Thursday Fun: Sleeping Beauty

I have a love/hate relationship with Sleeping Beauty, and when it comes to retelling fairy tales, this one has taught me something very important and very specific about storytelling.

On one hand, the Disney version is one of the most beautiful and straight-up romantic movies of all time. The basics of the story itself practically beg for reinterpretation, and I’m happy to oblige.

On the other hand, Sleeping Beauty might be the least feminist fairy tale you can find.

In brief: A princess is born and either cursed by a wicked, pissed off faerie or prophesied to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep for one hundred years. After said time, a prince finds her in a castle surrounded by brambles, kisses her, and they live happily ever after. NOT! That HEA crap is only for the Brothers Grimm and Disney. In “La Belle au Bois Dormant” by Perrault, the prince and princess secretly wed, and have two babies. When the Prince becomes King, he brings his bride home where his mother (an ogre) asks her cook to kill the babies and serve them to the prince. The cook replaces the kids with a lamb and goat, and then when the Queen wants the Princess, the cook serves a deer. When the Queen realizes what has happened, and the King returns, she kills herself by jumping into a vat of vipers and poison. (Which is kind of nasty and awesome.)

So in this original story, we have two royal women:

~ The princess comes of age and pricks herself on a spindle (read: penis) and falls into sleep. (She’s made totally passive and any agency is torn away from her.) Only the kiss of legitimate marriage wakes her. She serves no further purpose but to bear kids for her husband.

~ The queen is your typical evil stepmother who wants to keep her own power by killing the children of her rival (her son’s wife) and her rival. She has NO redeeming quality.

This story tells us that women are either evil or passive and obedient. Good girls do not have curiosity, they do not disobey their fathers, they wait for their husbands to arrive, and SEX IS BAD. (In the version Perrault mined, “Sun, Moon, and Talia,” by Basile, the prince rapes the princess while she’s still asleep and she gives birth to his two kids also while still sleeping. Seriously. Does the underlying meaning GET more obvious? Here the evil woman is not the Prince’s mother but his wife. Yeah, Princey sleeps around. BAD. Sex is just BAD.)

I’ve read attempts to reclaim the story for women through the suggestion that the sleep is a sort of dissociative weapon that medieval women could use to maintain a shred of agency. But that sounds about as far-fetched to me as when I argued for twenty minutes in a graduate literature seminar that Heathcliff was *obviously* a faerie changeling.

But I can’t dismiss Sleeping Beauty, no matter how convinced I am of its inherent misogyny. There’s something ingrained in my understanding of fairy tales that tells me over and over again that there’s power here, and that the story has more to offer, more little shadows to explore. What Sleeping Beauty has taught me is that I can reinterpret and retell WITHOUT “reclaiming.” I don’t have to like something or agree with something in order to find wealth in it. I can explore themes of feminine power (and lack thereof), or of sleep, magical kisses, towers, thorn-hedges, and curses to peel back layers of assumption and sexism.

And maybe sometimes in writing, it’s much better to drive home the gruesome, bloody, misogynistic truth instead of trying to find strength or happiness or hope.

14 thoughts on “Thursday Fun: Sleeping Beauty

  1. “And maybe sometimes in writing, it’s much better to drive home the gruesome, bloody, misogynistic truth instead of trying to find strength or happiness or hope.”

    I think there’s a power in facing that ugliness squarely, but it’s (like a lot of things in writing that touch on ugly truth) a really delicate balance. I’ve seen some beautiful examinations of power and powerlessness based on the Sleeping Beauty theme. At the same time, I’ve seen some treatments of it that were probably intended to hold up the misogyny of the story and went too far into incredibly detailed and brutal rape fantasies. I would say that a lot of very well-intentioned writers have trouble with the line between exposing and wallowing, and that sometimes they write things for their own healing that have exactly the opposite effect for others.

    Sometimes, I write something because there’s a raw, ugly, hateful thing I need to get out of my heart, and then when I look at it I think, “I didn’t write this for any reason other than to birth this bloody baby and then drown it before it could draw breath,” and I delete it. Maybe that makes me a coward for not showing the ugliness that comes out of my heart sometimes to the world, and maybe it just makes me someone who writes to heal her own pain. I dunno.

  2. Balance is totally the key. I said to you yesterday that I love carnage and violence but they have to have a purpose, and to add to that, if you use them for the same thing all the time, or over and over then the shock loses all value and power. (And I think I may have read that same well-intentioned version that got a little carried away with driving home the point. Literally.)

