Hi, Internets! It’s time for Part II of my second essay on Sleeping Beauties and my forthcoming novel When We Wake.
In the first essay, I discussed the European origins of the fairy tale. In the second essay I made some inflammatory statements about the Grimm brothers and told the sad story of Tchaikovsky yearning for critical approval.
And now, at last, we are ready for this sucker:
Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney, 1959.
Walt Disney has a very interesting history, none of which I am going to recount here.
I mean, it’s Walt freaking Disney. You can find emanations of the man everywhere; it is actually rather difficult to avoid him. He is haunting you! Right now! Through this essay.
Sleeping Beauty was a big dream project for Walt – nearly a decade in the making, and with a lot of itty perfectionist details that warm my picky little heart. Much like Snow White, he was convinced it was going to be an immediate critical and popular smash hit, no matter what anyone else said. Unlike Snow White, he was wrong.
But it’s definitely not the movie’s fault, because it’s really pretty damn good; beautifully animated, stunning backgrounds, great music. And, I am going to argue, surprisingly progressive in regards to gender roles! Disney princess feminism: didn’t just start with… uh, well, not The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast? Belle likes to read. Although wow, creepy abusive relationship “I-can-change-him!”/”You-just-make-me-so-angry-never-leave-me!” dynamic there, maybe not. Aladdin? Jasmine’s pretty great, and there’s that whole DAD I AM NOT MARRYING ANYONE BECAUSE YOU THINK IT’S A GOOD IDEA business.
Okay. Let’s go with that one. Disney princess feminism: didn’t just start in 1992!
In the Disney movie, like the ballet, more was made of the role of the fairies as active participants and movers of the plot. This time, there are three good fairies – Flora, Fauna, and Meriweather. At the christening (slash engagement party, about which more later), Flora and Fauna give their gifts to the Princess Aurora – beauty and musicality. Why are fairy gifts always like this? I would personally really like the fairy gift of “never loses her keys” or “can pull study all-nighters without fatigue the next day”.
Then MALEFICENT turns up.
Maleficent the Enchantress, Mistress of All Evil, doesn’t seem to be genuinely put out by the lack of invitation. “Haha, you didn’t invite me, BECAUSE I’M EVIL, too funny!” she laughs, and then straight up curses Aurora and disappears.
Meriweather alters the curse – not for a hundred years, but “until true love’s kiss” wakes her. Aurora isn’t going to be handed off to any old king’s son after a century. Only her genuine true love can break the spell, thus negotiating all sorts of tricky problems of consent and treating women as trophies rather than people. In fact, the “true love” clause harkens back to Brynhildr, who could only be wakened by a man worthy of her.
Briar Rose/Aurora is taken away by the fairies to live in hiding, and indeed grows up ignorant of her own identity. One day – her sixteenth birthday! – while dancing in the woods, she meets and dances with a dashing young man. Though neither of them know it, they’ve actually been engaged for the past sixteen years. They meet as strangers, and fall in love as strangers, and again, we are avoiding a lot of consent issues here!
King Stefan and King Hubert actually have a lengthy scene covering this ground, with Hubert first insisting that the two get married immediately and Stefan pointing out that this may come as a shock to Aurora. Hubert takes offense – how could anyone NOT love his son! – and then the two drunkenly agree that of course their children are BOUND to fall in love with each other.
What’s interesting is that both men take it as a given that the children have to love each other before the wedding could take place. While this is to be a political match, it must also be a love match.
When Prince Philip turns up and tells Hubert that he’s met the girl he’s going to marry – a peasant girl! – Hubert is genuinely horrified at the thought of his son giving up the throne to marry “some nobody” and orders Philip to “marry a princess!”. But his son, instead of taking this order seriously, laughs and rides off to woo “Briar Rose”. And Hubert’s final concern is not that Philip is disobeying him, or marrying a peasant, but the thought of telling his fellow king that the royal wedding cannot after all take place.
The fairies, though they tell Aurora she can’t meet her dashing gentleman friend because 1) she’s a princess and 2) she’s already betrothed and 3) they’re taking her back to her parents that evening, are also reluctant about forcing an unwanted marriage upon Aurora. “I don’t see why she has to marry any old prince!” Meriweather mutters, and it’s fairly clear that they’re going to do something about the situation. Choice absolutely must be a part of this true romance. PROGRESSIVE! Sort of.
But MALEFICENT has turned up, and hypnotized Aurora into wandering away! The fairies go after her, and their cry of “Don’t touch anything!” enables Aurora to actually resist the hypnotism for a moment. Alas, Maleficent is just too strong. So the fairies put everyone to sleep until Aurora awakens.
When Maleficent, who has apparently not had enough EVIL for the day, kidnaps Philip, and the fairies again come to the rescue! They pit their wit and magic against Maleficent’s hordes of evil minions and much stronger magics to get Philip free, and arm him with an “enchanted shield of virtues”, and “mighty sword of truth”.
Flora tells Philip that he’ll have to face the final battles alone, but this is LIES. The fairies are with him every step of the way, turning boulders into soup bubbles, arrows into flowers, and boiling oil into rainbows (!!). They help him through the forest of thorns Maleficent conjures up and turn her nasty sidekick crow to stone.
Then Maleficent turns herself into a dragon because she is an amazing BAMF. When all is about to be LOST FOREVER, the fairies enchant the sword. “Oh, Sword of Truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure!” And BAM, Maleficent the dragon goes down. Because the fairies are awesome! Blah blah, kiss, wedding, and millions of Disney fans argue over pink dress/blue dress forever.
For the record, the blue dress is better.
