A Slightly More Feminist Reading of Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Whenever something artistic or cultural is problematic there is usually a (perfectly reasonable) reaction to decry it, banish it, and forget it. Sometimes, despite its flaws, it becomes iconic, and sometimes the voice of criticism grows loud enough to revise it.

Such is the recent case with Sleeping Beauty and its modern counterpart Maleficent. I won’t ruin Maleficent for you, but suffice it to say that it revises the original tale; telling it in more feminist light.

But what if the original wasn’t quite as anti-feminist as everyone remembers. Maybe it isn’t all love-at-first-sight, vindictive witches, and true love’s kiss. Maybe there’s another way to look at it.

First, I have to give credit where credit is due. Sister Wendy was the first person to expose me to the idea that, as far as artistic interpretation goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. You should all watch Sister Wendy’s lectures on art. See the clip below for a tidbit of her discussing, the Piss Christ and the value of alternative interpretations.

“I thought what he was saying, in a rather simplistic magazine-y, way that this is what we are doing to Christ. We’re not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We’ve put Christ in a bottle of urine in practice … to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question. It could be. It could not be. It’s what you make of it. ”

I’m going to attempt to make something feminist out of the original Sleeping Beauty. It was made in 1959, so please keep your expectations low. This is going to be half plot summary and half analysis because I have a sneaking suspicion that not many of you all remember the movie that well.

Let’s begin with the betrothal of the newly born Princess Aurora. Within the first four minute, we learn that she’s a bargaining chip in a plan to unify the kingdom of her father, King Stephan, with that of his well-fed friend, King Hubert. It’s pretty hard to find anything subliminally feminist about that. Except all the adult characters also have a similarly utilitarian view of Aurora’s future husband, Prince Philip. He’s as much a pawn in the scheme to unify the two kingdoms as Aurora. In fact, the first thing we learn about both royal children, besides the fact that they exist, is that kingdom unification is contingent upon their betrothal.

Philip looks about as pleased by the news as we are.

SB-philip looks on his bride

All we know about this place is that it’s a monarchy and that people marry their children off as early as possible in the name of political expediency.

It’s during the Sip ‘n See that we get the first whiff that maybe there are some other traditional gender norms in this society that might be worth rebelling against. Three good fairies show up and, using their magic, bestow gifts upon the new baby. What kind of gifts?

Well, Flora starts with the gift of beauty.

sb-beauty

Then Fauna gives the gift of song.

sb-song

That’s it? Not laser vision. Not super strength. Not retractable claws. Not even some bad-ass ice powers, like another Disney princess I know.

frozen ice blast

All the magic in the universe, and these two fairies give the new princess the kind of gifts that will make her more attractive, and ensure that she’ll have traits that men will find valuable. They’re making sure that she’ll grow into the ideal woman, from a man’s perspective. No one is trying to prepare Aurora for a career aside from “pawn in Medieval geopolitical scheme.”

Who knows what Merriweather (good fairy number 3) would have given Princess Aurora had Maleficent not crashed the party. Probably just a set of stainless steel cookware or an extreme fertility to round her out as housewife triple threat.

Given that the fairies are magic, one might think that their gift giving abilities would be nearly infinite, and that means that reason these old enchanted crones give these gifts is because they believe that by making Aurora more appealing they’re helping her.  This could be the the movie telling us viewers that this is how girls should be, but (putting on my Sister Wendy habit for a moment) it also might be some recognition that female characters have to participate in reinforcing the patriarchal system if they want to survive within it. The fairies know the rules of this male-dominated world that they’re living in, and they want to give Aurora a leg up.

But the enigmatic Maleficent does show up, and we have no idea why. We also have no idea why she wasn’t invited. All we know is that based on the body language there’s some serious beef.

SB-body language

These are not the faces of people who are happy to see you

Apparently, she’s so upset at being excluded that she casts a sort of slow-acting version of that Harry Potter killing curse. Aurora will grow “in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her (read: feminine ideal), but before the sun sets on her 16th birthday she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die!”

This is Maleficent's "I'm going to kill your baby" face

This is Maleficent’s “I’m going to kill your baby” face

First, let’s talk about the spinning wheel. It’s a pretty gender-ed tool. Women use spinning wheels. It would be hard to imagine Maleficent casting the same curse on young Prince Philip. We’d all be like, “why is that teenage boy touching a spinning wheel? Is he, you know, that way?” No, the gender-bent version, might involve a really hot anvil, or a freak jousting accident, or something equally Medieval and manly. The spinning wheel works because it is meant to be a symbol of femininity.