    It doesn’t make you a coward not to share writing that you look at and think, “This was only for me.” If you wrote something and saw that it was good and there was value others could receive from it, but you don’t share it because you’re afraid of judgement and/or misunderstanding – that is cowardice. But there’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself. I do it all the time. Stuff that nobody needs to see but me.

  3. Emily Dickinson wrote only for herself. She had no intention of anyone else seeing her poems. One wonders what incredible works have vanished…

  4. It’s hard for me to dismiss Sleeping Beauty without dismissing the genre entirely, tho the same is not true for Disney. I like Fairy Tales in spite of, and occasionally because of, their limitations. I make no apologies for gender bias etc.,but the medium is rife with it. I see part of that as being a necessity in terms of the tales ability to communicate within the symbolic landscape. Some times tales question this, other times they don’t. By way of example: In some tales strangers are evil, in others they are good guys in disguise. This is not so much evidence of pervasive xenophobia, but as a need to adopt a polemic for symbolic purposes. I guess what I’m saying is that despite Beauty’s lack of agency there are still cool ideas in the story: Kiss=redemption, Barrier of suffering (path to redemption?),Poisoned gifts, sleeping kingdoms, Dwarves (need I say more?), glass coffins… See? A wealth of stuff to distract from a vapid main character. Hmmm, sounds like that first Conan movie.

  5. Okay, I realize that is this completely off topic and not remotely relevant to the examination of various tropes in SB. But I am in love with this:

    I argued for twenty minutes in a graduate literature seminar that Heathcliff was *obviously* a faerie changeling

    You know those books where someone takes some piece of canonized literature and retells the story in some new and exciting way? This is that book.

  6. Hahaha. That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll try that for a short fic some week. Unless you get to it first!

    I couldn’t personally do it as a novel, because the idea was born of my complete hatred of everything Wuthering Heights stands for. Spitting, furious-cat hatred. I had to find something to keep myself from tearing the pages into tiny little pieces.

  7. But just think–this could totally clear up so many very off-putting things about the book. Perhaps there’s even some reasonable supernatural explanation for why he chokes the dog.

    (Despite every other violent, cruel thing he does, that scene with the dog has always bothered me the most.)

  8. You are a brave marauder for championing Heathcliff as a changeling in such a creatively stagnant environment. I agree with Brenna, it would explain a lot. As for Sleeping Beauty of the Wood, I’ve always seen the lesson to be “don’t mess with fate.” Rather than clearing the kingdom of spindles, I often wondered what would’ve happened if they’d taught her how to spin properly, so that by the time she’s of the doomed age, she’d be too well “practiced” to get pricked. A clear case for the value of premarital sex, I think.

  9. “If you wrote something and saw that it was good and there was value others could receive from it, but you don’t share it because you’re afraid of judgement and/or misunderstanding – that is cowardice.”

    You know those quotes that authors put at the start of chapters — thingy-what’s-its — this is one. There’s another in your lj. Can I use these?

    Do you think the power is that she chooses to wake up. She controls her destiny. She survives. The story shows us, men are weak bastards. A strong prince of pure heart wakes her because this is what she deserves. It took a hundred years because there’s no good men anywhere. Beauty’s not passive, only patient.

    Sometimes you scare me.

  10. Yes, you can quote whatever you want!

    In the original tales, I’d definitely have to disagree that the princess has anything to do with being woken up. It isn’t that it takes a hundred years, but that is the curse: that she will fall into a 100 year sleep.

    I think it could be reimagined so that she might have some choice – like she’s aware enough via some magic of what the prince is worth. I like the idea of beauty as patient as opposed to passive.

  11. It was Catherine I hated the most. But pretty much everyone in that book is selfish and cruel and hateful. If you’re going to read it as a character sketch of some really awful people doing really awful things in circumstances partly beyond their control (they were both outsiders, after all), that’s fine. But I always want to scream when I hear people (mostly women and girls) talking about how sexy Heathcliff is and what a beautiful, tragic love story it is. Seriously. That’s some messed up shit.

  12. A clear case for the value of premarital sex, I think.

    Totally. I’m pretty convinced that the main moral of Sleeping Beauty is: SEX BAD.

  13. Unless you read Anne Rice’s version, which is porn with a thin veneer of plot.

    And then it gets weird.

    *chuckles*

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