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 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.