Sleeping Beauty: Adding Agency to a Dark and Gruesome Story

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I thought since I gave Once Upon a Dream such a hard time in our Love Songs Extravaganza, I would take a closer look at Sleeping Beauty and its many versions. Let me tell you, that is one messed up story. It’s so weird and sickening, firstly I don’t know how anyone came up with it. Secondly, I don’t know why Disney thought they could turn it into something normal-ish.

*I’m just telling you now, this post involves frank talk of virginity (and I’m not pleasant to it), rape (I will provide a trigger warning), and general feminist feelings. Mel and I have said this numerous times and I’m stating it again: We have no interest in debating the meaning of feminism. Now that the PSA is done, on with the meta!

By far, the Grimm’s version of Sleeping Beauty most resembles the Disney movie. But there are two other versions of Sleeping Beauty that are fairly well-known. One is by Charles Perrault and the other by a man named Giambattista Basile. They all share the similarity of the spindle, sleep, and a royal dude swooping in to save the day. They don’t, I was a little surprised to find, all share fairies.

Despite what I said about Once Upon a Dream, if you asked me which version of Sleeping Beauty was my favorite, I would tell you it was Disney’s. I’ve had a stage in my life where pretty much every Disney movie has been “my favorite.” Sleeping Beauty was no exception. So I gave this song a hard time a couple weeks ago, but don’t let that fool you.

I think Disney’s interpretation of the different fairy tale versions gives the story some more development, conflict, and definitely made it a lot less gorier and more accessible for audiences to enjoy. Let’s go through each version.

Perrault
The story starts out similar to what we’d expect. There is a big party for the christening of the princess. Seven out of the eight fairies are invited and then the eighth one shows up scorning this rejection. No one invited her because they thought she had died. She curses the princess but then the curse is lessened by the final fairy’s gift. This is all the stuff we know. We expect this. There is no prince, however, that is betrothed to the princess (like Philip and Aurora). And really, the fairies’ gifts aren’t important, not like in the Disney film.

sleeping beauty perralt

But after the random prince braves the thorns around the castle to wake her, something really weird happens. Apparently the prince’s mother is an ogre and orders the chef to cook her grandkids so she can eat them. The cook substitutes animals for the children, like when the Huntsman in Snow White tries to pass off a pig’s heart for the princess’. After she believes she ate her grandkids, the evil ogre queen then wants to eat the figure we know as Sleeping Beauty. The chef reunites the princess with her kids and again serves animal, but this time the ogre figures out and wants to kill the cook. The prince arrives to save the day and the queen dies in her own plot.

Definitely not the Disney story we know. So what was the moral of this story supposed to be? I have no clue. I know fairy tales were grim to teach children lessons, but was the lesson here? WHAT DOES THE CHILD EATING OGRE WOMAN REPRESENT?

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Okay, so what did Disney take from this story? Well, they took the notion of the fairies and one feeling rejected and taking revenge. They had one fairy able to reverse the curse a bit and put everyone to sleep while the princess slept. There were thorns around the castle and a prince and a kiss. There was the spindle. They also found Sleeping Beauty’s name. The princess in Perrault’s story names one of her children L’Aurore, which Disney changed to Aurora.

sleeping beauty painting

The princess in this version has very little agency, much like our Aurora. The curse hangs over her head and has to be fulfilled before anything can move forward. As a result, the whole story takes place in a sort of waiting room and so the princess’ growth is skipped over to reach the conflict.

Both princesses are shielded from their gruesome fate—spindles being kept from them and living in a state of ignorance. Does it send the message women cannot take care of themselves? Why didn’t anyone ever tell the princess she was cursed? Can anything even be done? The king and queen thought they could trick fate by burning the spinning wheels.

Let’s pause on Perrault and move to Basile. TRIGGER WARNING: rape.

Basile
I am resisting the urge to swear heavily. Basile’s version is probably even more messed up that Perrault’s. Did you hear that? Something is worse than the child eating ogre.

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So Aurora is named Talia here and there is no evil fairy that curses her. Instead wise men/astrologers predict the future, totally annihilating the power role the fairies had in the previous version. ‘Fairy’ is not inherently female, but Disney made their fairies all women and the Perrault and Grimm version never state the sex of the fairies. Perhaps to leave it ambiguous or maybe they assumed we would assume female. Or this is me assuming female and demonstrating my own gender labeling based on expectations that ‘fairies’ are more feminine than masculine.

