 100 years, with the prince conveniently already kneeling before her. While Basile's story involves literal rape, the Grimms' story is often credited with introducing the unsavoury sexual aspect to the story. All things considered, the kiss is a lot less unsavoury than its predecessors, but it does introduce the idea that Briar Rose's story is one of sexual awakening rather than just growing up in general. And it is noteworthy that Disney, despite claiming Perrault to be their primary (well, secondary - they claim Tchaikovsky's ballet as the basis for the movie, but the ballet claims to be based on Perrault while actually depicting more accurately the Grimms' version) influence, used the Grimms' awakening device and the Grimms' shortened story.

You'll notice there hasn't been much discussion of the evil being in the story, and that's largely because she mostly does not matter in the fairytales. Maleficent's prominent villain status in the film is largely original to Disney. In the fairytale versions, occasionally there are wise men or women who prophesy the princess's death due to flax or hemp, but the ones that directly inspired Maleficent were the tales involving a number (ranging from 3 to 13) of fairies, all but one of whom were invited, and the uninvited one showing up and cursing the princess. Unlike Maleficent, however, after the curse, they disappear. They do not hound the prince attempting to rescue her, they do not search for her during her adolescence, they do not appear in the story at all, not to gloat, not to turn into dragons, nothing. Of course, that makes for a pretty boring villain in a film, so Maleficent was given a much bigger role. There is not much in the fairytale past on which Disney was drawing, though. It's even hard to draw parallels between Maleficent and the cannibalistic wife/mother of Basile/Perrault. The fairytale women were motivated by jealousy of usurpation in the king's love, which is really not a concern of Maleficent's (consciously ignoring the 2014 film). Maleficent in the 1959 film seems to draw more on a much more ancient tradition in folklore and mythology of the actual devil or an actual demon being the villain of the piece: evil itself as the opponent. Maleficent, the mistress of all evil, she and all the powers of hell: she is the ultimate evil, the ultimate opposition, she has no superficial motivation, she is just bad. She and Chernabog from Fantasia are, unless I am forgetting another one, the only times Disney has used the actual devil as the villain, and Chernabog doesn't have the story or, you know, speaking role that Maleficent has. Maleficent is fascinating, as a character and as a device in the film. But talking about "Maleficent in the fairytale" is just false on its face. There is no Maleficent in the fairytales. But damn, that would've been something.

On the topic of devices, though, that's really all Aurora amounts to. While Cinderella had much more of a personality to her than Snow White, Aurora feels like a small step back. Aurora barely has any lines, and we don't learn very much about her as a person. We skip all of her growing up. We see she can be a little cheeky, she's definitely curious (something common to all sleeping beauties, which often results in their initial demise), but the biggest thing about her is her beautiful voice and her physical beauty. That's why Philip goes after her, that's why she gets saved. And that's why the story gets so much feminist criticism. Perrault is particularly, unsurprisingly, pointed in his moral of "La Belle au Bois Dormant:"

A brave, rich, handsome husband is a prize well worth waiting for; but no modern woman would think it was worth waiting for a hundred years. The tale of the Sleeping Beauty shows how long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral.

Yeah, those wacky kids not wanting to wait 100 years to get married. Things were better in the days when women were content to sit around doing nothing waiting for their husbands to appear! SIGH. It's more or less impossible to defend sleeping beauty stories, particularly the ones popular since and including Disney's film. Their continued popularity is baffling. Stories that so clearly uphold patriarchal gender expectations do not speak to modern times or modern people. These stories do not reflect the world we have, nor do they reflect the world we want. Perhaps it's merely nostalgia? (Legitimate question. I have no idea. That is my only guess.) In fact, at the time Sleeping Beauty was not a great success for Disney, and the next time they'd return to fairytales wasn't until 30 years later with The Little Mermaid.


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