Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: The Problem with Sleeping Beauty
Hot on the heels of vampires, zombies, mythology and other things that go bump in the night, fairy tales are experiencing a reemergence in pop culture. The result has been a flurry of tv shows (Grimm, Once Upon a Time), movies (Red Riding Hood, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman) and even comic books, thanks to Bill Willingham’s highly successful (and awesome) Fables and its spinoffs—most recently, Fairest, which focuses on princess heroines.
One of the most enjoyable pieces of this, for me at least, has been watching the many different ways fairy tale princesses have been played with. Thanks to Disney they’re popular classic figures in pop culture and an easy motif to play off for a statement. The trend, you might have noticed, is toward a new, empowered princess archetype who is perfectly capable of saving herself, thank you very much. Take Disney’s recent Tangled for example.
One princess who’s been left behind in this mashup is Sleeping Beauty.
Let’s just review her story, shall we? Sleeping Beauty’s tale is incredibly passive. All her gifts and talents are bestowed on her by fairies—she never has to work for them. She is provided with all she needs and more. And she’s an infant when this happens—she doesn’t earn or ask for these gifts. She doesn’t even have a chance to remember it happening.
Then, to protect her from the curse laid on her, she spends 16 sweet years in an enchanted forest, where she is sheltered from every potential danger. She doesn’t encounter any threat, or even many other people (particularly, no men).
It’s every overprotective parent’s fantasy.
Even her downfall is gentle – just the prick of a finger, and a slip into a deep slumber. A slumber that preserves her youth and beauty, even. And voile! Upon waking, she has found true love. No creeps in bars, no blind dates, no broken hearts. And a prince, too.
Snow White fled from a murderer, she faced a dark and dangerous forest, she ran a household of seven dwarves. Cinderella rebelled against her servitude to her stepfamily and asserted herself, asking for the chance for a better life. Beauty faced a horrible beast to save her father. Though traditionally fair and young and destined to life happily ever after, most fairy tale princesses suffer horror before reaching their prince. Sleeping Beauty is doomed to a life all sugar, no spice.*
What kind of takeaway is there from this kind of story? That being overprotective of our little girls is justified? That girls are fragile? That girls should not have to work for good things to happen to them, that boys are the ones who do that part? That girls have things done to them, they don’t do things to the world?
It’s no wonder that Sleeping Beauty has fallen aside while harder working princesses like Snow White experience a reawakening.
… Pun intended.
*Footnote: I grant one exception. In a refreshing and highly original twist, Fables turns Sleeping Beauty’s curse into a weapon in a time of war, placing her deep in an enemy hub, where she pricks her finger and puts the enemy’s leadership to sleep with her, disabling the entire army. Yes, you should be reading this series.