Anyway, Talia is asleep and her father is so miserable that he leaves the castle, unlike the previous story where everyone was put to sleep so they would be together once the curse was broken. By chance, a random king walks by and sees the castle. He goes inside and rapes Talia. Then he leaves because what else is he going to do with an unconscious woman? Talia somehow gives birth to twins and one of them sucks her finger. Similar to the Snow White story where she falls and the piece of apple she ate is dislodged from her throat so she wakes up, Talia’s baby sucks the spindle right out of her finger.

I want to just pause here. Look it’s 2015 and rape is still not treated with the respect and anger is deserves. I could throw statistics of rape at you, about how many women have been abused, how many men don’t think rape is a crime or that they can’t even properly define rape, how many rapists never serve time, how women are treated upon reporting the abuse, how sexual abuse is categorized as one of the most severe traumas a person can go through, victim blaming, not believing rape claims despite the number of women that lie about rape is astronomically low, etc.

Basile’s story was published in the 1600s, so if it’s still a mess today, you know it was then.

The worst thing about this might be how this story props up the rapist as the hero. After all, his raping of an unconscious woman he’d never met before, made her bear two children and one of them sucked the spindle right out of her finger! Thus, Talia would have never woken up if not for her rapist. That is so sickening and disgusting. It turns the villain into a hero and the victim and into someone that should be… grateful?

Back to the Golden Globes joke: “And Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.” Look, it probably made sense even if you just knew the Disney story, but it makes more sense with Basile’s story for greater context.

Worse, when Talia wakes up and is confused and probably terrified she now has two babies, the king eventually returns. Just because he probably wanted to rape her again. Who knows? But probably. Of course he finds her and explains what happened AND THEY GET MARRIED.

I don’t think any woman would willingly choose to marry their rapists. On a related note, marital rape is another huge issue that many people refuse to admit or acknowledge. Husbands can’t rape their wives (and vice versa) because they’re married. No, I’m sorry. Consent once is not consent always. Both partners need to give consent every single time. Marriage does not equal ownership of the other person’s body.

But back to this story. Here’s more good news: The king is already married! Look at this raping, adulterous bastard! He’s the hero of the story, everyone. Basile, you need counseling. Neither of these things is okay.

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So the queen finds out about Talia and the babies. She writes Talia, pretending to be the king, and asks Talia to visit and bring the babies. Has Talia just been living in her castle with no subjects since waking up? Did Talia exist just to be raped?

Like Perrault’s story, the queen wants the cook to cook the babies and the cook substitutes animal meat. The queen serves it to the king and then tries to have Talia burned at the stake—as if Talia didn’t already have enough shit going on. The perfect king finds out what is going on and punishes the queen by burning her and marries Talia, as I mentioned above.

I hate how both these stories portray the queens as nothing more than evil, jealous women. How about putting some blame on the man? And why is cannibalism so prominent in both these stories? What is it a symbol of? It must be a symbol, right? It’s not an anti-cheating story since Sleeping Beauty and the king thwart the queen and are together in the end. Anyone, please, help.

Disney

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Okay, so Disney took these very weird stories and maybe some lesser known versions, too, and turned it into the pretty movie we now have.

The biggest change was reconstructing Aurora as a character and the love story. However, I’d say the love story more so since Aurora as a character is still pretty flat. She’s pretty, she sings, and she’s kind. Maleficent and the other fairies probably got the biggest face-lift, compared to Aurora.

Sleeping Beauty follows the pre-Renaissance Disney formula pretty well. It’s short, it’s got a one dimensional villain, a love story, and an un-dimensional princess. However, it upsets this mold in one crucial way. While we love to say Prince Eric is the first Disney prince with a personality, we have to admit that the first attempt at this was made with Philip.

  • Philip: A Healthier Love Story

Snow White and Cinderella preceded this film and firstly, both their princes were named Prince Charming. While Snow’s prince showed up briefly at the beginning and then again at the end and had a stalker-ish song, Cinderella’s prince had one line and was only present during the ball. By the time Disney made Sleeping Beauty, they’d also done Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, two films that had developed their male characters a little more. So they followed that trend with SB and we got Philip! Maybe we’d give Philip Eric’s title if he didn’t suddenly stop talking once he gets captured by Maleficent.

sleeping beauty phillip

Disney recognized how problematic and messed up some of SB’s stories were and knew it had to start by attempting to fix that with the love story. Aurora and Philip’s families know each other, which instantly reduces the creepy factor, but also makes the story more believable. Think about the other stories where a prince just randomly happens by the castle and goes inside. Disney’s idea of having the families be old friends means they can’t live too far apart and there’s higher probability their kids will meet. Of course, they’re also betrothed, but that doesn’t really play a part till later.

