The Legacy of Sleeping Beauty: Is She As Passive as We Think?

When I wrote my series of fairy tale origin posts, one major story that I skipped was "Sleeping Beauty." It wasn't because I didn't care for this story as much as the others, but instead that it had a less complex narrative of changing with the times. In fact, this fairy tale is so simple that no matter how many updates modern adaptations incorporate, it is rarely altered so drastically from its roots to the point of being unrecognizable, except in the case of a ridiculous 2016 horror movie called The Curse of Sleeping Beauty. Of all the movies I argued against depicting the theme of "Be pretty, girls, and things might work out," Sleeping Beauty is the biggest outlier. It is probably for this reason that it is the only Disney Princess movie that did not get a direct live-action remake, but instead a creative reimagining with Maleficent, which focused on the more active villain than the mostly passive princess.

Determining how much Sleeping Beauty has requires a closer look at the three most well-known versions of the fairy tale: "Little Brier-Rose" by the Brothers Grimm, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" by Charles Perrault," and the infamous "Sun, Moon, and Talia" by Giambattista Basile, in which the unfortunate princess is taken advantage of in her sleep by a king and awakens to find that she gave birth to two babies. The Grimm version is the most basic one that ends right after the princess wakes up, pinning her as a classic damsel in distress whose story wrapped up immediately upon her rescue. On the other hand, the Perrault and Basile versions both give the cursed maiden two children that a wicked queen tried to turn into food. In the Perrault version, the mother of the prince that Sleeping Beauty weds is a hungry ogre that wants to eat her children, and in the messed up Basile version, the king's jealous wife tries to convince a servant to cook the unfortunate maiden and her children and covertly feed them to the philandering king. Though the sleeping princess still relies on the help of outsiders to protect her children in both of these versions, they imply that the majority of her agency comes from being a mother and doing everything in her limited power to protect her children, something that the Disney versions of the character never establish.

The most popular adaptation of this story is the 1959 animated Disney movie, which calls its princess Aurora and gives her very little agency over her life. In fact, the fairies are the most active characters in the film since they are the ones who set everything into motion. It makes sense, therefore, that the live-action reimagining focuses on the wicked fairy Maleficent rather than Aurora, who is more of a side character in this version. Though Maleficent is portrayed as misunderstood in her movies, none of the fairies allow Aurora an opportunity to take charge of her own story. The Three Good Fairies--Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather--lie to her about her name and identity for most of her life and never tell her about the curse, which gives her little opportunity to defend herself from it. Even when she falls in love, she is told she must marry a prince that she believes she never met, relinquishing control from that aspect of her life as well. The fact that the prince happens to be the same man she fell in love with falls the most closely into the sexist "Be pretty, girls, and things might work out" territory. The ambiguity of the film's protagonist may have contributed to Sleeping Beauty being the only official Disney Princess movie that was considered a flop at the time of its release. Regardless, Aurroa's lack of agency in her story never stood in the way of her becoming one of the most beloved Disney Princesses of all time.

When Sleeping Beauty first went into production, Walt Disney was concerned that the plot was too similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which he tried to redeem by giving it a drastically different art style that resembles medieval tapestries. The thing that makes it stand apart the most from Snow White and many other Disney Princess movies is the importance of faeries in its plot. People like faeries, especially princess fans, which is likely another reason that the Maleficent movies focused more on that world and why Tinker Bell eventually got her own series of books and movies that were separate from Peter Pan. Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil came the closest to incorporating the epilogue of Perrault's fairy tale in which the prince's mother turned out to be a murderous ogre. Instead of trying to kill Aurora's nonexistent children, they made Prince Phillip's mother a tyrant who went around murdering fae and other magical beings, which was a clever way of paying homage to the one element that makes "Sleeping Beauty" stand apart from other Disney Princess movies as well as referencing a lesser-known aspect of the fairy tale. The concept of princesses receiving magical gifts at birth is one that came up in several stories from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. One of my favorite fairy tales from these books is "Fairer-than-a-Fairy." This story starts out similarly to "Sleeping Beauty" but gives the princess more agency, making for a more engaging story overall.

At the end of the day, I am remiss to confess that Sleeping Beauty is among the most passive of the mainstream fairy tale princesses. She is so passive that Disney's live-action remake committee was unable to redeem her as a title character and focused instead on the more active fae villain character for their adaptation. However, as a princess who was cursed at birth and usually had this information withheld from her, Sleeping Beauty was given very little opportunity to take control of her story and can hardly be blamed for her victimhood. Still, Aurora's grace, elegance, and innocence are an inspiration to many. For those of you seeking a more active alternative to this character, I strongly recommend checking out the story "Fairer-than-a-Fairy," which I would love to see turned into a film adaptation someday.


Sugar said…
I like the movie! I guess I love to sleep and the idea of ​​lying quietly while a guy fights a dragon for me isn't that bad...I mean why would I want to risk my life and fight a dragon? hahaha I don't envy that at all.
I always found it charming that Aurora and the prince fell in love without knowing who the other was but each thought that falling in love with a commoner is a "meant to be" feeling. I think Disney could do a remake incorporating ideas from some of the books reviewed here, maybe the prince is a disgraced guy or the unwanted younger brother who is helped by the spirit of the sleeping princess who escaped from her body to complete the various tasks necessary and thus reach it.
Give "ghost powers" to the princess, make them fall in love along the way. Or maybe the whole "true love" thing is that the prince turns out to be the princess's childhood friend...or you know something Japanese style maybe the ghost of the 16 year old princess befriended a boy something younger (about 14) and when he turns 18 he finds out that she is not dead and he goes to save her, since the girl has been frozen in time she still looks like someone 16. Disney just needs to get more ideas.
Lisa Dawn said…
Oh yeah, I love sleeping too. 😂 Have you seen the Sleeping Princess in the Demon Castle anime? I reviewed it here a while ago. It so hilarious! It's about a princess who doesn't care that she was kidnapped and just wants to sleep all the time.
Sugar said…
Not yet! there are so many animes, books and webtoons that I want to read that I don't have enough time!

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