A Feminist Disney review of Sleeping Beauty. Overall score: 1.5 out of 4 stars (see bottom for detail)
“The Sleeping Beauty figure, as featured in the most popular versions of the classic fairy tale, is the archetypal passive heroine. Falling into the death-like state of a long, deep sleep, she lacks all agency and simple lies still waiting until she wakes.” -CinemaAutopsy
Watching Sleeping Beauty makes me very thankful for the newer Disney movies, problematic though they may be. Not that Sleeping Beauty is terribly terrible- it’s just very obviously not a film produced in the last 3 decades.
Because this is an older film there are a lot more obvious issues with it, rather than filled with subtle nuances like, say, The Lion King.
One of the first big things I noticed/found a little disturbing was that the very first gift anyone thought to give the newborn princess was one of beauty. Even more weird was the added effect of an image of the universe swirling around her head, as if entire planets were re-aligning in order to make this possible. But anyhow, what I’m trying to say is that it really shows how ingrained it is in all of us that beauty is a virtue and a wonderful gift, if we should happen to receive it. It also says a lot about how a woman’s role is perceived; princesses generally- historically- have had some, sometimes a lot, of impact in foreign and domestic issues for their countries. But no one thought to give this princess the gift of, say, learning other languages easily, or “intelligence” (even though that could be seen by future audiences as ableist), or a good grasp of the political, or even just a witty sense of humor that will get her through rough times.
No- she gets beauty, followed by a great singing voice, followed by… sleeping instead of dying.
After that I noticed that they introduced the king as “King Stefan and his Queen.” So okay, I understand doing it once maybe- maybe- since he’s head of state apparently and she isn’t (predictable…), but they do it at least twice in the movie and she is never named… she’s just “the queen.” A subtle choice in language, but possibly an important one, because it seems to reflect that “the queen” is seen as a more generic character role. King Stefan is characterized in a pretty detailed fashion but you get the sense that the queen could have been anyone, that she’s more of a role than an individual.
After going through and reading reviews, it seems that A Feminist Critique of Animation captured what I was thinking much more effectively:
“The greatest travesty in the depiction of women in any Disney film occurs in Sleeping Beauty. That travesty is the treatment of the Queen. The Queen, a woman who should be of intense importance in the lives of the people of her country, should be of intense importance in her family, is so unimportant as to not even rate her own name. She is always referred to in third person - “King Stefan and his Queen” by the narrator, “poor King Stefan and the Queen” to quote the fairies late in the film. She is never looked at, spoken directly to, or seen in any way as having any importance other than her role as Stefan’s wife. Even her daughter is not hers; Aurora is “Stefan’s child”. She has no identity. Her sole line in the entire movie is to ask Maleficent if she is offended. The Queen, the mother, has been entirely stripped of any semblance of personage, any semblance of humanity, to become simply a vessel for childbirth or an attractive toy on Stefan’s arm.”
I thought it was a little disturbing that the two kings were already discussing Aurora’s potential to have heirs for them. Like, I get it, it’s ye olden tymes, but she’s SIXTEEN. Which yes, is an age you can have babies at, but considering that
- Phillip is the first encounter she’s had with a man- or even just someone other than her fairy family- presumably ever
- Phillip is her first relationship ever
- She and Phillip only met one day ago (and the kings don’t even know this)
- 16 is probably a little early to be playing house (Phillip’s father has already constructed one)
(and of course the fat character likes eating all the time…what a fresh portrayal)
At first King Stefan is like “well we want some time with her because we’ve been estranged from her for her entire life” so I was like okay… this is awkward but at least her dad is putting some breaks… but by the end of the dialogue he’s agreeing to get someone to make a baby cradle!
I think what bothered me most though is the presumption of Aurora’s desires, more than any age-related thing. Like… of course she will want to have babies right away. That’s just what you do when you’re 16 and in love. Go to it, girl, we already made a house and a cradle for you so let’s not be wasting time now! We expect you and Phillip TO MAKE BABIES. Not a whole lot of nuance- and for a girl who clearly has trouble saying “no” to anything people tell her to do, not a whole lot of choice (for example: as strong as the love is, maybe she would have wanted to live with her parents for a while?).
