This article is part of a series. You can read the introduction here.
‘This is the 14th century father, you’re living in the past!’
Based on the fairy story by Charles Perrault, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a Princess named Aurora who is cursed by the Evil Sorceress Maleficent as revenge for being snubbed by her parents – the Royal Family. The curse dictates that Aurora will grow in beauty and grace, only to be pricked in the finger by an enchanted spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and die. Luckily, three good fairies counteract the curse by altering the death clause to an ‘eternal sleep’ to be broken only with ‘love’s first kiss.’ Despite hiding Aurora in the woods to raise her as their own for 16 years, the good fairies cannot stop the curse from being fulfilled, and the only way to save Aurora is to send the kingdom to sleep with her and find her true love –who just happens to be the Prince she is unknowingly betrothed to.
- Sleeping Beauty – Princess Aurora
- Queen Mother (Princess Leah)
- The three Good Fairies – Mistress Flora, Mistress Fauna, and Mistress Merryweather.
Yes – Maleficent.
Early in the film Maleficent crashes the party to celebrate Aurora’s birth, offended she wasn’t invited. For this discrepancy, she curses the baby princess after two of the three good fairies have blessed her with magical gifts, and whilst there definitely seems to an unspoken history between her, the royal family, and the fairies, the sole motivation we are given for Maleficent’s villainy is this particular story is her exclusion from the celebrations alone. Is killing a baby an appropriate response for not getting a party invite? Not sure I can sympathise with her on that.
Despite her weak incentive, Maleficent is by far one of the most memorable and powerful Disney villainesses. Even the good fairies say her powers are ‘too great’ which is presumably why they can’t completely undo her magic, and even after all their efforts to prevent it, Maleficent simply hypnotises Aurora towards her doom. While the three good fairies have power in sisterhood, Maleficent derives power from isolation, with only her pet raven and goblin army for company in the ‘Forbidden Mountains’ where she rules as ‘the Mistress of all Evil.’ Her animalistic design – horned headdress, grey hued skin, yellow eyes, and black ragged cloak – casts a bat’s silhouette, and hints at her incredible transformative abilities later in the film.
She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, but is she a positive female role model? On the one hand you could argue Maleficent’s fierce power and dominance, but her adversarial aggression towards every other female (and male) character casts her more negatively to me, as her independence can be more easily read as maniacal supremacy.
The three good fairies – true to their kind and ‘cuddly’ appearance – treat Aurora’s wellbeing as their top priority for the entire film to protect her from Maleficent’s wrath. And between them, they also provide the first positive examples of true sisterhood in the Princess catalogue so far. Whether they’re actually related or not, they definitely act like a real family – bickering and all – and it’s genuinely endearing.
They also have refreshingly distinct personalities from each other – Flora is the ‘leader’ and the bossy one, Fauna is the middle child and the more sweet and mild one, and Merryweather is the younger, grumpier one that argues Flora constantly. This affects their difference of opinion concerning Maleficent as well, as Merryweather is determined to use her magic to get revenge, but Fauna doesn’t think she’s ‘so bad’ and points out they can only use their magic for ‘good and happiness’.
There is also an obvious parallel with nature as their names all have connections with plants, animals and weather, which is perhaps where their powers stem. As they debate where to hide the princess, Flora suggests turning her into a flower, but Fauna – logical as usual – points out that ‘Maleficent would send a frost to kill it’ implying that Maleficent’s powers might be rooted in nature also. We could even surmise from this comment that the fairies might be connected to spring, and Maleficent to winter, deepening their opposition to one another. It also means that Maleficent might be a similar creature to a fairy – but obviously not a good fairy, which the good fairies use to their advantage as they say she cannot understand ‘love and kindness’ – exactly what they use to hide Aurora.
In the woodcutter’s cottage that they raise Aurora in, the fairies induct her into their family by renaming her ‘Briar Rose’ (another plant reference like ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’.) Aurora seems happy enough living with her ‘aunts’, but complains that they treat her like a child, as she is not allowed to be truly independent – a typical frustrated teenager, really. And like a typical Disney Princess, she also confides in her animal friends that she dreams of meeting her prince to remedy her loneliness.
Maleficent’s curse and her pursuit of fulfilling that curse drives the fairies to protect Aurora by raising her in the woods for 16 years, meaning that Maleficent and the good fairies supply the motivation, development, and resolution of the story, and making the plot driven almost entirely by its female fairy cast. Most of the film feels really like a battle between the fairies and Maleficent with others simply caught in the crossfire.
Even in the final battle between Prince Phillip and Maleficent in her fiery dragon form, the good fairies are there to help him flee his prison in the Forbidden Mountains and summon the Sword of Truth and Shield of Virtue (‘weapons of righteousness that triumph over evil’) to his aid. Flora even says an incantation to help his sword fly true into the dragon’s heart.
