Let’s face it: Disney princess movies do not, in general, represent women well and do not teach little girls useful life lessons. This doesn’t stop most people from loving them anyhow, but there are also many who deplore the films for their sexism, and we mustn’t neglect them. The usual punching bags are 1937′s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1950′s Cinderella and, especially, 1959′s Sleeping Beauty, the last princess movie that Disney would produce before The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the company’s progressive Golden Age in the 1980s, thirty years later. It’s convenient to bunch these three films together as the terrible trio, outdated in values (if not in quality), but they were made years apart from each other and it shows. When it comes to positive representation of women, Cinderella is a marked improvement from Snow White, whose sexism is rampant, and Sleeping Beauty isn’t sexist at all. This amelioration in attitudes cannot be explained solely by the evolution of the princess, the lead female character, into something with little more chutzpah and independence. However unlikely, the prince has a lot to do with it. The nameless prince of Snow White is briefly seen and rarely missed; Prince Philip of Sleeping Beauty is an energetic, witty hero with a modern outlook—and wisecracks—on marriage. One might assume that the prince becomes increasingly important only at the expense of the princess. But that is fundamentally incorrect and very much untrue.
Snow White is particularly insulting to women because the prince could well have been a cardboard cutout for all his involvement in the story—he’s almost nonexistent. And yet that’s worse than if he were the main character. What makes Snow White the most sexist of all the Disney princess movies is not Snow White, who likes to sweep and cook and is a genial, gullible soul, but the prince himself, both unimportant and important. It’s sexist when the princess is saved by a prince who hasn’t earned the respect of neither the princess nor the audience and yet, cheers are expected when he comes to save the day. I didn’t cheer at the end of Snow White but probably would have had Grumpy laid the prince low with the blunt end of a pickaxe. In Sleeping Beauty, Prince Philip isn’t just a prince in name who pops up when convenient. He proves that he is deserving of his princess by fighting for her hand.
Prince Philip’s valor and bravery doesn’t work adversely and negatively accentuate Aurora’s titular role, dormant as it is, because she isn’t the archetypical maiden waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. At first, sure, she wistfully longs for her “dream prince”—a vague, impersonal, if important, figure in her mind. But all her girlish fantasies become insignificant once she meets Philip. Aurora never learns he is a prince, and Philip never realizes that she is the princess to whom he was betrothed a long time ago. And yet the wonderful thing is they still fall in love with each other. Aurora actually doesn’t care if her true love is or isn’t royalty. In fact, when the fairies reveal her royal status and her imminent marriage to a prince, she is—not knowing that said prince is Phillip—inconsolably distraught. At that moment, she would rather be a peasant girl in love than a princess. She doesn’t want servants or a kingdom or a closetful of pretty dresses, she wants the man she loves. The fact that Philip is actually her dream prince is a clever twist that reinforces the classic fairy-tale trope while switching things up refreshingly. It’s not “wait for your prince” but, undeniably, “true love conquers all.”
Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White feature similarly plain-vanilla imagery— a princess under a sleeping spell, which is lifted only when her true love kisses her. But there are as many differences between Aurora and Snow White as there are between Prince Phillip and his insultingly empty predecessor. Aurora was never abused as a maidservant in her own home—she had a happy and innocent childhood full of love and care. She was never cursed or hated or abused because of her femininity, unlike Snow White or Cinderella—a sorceress was spurned, and in revenge she directed her spite onto Aurora, a baby at the time. (The sorceress, Malificient, is another interesting female character. Unlike Cinderella’s Evil Stepmother or Snow White’s Queen, her hatred of Aurora never stems from jealousy or envy. She just wants to kill her because, as a independent, powerful woman, she can.)Aurora was a victim but never victimized herself. Her cursed sleep has no direct correlation with her strength of character or lack of it. And it’s strange that Sleeping Beauty is perceived as sexist merely because a prince does all the heroic work while the princess lies under a curse. To believe that having the true love of your life slay a dragon while you are incapacitated by magic indicates your inability to handle the problem yourself is plain bizarre. Isn’t it to be expected that a man like Philip risk life and limb for his beloved? If the roles had been reversed, would it still be sexist?
Yes, Disney could have been über-progressive in 1959 by making Aurora an Amazonian warrior-princess, or not have her cursed in the first place so she can wield the Sword of Truth herself. But that is a different movie, and it’s called Brave. That animated film, released in 2012 by Disney, would have ideally shown girls that a strong and independent young woman needs neither a man nor marriage to feel secure or happy. The filmmakers squander that, however, by insuring that that every male character in the film is dimwitted or silly or the subject of all-ages derision. Princess Merida, the heroine, cannot imagine a permanent union, or even a conversation, with any of her suitors, who are all incompetent idiots crafted solely for comic relief, and we can’t seriously expect her to. Brave chose (what can only be described as) the easy way out by avoiding a strong male character out of fear that a hero would compromise the independence and diminish the fierceness of Merida—or worse, that it would raise the very ghost of such possible criticism.
Whatever gave them that idea? Brave, fundamentally, never touched once upon what Sleeping Beauty and the other princess films were invested in with every fabric of their being—true love, the type that only exists in fairy tales. Not in this one, though, purportedly “modern” and “evolved,” because Merida regards marriage with contempt. That’s fine, she’s young and hasn’t found anyone worthy. But would she have changed her mind if her Prince Phillip came riding along? Would that have raised the ire of feminists? It does make you wonder why there hasn’t been any Disney princess film that has the princess slaying a dragon alongside her prince—before getting married and living happily ever after in quiet domestic bliss as wife and husband. And until that happens, I prefer the story of Sleeping Beauty to Brave’s by a long shot. I would rather watch Aurora and Prince Philip waltzing in a woodland glade and warbling Tchaikovsky because if happily-ever-after romances, real love stories like the one of Sleeping Beauty, don’t happen in Disney fairy-tales, where would they? Not in real life, with all its double standards and fake outrage. It’s not archaic, it’s timeless; it’s not something to deride, it’s something to love. And it’s time for people to wake up and smell the roses.