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Why Sleeping Beauty Isn’t Sexist

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.