Anyway, I don’t think Sleeping Beauty is an actually feminist movie. There are sorts of hinky issues here: Aurora’s mother gets one line, and no name; Aurora’s first (and thus coded most important) fairy gift is beauty; and regardless of the fact that it will break the spell, Aurora still hasn’t given consent to be kissed.
But. We’ve also got a movie where the most interesting and developed characters on the side of good are three middle-aged women with little wings who like to make ugly, violent things into pretty shining ones. Philip may strike the fatal blow, but Flora, Fauna and Meriweather are the unequivocal heroes of the piece – in fact, they’re probably the protagonists.
The trope of older women necessarily and cheerfully making sacrifices (“No magic! For sixteen years!”) for the benefit of others isn’t particularly enlightened. However, the fairies are not passive, but active participants in the protection of their “Briar Rose”. Older women, as the heroes! Plump older women with their grey hair and their tiny hands, facing down the bad guy! That’s pretty incredible, for 1959 and today.
And speaking of older women, is Maleficent the best Disney villain, or BEST DISNEY VILLAIN? Maleficent isn’t consumed with envy because she’s no longer the fairest in the land, or because she wants her own daughters to marry the prince instead of her good-for-nothing stepdaughter. She doesn’t have a stupidly “feminine” motive of vanity or avarice: Maleficent is evil BECAUSE SHE’S EVIL. It is both her job and her vocation, and she is clearly very good at it.
Unfortunately, all this great characterization comes at the expense of the nominal heroine. Aurora is lovely and sweet and musical and… that’s about it. Wikipedia tells me she only gets 18 minutes of screen time in the 85 minute movie. I’m not planning to factcheck that, but it sounds legit. Unlike Philip, she doesn’t resist the news that she has to marry some random dude; instead, she is miserably obedient. It turns out well for her, but that’s coincidence!
In When We Wake, Tegan is most definitely the protagonist. She has the most screen time because she has all the screen time: Tegan’s narrating the story, so she’s necessarily there throughout it. But she also relies on Doctor Marie Carmen, the cryonics expert who perfected and successfully performed the first revival. Rather than a prince breaking the “curse” of Tegan’s untimely death, it’s Marie who manages to bring Tegan out of her century long sleep. Marie becomes Tegan’s guardian – as the fairies do for Briar Rose. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but let’s just say she is not passive in Tegan’s protection either.
Tegan is also helped by Sergeant Zaneisha Washington, the deadpan weapons and martial arts expert serving as bodyguard to the “Living Dead Girl”. And because Tegan’s Catholic, there’s a third older woman she respects and admires: Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ Jesus.
Here’s a bit from when Tegan argues her way into a church visit:
I avoided the centre of the nave and the woman replacing the flowers beside the lectern there; I wasn’t interested in Jesus on his crucifix behind the main altar. They had a side altar for Mary, though, and I went down to say hi, past the Stations of the Cross depicted on the wall, my steps echoing through the silent space. She was wearing blue and white, and for once she wasn’t holding baby Jesus; she was just being herself, inscrutable and watchful.
I went to my knees. ‘Hello,’ I said to the perfect stone face. ‘How are you?’
Mary didn’t reply.
‘I was thinking about what that Father guy said,’ I told her. ‘I don’t think them bringing me back was a miracle. I mean, I’d rather be alive than not, you bet. And I think it was people who did it, not God. But I don’t think it’s God’s exclusive territory, either. If it was, they wouldn’t be able to do it. And I don’t feel evil or soulless. I feel like me.’ I gulped. ‘Only sadder. And lonelier. It’s hard.’
Zaneisha would probably have been a lot more comfortable if I’d talked to the Blessed Virgin in my head, which was one of the reasons I was doing it out loud.
I mean, I mostly liked Zaneisha. I just resented that I couldn’t go anywhere without her.
A trio of older ladies! Tegan appreciates that.
The other thing about the Disney movie that I think is interesting is its use of non-original music. Uplifting the Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty score wasn’t in itself particularly creative, but it did wonderful things for the movie. The score gives the movie grace without being twee, it foregrounds the old-timey feel of the piece (after all, it is the fourteenth century!), and it underlines Aurora’s gift of musicality. The closest thing Aurora really has to a character trait is the delight she takes in creating and appreciating music. Music is also how she finds simpatico with her beloved; she and Philip unite by sharing a literal song and dance, waltzing to the famous centerpiece of the ballet.
Tegan also tries to make connections to people through music. Just not Tchaikovsky. For guitar-playing Tegan, it’s all about the Beatles, who she describes as the “best musicians of their century. And ours. And all the ones to come.”
Of course, when Tegan wakes to the future, she discovers that, while a Disney revival a decade earlier has people familiar with Snow White and her princessly ilk, the Beatles are now relatively obscure musicians who were famous once. Here’s Tegan talking to new friend Bethari about a print she’s got up in her bedroom:
‘Who’s that?’ Bethari asked.
‘It’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono,’ I said.
‘Were they friends of yours, too?’
NOT QUITE, BETHI.
Although the kids in her music class, familiar with musical history, know a little more, none of them are really fans. Except for one guy, Abdi, who is almost as much a stranger to Melbourne, Australia, as Tegan is to the 22nd century. Unfortunately Tegan – accidentally but definitely – offended the hell out of him on her very first day at school. But as Tegan shakily embarks on her first performance, which is apparently doomed to be a failure, he stands up and opens his mouth…
Oh, man, you guys, do you think Tegan and Abdi could find simpatico through song? Will Tegan ever get be comfortable in the 22nd century? Will her guiding trio of older women prove true to her? Will she convert her friends to Beatles fandom?
Did I truly manage to write an entire book invoking the presence of one of the world’s most famous bands without writing a single sentence for which I would have to pay rights?
The answers to the first questions are yet to be seen!
The answer to the last one is yes.