When they have their real first meeting in the forest, as you read when I talked about Once Upon a Dream, it didn’t sit as well with me. But after going over these stories again, it is ten times better and also probably a little uncomfortable because Sleeping Beauty is an uncomfortable story. Disney worked with the source material as best they could. Aurora initially refuses, as Talia probably would have had she been awake. Also, Disney pre-Renaissance ladies have a thing for running from their men. Snow White runs away as soon as she meets him and hides in the castle, while Cinderella runs at the ball.

sleeping beauty cuddling

However, Philips proves himself to be semi-decent and they both go all googly-eyed over each other. While Aurora doesn’t fully run, she is reluctant at first. They make a plan to see each other later, both of them having no clue that everything is about to go bananas. Philip and Aurora return home—scenes we get to see! Which is so great. Philip is fleshed out here with the relationship with his father and showing us he’s determined to follow his own path. In Aurora’s scene we see that she feels like she got what she wanted in her song I Wonder.

Having them meet, while the audience knows they’re betrothed, and seeing them fall in love is so great. It makes us yell at the screen in frustration when Philip tells his father he’s not marrying Princess Aurora. It makes us sad for Aurora when she thinks she’ll be forced to marry someone else. It adds tension to the story as we wait for the revelation to strike both of them.

sleeping beauty dance

The love story ends on a healthy/happy note when Philip kisses her awake and breaks the spell. He reunites her with her family and they dance. Disney often uses dance as a symbol of love and intimacy and even elevates the scene by having them dance on a cloud. They’re on cloud nine, in the heavens, whatever you want to see there. But I take it to mean they’re insanely happy and all good things will come for them moving forward. Much better than the other versions!

  • Maleficent: A One Dimensional Villain, But a Total Badass

The evil fairy in Perrault’s and Bastile’s versions don’t do much besides show up in the beginning to curse the princess. Disney’s film integrated Maleficent into the story and made her totally awesome. Again, she is a flat character since she really hates Aurora for no reason and does nothing but try to destroy her life, but she’s compelling to watch and definitely plays a bigger role in the story than any other version.

sleeping beauty FOOLS

Because Disney gave more agency to the fairies, which I’ll get to soon, Maleficent has to spend a healthy part of the film trying to discover Aurora’s hideout. Her crow is an extension of her and we dislike that little shit as much as we dislike Maleficent.

Maleficent also captures Philip! She has so much more to do in this version, which is great. She’s also got minions to order around and can turn into a dragon and work her villainy like no one else. Maleficent stands in everyone’s way: the king and queen are afraid of her, her mission is to destroy Aurora, Philip needs to escape from her, and the fairies want her to stop destroying their flowers.

  • The Fairies

I know we all like to say the fairies were useless.

sleeping beautiy cake candles life copy

However, Disney also gives them a bigger role. They don’t just lessen Maleficent’s curse, they also get names (as does everyone, actually!) and then come up with a way to hide Aurora. The fairies in the other versions were pretty useless, except when they put everyone to sleep. Here they also play a bigger role and raise Aurora. Of course, we skip over that period to get to the conflict, as I mentioned in Perrault’s section.

But we do spend some time with them getting ready for Aurora’s surprise party. We see the dress debacle which is so important since it carries though to the the final scene! The book closes with the dress still changing colors. They also chase after Aurora when Maleficent pulls her into the trance and lures her to the spindle. They care for the little girl they raised for sixteen years.

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Arguably, it’s really the fairies that save the day. They put everyone to sleep, not to mention tuck Aurora into bed and cry by her side. Then they sneak into Maleficent’s compound instead of just poofing in. They rescue Philip and do everything for him. Seriously. The fairies are useless since their magic fight alerts the crow and then they leave Aurora alone in the castle, but they do save the day. Which just goes to show you, we can’t all be the hero all the time.

  •  The Brothers Grimm

What else did Disney do to the story? Not much. I told you previously that the movie follows the Grimm’s tale closest. The Brothers Grimm really did the most work re-patching the story into anything we’d want to watch on screen.