I guess it kind of goes without saying that the relationship occurs at a ridiculously fast pace and their desire for each other is based on dreams, beauty, and the sound of singing voices rather than on the more realistic concept of getting to know each other as people rather than as fantasies, etc. At least the newer princesses took a few days to decide on eternal love- Aurora does it in 2 minutes. Which isn’t so much a critique of her, because she is a sweet girl and her voice sounds like Julie Andrews’ when she sings, it’s more a critique of a society/film producers who think that’s really setting a healthy standard for all the children who are going to watch and idolize that movie.
“The older princesses – Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White – all of these women have been rewarded for their beauty and kind, obedient disposition. None of these women did anything to achieve being held up as role models for young girls. The only thing they can emulate is either trying to be beautiful, or by being kind and obedient and hope that life will reward them for it.” -from A Feminist Critique of Animation
However I think some of the critique of her “being asleep for half the movie” (which I heard often) is unjustified. Truly she is a rather passive character and every other character’s role in the movie can basically be summarized as “revolving around Aurora”- you’re either Aurora, you’re helping Aurora, you’re protecting Aurora, you’re trying to kill Aurora, or you’re saving Aurora, but basically everyone’s desires can be summarized as having something to do with Aurora. Which again- is not really Aurora’s or any character’s fault, but I much appreciate later Disney movies that place more emphasis on character development and individuality, etc. To be fair though she is pretty present in the movie and her actual sleeping time is not that long, so I don’t find that to be a main critique- it’s more the fact that she does little other than be pretty/sing/sleep. And the kiss in itself, although the movie sets it up in a very romantic/epic way so that it won’t creep you out, is kind of weird. Like- saving people by kissing them when they’re asleep…. really?
As far as Maleficent goes, she’s pretty scary cool. I like that she seems a bit more logical and witty than a lot of the more bumbling Disney villains, and it is understandable to me now why people keep asking what I think about her. In this world full of underdeveloped characters, Maleficent alone is commanding, independent, willful, and willing to take risks to get what she wants (Briar Rose/Aurora, although she is incredibly pained by the fairies insisting she must leave her woodland boy to marry the prince, in the end still agrees to go with them in spite of it being exactly what she does not want- and in spite of the movie’s implication that she is already old enough/mature enough to love and marry). I was sad when Meriweather turned her crow into stone because it seemed like they had a bit of a connection there.
“Maleficent is the one shining spot for women in Sleeping Beauty. She is cruel and elegant, bitchy and controlling. She is easily the most powerful creature in the entire movie, and she knows it. She is very intelligent and has great power... unlike the three who cow-tow to Stefan. They, however, think she “doesn’t know about love, kindness, the joy of helping others” and they “don’t think she’s very happy”… Maleficent is strong, intelligent and ruler of her own domain. Her most valued servant, her pet crow, is easily more intelligent and observant that the three good fairies. Yet Maleficent is depicted as thoroughly evil. Since the only characteristic she shares with any of the ‘good’ characters is that of beauty (with Aurora), is this an argument of intelligence and independence and power (knowledge) in a woman makes her evil?” -Feminist Critique of Animation
Good thing I looked up reviews because reading this definitely made me reflect further on exactly what is problematic about her evil coding. Is it surprising that the most powerful, active, strategic woman in this film, the one who does not obey everything she is told to do- is the evil one? Is it surprising that the good female characters in the movie- Briar Rose/Aurora and the three fairies- are obedient and gentle even when being oppressed? Is it just chance that when a man defies authority to do what he desires- (Phillip’s legitimately wonderful line of, “Now father, you’re living in the past. This is the 14th century!” Then laughs and gallops away from his father’s command) he is instead seen as a hero and a role-model for it?
If nothing else, I am thankful that the Disney princess has evolved since Sleeping Beauty to have a bit more say, a bit more action, and a bit more agency in her own fate. A rose without thorns… is not really a rose.
Promotion/Equal Voice given to women: **~
Representation of Women present (are they more than typecasts of female stereotypes etc): *
Racism/Classism: *~ (only white, upper-class people shown)
LGBTQ representation: ** (no one present, but no queer villain coding)
Gender Binary adherence: *~
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