Wake Up Your Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty—the very title of the Disney film encapsulates a host of negative messages for women. It reflects a patriarchal view that a woman’s silence marks her value. It’s also indicative of a desire to display women as pretty, inanimate objects. The fact that Princess Aurora is only present for about twenty minutes of the entire seventy five minute movie also does nothing to support her as strong role-model for young girls and women. However, a deeper analysis puts a new spin on both the title and this princess.

Like its predecessors, this Disney princess movie begins with a storybook. The pages of intricate medieval calligraphy describe the King’s, Queen’s, and kingdom’s joyful reception of a newborn princess.  At the very outset of the film, a high regard for women is established—there is no wishing or wondering why it had or had not been a son. Instead, an official holiday is proclaimed in her honor.

Next we enter the castle to witness the celebration and valued guests, three of which are the good fairies: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. As Merryweather bestows a gift on the child, she’s interrupted by a violent gust of wind which ushers in the wicked Maleficent, the self-proclaimed “mistress of all evil.” With wounded vanity at not receiving an invitation, Maleficent curses the princess, declaring that upon turning sixteen she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Merryweather changes this fate of death to one of sleep that will end with true love’s kiss.

The movie’s good vs. evil or angel vs. devil theme is inescapable. Princess Aurora, with her halo of sunshine hair, embodies grace, imagination, and hope while Maleficent, with her black devil horns, symbolizes hatred, vanity, and destruction. Physically, Maleficent is not ugly. Other than her questionable wardrobe and yellow eyes, she has delicate facial features, a sleek silhouette, and (like Aurora) lips red as a rose. It’s only upon her continual evil acts that her appearance becomes increasingly severe and unattractive.

On the other hand, our first encounter with a sixteen-year-old Aurora reveals her kindness. She obediently goes to pick berries at Flora’s, Fauna’s, and Merryweather’s request. Although she’s wise to their birthday surprise plot, she leaves, allowing them the satisfaction of accomplishing their plan. Her obedience doesn’t illustrate submission but rather a deep affection and respect for her caregivers. As she wanders, the princess’s warm vibrato echoes throughout the forest, calling bluebirds, rabbits, a squirrel, and an owl to her side. Her playfulness and imagination come to light when she confesses that she’s met someone new, despite orders not to speak to strangers. Instead of divulging her secret entirely, she makes her forest friends guess who and how. Eventually, she paints a picture of herself and a prince walking, talking, embracing, and… waking up. While she admits she’s only dreamt of her handsome stranger, she never loses her buoyancy. She proceeds to sing and dance with her animal companions, happy to live in a world of make-believe—for now.

On many levels, Princess Aurora represents hope. Her birth fulfilled the King’s and Queen’s hope for a child. What’s more, her exuberant spirit solidifies hope as more than wishful thinking but a confident expectation of good. We know, of course, that a handsome stranger does discover her, making her hope for love a reality.

While we may be charmed by the princess’s willowy figure, violet eyes, and permanently rouged lips, what truly makes her beautiful are her actions. Before this sounds too cliché, I’ll add that because of this, Princess Aurora is not the sleeping beauty at all. This title belongs to Maleficent. Her beauty is dormant for the film’s entirety because she refuses to give life to her potential for good.

Princess Aurora happens to have her eyes closed for little while. But even in this state, the faint smile and glowing complexion point to her active qualities of beauty. She is an expressive and alive manifestation of grace, imagination, hope, and heart. This is worth protecting, hence the reason the three good fairies and the prince go to such lengths to fight for her.

In the end, of course, good triumphs over evil. Maleficent dies when the sword of truth pierces her heart, or rather, when truth reveals her heart for what it is—nonexistent. This illustrates that denial of our inner beauty results in destruction while acting on our potential for good and developing the depth of our beautiful qualities leads to fulfillment. Princess Aurora serves as a reminder to wake up our sleeping beauty, to give it, and live it. Have you woken your sleeping beauty today?

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6 thoughts on “Wake Up Your Sleeping Beauty

  1. I definitely agree that many of the Disney princess films perpetuate negative stereotypes about women. However, in recent films such as Tangled and The Princess and the Frog, I believe that Disney has made an effort to provide independent, hard-working, and grounded female role models for young girls.

  2. Beautifully written, Megan. I like that the presence of the three good fairies passes the Bechdel test. I think the problem is that women were praised for a beauty that society required of them. The societal expectations were (are?) that women maintain the appearance of flawless selflessness and that their only true desire be for a male partner. I would love to praise the precious Aurora for her grace, but I feel like that would be like the government prasing the populace for submitting taxes. Just because Aurora happens to be very good at fulfilling society’s expectations of her, it should be acknowledged that that society also limits in what ways and to what extent she can express grace and beauty. If she were physically imperfect, or if she was more selfishly motivated by ambition, or if she didn’t float around singing about a man, she would be marked as flawed and labeled “masculine.” And I think that the female Maleficent is the epitome of womanhood-gone-wrong. I find it amusing how much I actually associate with female vilains because of their wit, cunning, and ambition!
    @lifelibertyandthepursuitofdisney: I think you’re definitely right that Disney is trying to produce more modern female characters. However, keep in mind that Tiana was willing to sacrifice her dream in order to be with her prince (who never stopped being… well, a man). A woman is always chastised for being cold-hearted when she pursues her ambitions/dreams and sacrifices her love life, but you never think a man is less of a man if he casually choses his career over a wife and family, do you? Or that he is a flawed, cold-hearted human being?
    On the whole, I think there is a lot to be praised about the feminine qualities, but until each gender is able to express equal parts of the masculine and feminine, true equality and respect will remain out of our grasp.

    1. I really appreciate the comments, Margaret! Great thoughts! There are so many things I could focus on for each of these princesses, but I try to keep each post somewhat quick and concise. I see your point about Aurora’s grace. Interestingly, the movie has some pretty overt religious undertones. With this in mind, she embodies not just a feminine, beautiful sense of grace (outlined by society), but a religious sense of grace. She represents for men and women “Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people.” Prince Philip’s journey to Aurora’s rescue also depicts this kind of grace (bestowed upon him by the three good fairies). That’s all I’ll say for now. Thanks again for your insight!

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