But sisterhood is also a key positive driving force here. After all, are they doing all this just to get Phillip a wife? Or to thwart Maleficent once and for all? Nope. It’s all for the sake of their maternal bond with Aurora and putting her happiness before their own.
The male characters are:
- King Stephen – Aurora’s father
- King Hubert – Phillip’s father (Stephen’s old friend)
- Prince Phillip
- Samson (Prince Phillip’s horse)
‘Fondly had these two kings dreamed their kingdoms would unite.’
The male characters have little interaction with the female characters, or influence on the plot for that matter. The most significant event is that Phillip and Aurora are arranged to be married by their parents at the very start of the film, and this sets their playful romance in motion. The next time they met – 16 years later – they have no idea that either of them are royalty, but are drawn together through a kind of ‘magical’ bond of destiny.
Right from the start, Phillip is given far more personality than the previous two Princes we have seen in Snow White and Cinderella, as we see him wrinkle his nose with genuine childish ‘ickiness’ at the sight of the baby Aurora when presented to her. Even into adulthood, he remains cheeky, charming, and adventurous evidenced by his play fighting with Samson in the woods. His courtship with Aurora, however, is typically short – a quick dance in the woods, a few exchanged words, and that’s it: true love.
The good fairies deep desire to protect Aurora is a familial one, but it may also stem from their connection to her magical properties, which are hinted at throughout the story. We are told by the narrator that Aurora is a ‘miracle’ baby that her parents wished for, and her name even means ‘dawn’, linking her irrevocably to that magical time between day and night. Her stereotypical Princess characteristics of beauty and a great singing voice are also ‘gifts’ from the good fairies’ spells cast after her birth. This makes the disgusted expression that young Phillip pulls when peeking into her crib before the spells are cast all the more interesting. What did Aurora look like before she was given the gift of beauty? Even as an adult, Phillip also comments when he hears her voice in the woods that it sounds ‘too good to be real.’ Aurora seems to have entirely engineered virtues. What would she have been without these conjured qualities, I wonder? What would Merryweather’s spell have given her if she’d been able to cast it before Maleficent turned up to cast her curse? Intelligence? Super strength? Laser vision?
In terms of her Princess role, Aurora spends most of the film unaware that she is royalty, but still possesses the beauty, charm, and ability to communicate with animals that a true Disney princess should have. We also see her cooking and cleaning in the cottage in the woods for her ‘aunts’, meaning that they have brought her up to do her fair share of domestic chores similarly to Snow White and Cinderella – the main difference being that she does those jobs wilfully.
When the fairies reveal her true identity to her, they expect her to be delighted, but instead she rejects her princess role upon learning that she cannot marry the random stranger she danced with in the woods as she is already betrothed to a Prince and must fulfil her responsibilities now that she is 16-years-old.
the importance of family and responsibility, and the accepting or shirking of it. Aurora and Phillip have preordained paths that they want to escape as young adults, and even though she doesn’t know it, Aurora is also trapped by Maleficent’s curse that the fairies are trying to help her escape from. In the end, they are both forced to follow these destined paths but to a happy ending, which makes these flirtations with defiance ultimately empty threats.
Considering that Snow White and Cinderella were classified as negative, Sleeping Beauty makes significant strides in the right direction in terms of positive gender representation. The film is almost entirely female driven; the villainess is a powerful bad-ass; the good fairies have a strong sisterly bond; and the Prince is given an actual personality compared to his bland predecessors in the Disney films before it. It teaches that women can indomitable forces of nature – both good and bad; independent and communal.
Equally the film unfortunately suffers from the same negative problems as the previous ones – lack of real motivation or empathy for the female villain; the titular Princess has little control of her own destiny or of the plot, and possesses very few distinctive characteristics beyond the typical Disney Princess ones – beauty, charm, and grace (even if these are revealed to be completely artificial). There is a lot more to praise than the previous two Disney films, but a lot of the same problems remain, which is why – as much as I wanted to – I couldn’t give it a positive classification.
Please not that I have not taken Maleficent (2014) into account in this analysis.
Next up in the Wicked Wiles series – Robin Hood!
Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.
4 thoughts on “Wicked Wiles: Sleeping Beauty (1959)”
My favorite Disney princess is Ariel the Little Mermaid. 🙂
Maleficent really is an interesting attempt to round out the villain. It is a bit of a stretch to completely sympathize with her, but at least it rounds her out a bit (plus the animations are great).
The biggest upset with Sleeping Beauty, which you mentioned when you said that her main duties seem to be very female and that she does them willfully, unlike Snow White and Cinderella. This is the most upsetting not only for logistical reasons (who does the hunting? the trapping? the fishing? do they eat magical berries all day or what? what are the dishes for then?) but also because it seems to plant women in the role of domestic maintenance no matter what. Even when your evil stepmother isn’t forcing you to clean and fold clothes all day, you’ll WANT to do it anyways?
Great post, by the way.
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Thank you ffor sharing this