SB-tool of death

Death comes for the Princess

The subtext of this curse is that Aurora is going to grow up to become the feminine ideal, and she’s going to be using one of the tools that an ideal woman would use and it’s going to kill her. Maleficent makes the feminine ideal itself the curse. Or maybe it always was. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere a little more feminist-y.

Merriweather is weaker, magically-speaking, than Maleficent, which means she can’t reverse the curse, but she can water it down, like some Country Time lemonade. You probably remember this part. Aurora won’t die, she’ll just take an extended siesta until true love’s kiss causeth her to come awake. “FOR TRUE LOVE CONQUERS ALLLLLL,” the disembodied chorus sings.

sb-merriweather gift

Now King Stephan isn’t just going to sit around idly and wait this curse to ripen. He orders all the spinning wheels in the kingdom to be burned. If the spinning wheel was meant to represent the feminine ideal in the previous scene, what does it mean that the King orders all the destruction of all the spinning wheels? Is he destroying femininity? Is he trying to free women from the curse of patriarchy under which they all suffer? That’s probably stretching the metaphor a little too far, but its interesting to think that maybe everyone is starting to chafe under these pre-existing social constructs.

sb-bonefire

Spindle burning is the Medieval equivalent of bra burning

The notion that the current paradigm isn’t cutting it anymore is reinforced in the next scene by our three good fairies. In response to this bonfire idea, Flora says in frustration, “Ohhh [it’s more like Ohhghrrr], silly fiddle faddle.” And Merriweather agrees, that “a bonfire isn’t going to stop Maleficent.” Fauna, channeling June Cleaver, is a little less worried, “Oh now come have a nice cup of tea, dear. I’m sure it’ll work out somehow.” Fauna is the least empowered of our three fairies, at least at this point in the movie.

King Stephan is male, paternal, and a monarch. That pretty much makes him, by definition, the patriarchy. He’s also the one who ordered the destruction of idealized femininity represented by the spinning wheels, and now two out of three magic fairies disagrees with him. By disagreeing with this plan does that mean that they are advocates for keeping the spinning wheels, and therefore traditional gender norms around? Are our fairies are actually three little Phyllis Schlafly’s who want to preserve traditional female roles? But if that’s true, by disagreeing with the patriarch at all aren’t they already turning gender norms upside down. It’s so confusing!

Let’s untangle the mess. First of all, the fairies don’t actually care about the bonfire. They (or at least two of them)think it’s a waste of time. They think the patriarch’s idea is stupid, and that’s kind of a subversive thing to think. But what will they do? When Merriweather expresses her desire to turn Maleficent into a “fat old hop toad,” we get to view an exchange that reveals a great deal about the system under which the fairies currently live.

“Now dear, that isn’t a very nice thing to say,” Fauna says.

“Besides, we can’t. You know our magic doesn’t work that way,” Flora adds.

“It can only do good, dear, to bring joy and happiness.” Fauna,  still being a killjoy.

“Well that would make me happy.” Merriweather.

In other words, despite their innermost desires, these fairies do not have total autonomy over their abilities (at least at this point in the film, they don’t. This will be important later). They can only be magically exceptional within the confines of a preexisting structure, and, as we just saw, that structure is limiting.

Since using magic is out of the question, what are three old ladies to do? Cook up a scheme.

sb-scheming

Our fairies’ plan is to live as magic-less peasants and raise the Aurora on their own in secret. Fauna is thrilled at the prospect of raising a baby, and since she loves traditional gender roles, this comes as no surprise. Merriweather, on the other hand, is a little more skeptical.

Fauan loves the idea of raising a baby

Per the rules set up in this movie, by rejecting their magic, the fairies must live as peasants A.K.A in poverty. Rejecting the system in which they live they become poorer, but it also means they get more freedom. The fairies’ journey toward freedom is one which we will revisit later, but we see it beginning here in this series of decisions.

Fauna also accidentally stumbles upon something kind of big; “Maleficent doesn’t know anything about love, or kindness, or the joy of helping others. You know, sometimes I don’t think she’s very happy.” Maleficent, who earlier in the film imposed the curse of the feminine ideal on Aurora, isn’t very happy. She’s enforcing the gender normativity of deadly spinning wheels, but it doesn’t seem like that’s panned-out well as a very satisfying career choice. Could it be that Maleficent is having a Betty Friedan-esque existential crisis?

“But if King Stephan is the patriarchy, and Maleficent is the pre-liberated woman, how can they be mortal enemies?” you ask.