The opening narration tells us the king and queen have wanted a child for a long time. In the Grimm story, they are also longing for a child and a frog pops out of nowhere and says they’ll have one. Cue the party!

The Grimm tale tells us why the fairies were invited, though they are called “wise women” here. Point is, they were invited so they’d be “kindly disposed towards the child.” And of course, one was not invited, the thirteenth (hehe), because they were short a place setting! Seriously? You’re a king and you can’t find another plate?

are you effing serious

The Disney movie cuts this detail out and Maleficent just pops up and scares the crap put of everyone.

sleeping beauty what an awkward situation copy

However, the fairies/wise women give gifts of beauty. The Grimm tale also has them give virtue and wealth among others we never hear. The Disney version subs in song. I like these changes since she doesn’t need more wealth—although, maybe they do need money to buy more plates. Song goes in line with Disney just fine since all their women and men sing.

Virtue is something I’m glad they cut that since the concept of “virginity” is just that, a concept. Women are pressured to be a virgin because it makes them pure and chaste and the moment they “give it away” or “lose it” they’re not worth anything anymore. Or they don’t have a “gift” to give to their husband. No, sorry, ladies. That is untrue. Don’t believe it. Does the man need a gift to give his wife? No, he doesn’t. While women are vilified for being a “prude” or a “slut,” so you can’t win either way, the concept of virginity does plague boys in a different way. Boys are encouraged to get rid of it as soon as possible. I could go on for hours about this and tell you that the hymen does not actually rip (so what is “virginity?”), but it’s time to get back to Sleeping Beauty.

Or, hey, maybe virtue didn’t mean virginity at all and again, that’s my own bias coming in. Maybe it just meant that she would be a good, moral person. But given the double standard around virginity and taking into account when the Grimm’s version was composed, I’m going to see it as purity.

Beauty is bothersome, but that’s Disney. And fairy tales. And everyone’s perception of women ever, throughout time.

sleeping beauty sad aurora

I know, Aurora. I know.

Same story goes on from here: last fairy lessens the severity of the curse, spindles are burned, and then it changes. Disney definitely ups the ante here and deepens the plot with having the fairies attempt to hide Aurora, as previously discussed.

Disney also found inspiration for some of its imagery from the Grimm story. See:

“She climbed up the narrow, winding stairs and arrived at a small door.”

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That does remind us of the scene Disney put together, doesn’t it? I love the music in that scene, the eerie tenseness it provides. The green tint also strengthens the atmosphere. It makes it very clear to us that Aurora is in a trance, something none of the other stories have done. It gives Maleficent’s villainy more power, something Disney did consistently.

Here’s the moment the prince approaches the castle:

“When the prince approached the thorn hedge, it was nothing but large, beautiful flowers that separated by themselves, allowing him to pass through without harm, but then behind him closed back into a hedge.”

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The fairies do change Maleficent’s arrows during the escape to flowers. Different context, yes, but Disney probably pulled some inspiration from this moment. Side note: the escape is one of my favorite scenes.

What to Take Away
I know I said a lot of things. As you can see, Sleeping Beauty has a long history and the stories are really bizarre and pretty messed up.

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Disney took the skeleton of the Perrault and Basile’s versions, while embracing the Grimm tale more fully. They left out the creepy cannibalism aspects and the rape and added more conflict and agency to the story.

The fairies bestow gifts, lessen the curse, come up with a plan to shield Aurora, fail, put everyone to sleep, help Philip defeat Maleficent.

Aurora is not just the princess that is cursed, pricks her finger, and sleeps. She has friends in the forest, wants to fall in love and does, and then sleeps. Disney did a good job with working what they had.

Philip is not a rapist! Yay, Philip! Instead he’s not just the nameless prince that happens about. He meets Aurora, he’s determined to find her again, he’s really close with his horse (original Sven and Kristoff, anyone?), and a good dancer.

The characters are better, while still be arguably flat. The more offensive aspects of the story have been erased: the rape, “virtue,” and jealous wives/queens.

In short: Disney took this dark and gruesome tale and turned it into a story we heard once upon a dream. (Cheesy? I tried.)

What do yo guys think? Have you read the original Sleeping Beauty stories? WHAT DOES THE ORGRE CHILD EATING QUEEN MEAN? Someone help me.

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Cheers,

M&M

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