That’s great question, and I’m going to tie myself up in logical knots to get out of it. This is the part where I take some serious analytical liberties: King Stephan created the unpleasant situation with Maleficent when he didn’t invite her to the party, which is just one piece of the patriarchal system he created. However, just because the patriarch created the system/situation doesn’t mean he isn’t also a victim of it. The patriarchal system that they’re all living under is an inherently inferior one, and it’s making everyone worse off, even King Stephan. Even the patriarch can be harmed by the patriarchy.

So Aurora goes to live in the woods for 16 years with three old peasant women. When was the last time that three friends threw homosexual innuendo to the wind in the name of child rearing?

three men and a baby

In order to escape Maleficent’s Eye-of-Sauron-like gaze, the three fairies raise Aurora far from the prevailing social structure for 16 years.

Back on Death Mountain, Maleficent is surrounded by idiot pig-men who can’t locate the princess. Maleficent is as frustrated as any pre-liberated woman surrounded by idiot men would be.

frustrated maleficient

It’s so hard to find good help these days, even for Satan’s representative on earth

Over in the forest, Aurora recounts “meeting” a prince in her dreams to all her woodland animal friends, who hang on every salacious detail. Obviously the description of the dream is pretty G-rated, but it still sounded an awful lot like a wet dream to me.

Aurora wet dream

Those birds are a metaphor for Aurora’s O-face.

In a very rom-commy plot twist, Philip just happens to be travelling through these very same woods and hears Aurora singing. Philip and Aurora get to meet for the first time all over again, though they don’t know it. This is where they fall in love.

Let’s talk about “Love at First Sight” for a second. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing  over the fact that Aurora and Philip fall in love the first time they see each other, which perpetuates unrealistic standards for the young viewers. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anytime two super attractive teenagers see each other something is going to happen hormone-wise at first sight. Boner-town, population two.

Boner town

The fairies manage to make it almost all 16 years without getting caught, but they fall off the wagon, magically-speaking. Their attempt to make a gown and bake a cake without magic for Aurora’s birthday is a disaster. It’s pretty suspicious that they haven’t learned how to do anything domestic in the last 16 magic-less years, but I’m going to say that this represents just how from conventional society they’ve gone. They had no need for baking or sewing until they were on the cusp of reentering society. Figuring “What could possibly go wrong?” they use their wands and reinstate themselves into the system from which they previously fled. However, by reverting to their pre-peasant magical state, they get found out.

found out

Maleficent’s crow is wise to their magic making, and reports back to her boss in short order. The fairies reveal the truth to Aurora; telling her that she can’t marry the hot woodsman she just met because she’s betrothed to a prince, not knowing that the two are one in the same.

Once back in the castle, Aurora is apoplectic at the prospect of not getting to hump the stranger from the woods, and why shouldn’t she be upset? He was totally bangable. I definitely get the that they did some heavy petting in those woods.

aurora crying

The fairies decide to give her a moment alone to collect herself. Meanwhile, Maleficent uses this opportunity to help push her curse across the finish line.

maleficent ferosh

As we’ve seen several times in this movie, the women are streets ahead of the men. Let’s take a look at what the supreme patriarchs are doing while Maleficent attempts to kill the princess, nullifing the betrothal/treaty, and rip the kingdom unification project asunder.

hubert philip fight

Kings Stephan and Hubert are getting drunk and brawling with fish. This is the most important day in 16 years, a day on which an evil sorceress has promised (said promise was made in front of these two men) to kill the princess. They could not be more useless.

Meanwhile, the three fairies are realizing that they’ve made two big mistakes:

The first mistake was buying into the concept of betrothal.

merriweather anti prince

This is Merriweather’s “I don’t give a flying fuck about your Anschluss” face

“I don’t see why she has to marry any old prince,” Merriweather says, balking at any political implications.

“Maybe we should tell Stephan about the boy [referring to McDreamy from the forest],” Fauna says, finally coming around.

The second mistake was leaving Aurora alone, which they realize has given Maleficent the opening she was looking for,

fairies realize mistake

The fairies search frantically for the recently disappeared princess

but they’re too late. Aurora has pricked her finger and fallen into eternal slumber. The fairies, per usual, are not taking this challenge lying down. They scheme once again, and put the entire kingdom to sleep until they can figure out where to locate a true love’s kiss. While they’re putting everyone to sleep, they get some news that Prince Phillip has fallen in love with a peasant girl from the forest that he met “once upon a dream.” The fairies put it all together and race home, but not before Prince Philip falls into another of Maleficent’s traps.

philip trap

They find evidence back that the cottage that Philip’s been taken to Mount Doom, the fairies resolve to rescue him, after some initial hesitation.

“We can’t go there,” Fauna whimpers. “We must!” Flora asserts. This is their How Stella Got Her Groove Back moment.

fairies resolved to rescue philip

And this is where the fairies really start to kick some ass. They sneak into into Mount Doom and free the prince,

breaks chains

magically conjure him a sword and shield,

weapons of rightousness

and when they’re discovered trying to escape, they use their powers to fight off their would-be attackers.

Shazaam! Falling boulders become bubbles,

boulders

 

arrows become flowers,

arrows

and boiling water is gently diverted by the arc of a rainbow.

boiling water

Right now the fairies are undefeated and they don’t even have a home field advantage.

Meanwhile, Philip is all like, “I need to GTFO.”

Basically they do everything for Philip. Remember all that jive about how limiting their powers were? Well, they don’t seem terribly limited anymore. They’ve found out how to put bubbles, flowers, and rainbows to a more aggressive use. They’re picking locks and casting off Philip’s literal chains as well as their ow figurative chains. Their magic isn’t just to make nicey-nice any more.

free horse

Merriweather even zaps the life out of Maleficent’s really annoying raven.

kills raven 2

But Maleficent isn’t about to take all this lying down. She’s just been rudely woken from her nap, and she’s not really feeling any of these shenanigans. She does what any demon-possessed enchantress in her situation would do, she transmogrifies herself into a ferocious dragon.

turns into dragon

Philip looks like he’s about to shit a brick. So much for our hero.

philp shits a brick

Let’s compare that to our three newly actualized fairies

merrieweather bitch face

Panic and a (well-placed) sense of urgency, yes, but there’s more. There’s also a hint of what looks like resolve and determination to me. Merriweather has a look that says, “Oh hell no. We did not hide away as peasants for 16 years so that you could get eaten by a dragon at the last possible moment.”

But it turns out that Philip remains as useless as ever, because Maleficent kicks the absolute crap out of him.

fire breath

He even manages to lose his awesome enchanted shield.

shield gone

The fairies are clearly going to have to take matters into their own hands. They cast a spell on the already magical sword (I guess this makes it doubly enchanted?),

enchant sword

which launches it…

sword flies

…into the heart of the Post-Nap/Dragon-Maleficent.

dead dragon

Record skip. “You mean to tell me that it’s the fairies who defeat Maleficent?” That’s exactly what I mean to tell you.

To recap: the fairies are the ones who diminish Maleficent’s evil spell, hide Aurora away for 16 years, figure out she’s missing again, keep the kingdom from freaking out with a sleep spell, find Philip, free Philip, arm Philip with enchanted weapons, save Philip from Goblin hoards, and then use those same enchanted weapons to slay Maleficent, and somehow everyone thinks Philip is the hero?

Not only do the fairies defeat Maleficent, it appears as though they always had the ability to do so. They just weren’t actualized enough to realize it. Earlier we learned that Merriweather wasn’t “able” to turn Maleficent into a hop toad, but that doesn’t comport with what we just saw, which was a magical stabbing. Murder definitely seems less kind than life as an amphibian to me. They had to go through this tremendous journey of self discovery and empowerment before they realized that there wasn’t any physical limit on their power. Those limitations were placed on them by society. Maleficent was the symbol of the pre-liberated woman whose curse was to inflict that status on other women, and killing her is the ultimate act of female actualization.

Philip kisses the Sleeping Beauty, she wakes up, they marry, and live happily ever after.

Okay, so that last part isn’t very feminist. I know I skipped over a bunch of themes or issues that might have complicated my thesis, like the fact that Aurora has basically no agency at all; or how King Stephan ultimately remains at the top of the social hierarchy; or how problematic it is that women are coerced into fighting each other; or how the only kind of love that can wake Aurora is hetero-normative, romantic love.

However, this movie has a lot to say about its female characters. They’re all  more complicated than the male characters; even the teenage Aurora, who we witness punch-drunk in love and then miserably heartbroken.

What do we know about the men? They’re in charge and woefully unable to meet the challenges they face. Stupid, drunk, and inept. Three old ladies are more equipped to kill a dragon than a strapping young prince.

In the first video, Sister Wendy makes the case for taking something that makes us feel comfortable and turn that interpretation around. Let our conventional understanding teach us about what the alternatives might look like. By looking really closely and turning my conventional understanding upside down, I think found the whisper of a slightly more feminist Sleeping Beauty.

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