Feminist Readings on 1950s Cinema: Sleeping Beauty, or, How the Fluff-Heads Save the Kingdom.


After watching the Princess and the Frog (which is amazing and adorable, by the way), I felt compelled to track down and watch some more Disney princess movies, starting with Sleeping Beauty. Since I’m now watching movies from a feminist perspective, instead of the 6-year-old perspective I had when I last saw this film, I was… very amused, actually.

I’m convinced that the fairies are the only competent characters in this film. Also the only characters who actually DO anything, or have personalities. They’re still a bunch of fluff-headed ninnies, but I’m pretty sure they’re the least fluff-headed people in the kingdom, which makes me concerned for the well-being of the kingdom.

The movie starts telling you how King Stephan and his Queen, who love each other very much, have had a daughter, named Aurora. Unlike her mother, who doesn’t have a name. Whenever someone refers to her in the movie, it’s always “King Stephan, and the Queen (whose name we apparently never bothered to learn).” Really? Did the budget just not allow for one more name? There’s a moment later on in the film, where Merriwhether pauses for a moment between “King Stephan” and “the Queen,” where I can only presume she’s thinking “and that tart who stole Prince Stephan away from us three free-loving ladies, what was her name again? Man, the 1320s were a great decade.”

Anyway, yay, they’re throwing a party, and the whole kingdom’s invited, except for the evil witch (because she always brings these really awful fruitcakes baked with evil when you invite her to parties), and the peasantry, because they’re stinky. Maleficient calls attention to this when she refers to the fairies as the “rabble”, which is probably technically true, because they’re not “royalty, nobility” or “gentry”, which are apparently the other invited groups. But yeah. No peasants allowed.

So the fairies start giving the child gifts. Flora grants her Beauty. Okay, not my first choice — maybe she’d do better with the love of her people, or lifelong peace in her kingdom? — but it’s traditional, and people do tend to prefer pretty royalty. Then Fauna comes up, and grants her Song. SONG? You have only three fairies, three gifts, and SONG makes the top three? Not Mercy, or Wisdom or any number of attributes that would actually be useful to a future heir to the throne? I will grant that later in the movie, song appears to give her the ability to win the hearts of man and beast, which could probably be used tactically in a pinch and possibly extended to winning the love of her people, if she’s willing to sing to (near?) the Peasantry (unlikely).

Moving on, Maleficent shows up, lays a terrible curse, but because little Merriweather hadn’t yet given her gift, she manages a pretty clever way to gentle the curse.
Decisive actions for the fairies: 1
Usefulness: 1

So it seems pretty obvious to the characters that Aurora must be kept away from spinning wheels for the next sixteen years. King Stephan’s plan is to burn all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. Great plan. Because, y’know, it’s not like we were using those spinning wheels for anything important. They were mostly just artistic playthings, really. Never mind that we’ll have to import all of our spun wool (and probably our clothing) from other kingdoms (WITH SPINNING WHEELS) for the next sixteen years. Top marks.
Decisive actions for King Stephan: 1
Usefulness: 0

Meanwhile, the fairies call a planning session, and come up with a pretty decent plan. Hide the princess as a peasant! Maleficent will never check there! (Really, Disney, did it occur to you that most of your audience is technically peasantry? What’s with the constant insults towards the common people?)
Decisive actions for the fairies: 2
Usefulness: 2

Sixteen years later, in Maleficent’s castle, it only now occurs to her to talk to her minions, and she finds out that they’ve been looking for a baby. For sixteen years. You’d think that she’d be a little bit more on top of this, maybe mention that they should stop checking cradles, oh, ten years ago? Anyway, finally realizing that the hired help (peasants?) is incompetent, she sends the talking animal, instead.
Decisive actions for Maleficent: 1
Usefulness: 1 (only ten years late…)

Deep in the woods, we find out that the fairies have never learned how to cook, clean or sew, despite having lived as “peasants” for 16 years without using magic. It’s made clear that Aurora hasn’t met other people, so it isn’t as though they’re hiring local help. My best guess is that Aurora became housekeeper to the fairies around age six, and did absolutely everything while they just sat around like ninnies, but that doesn’t explain who did the cooking before Aurora was born. Seriously, these are the characters who are the most decisive and helpful in the film, but apparently they’ve been living on nuts and berries for sixteen years?

Meanwhile, Aurora gets one scene to prove that she has personality. (She doesn’t.) Shown personality traits: dreamy, nice to old women and animals, obedient. She does, however, demonstrate the magical power of her song to coerce the woodland creatures into doing her bidding, and to net her a prince, who falls in love at first… hearing? She’d get points for this, if only she was doing it on purpose. Instead she seems to assume that both are the natural ways of the universe, which given her apparent upbringing, is not hard to believe.

Prince and Princess go off to their respective guardians, and announce that they’ve met someone, and have fallen in love. The difference of actions here is interesting. Princess: weeps (only in private), but accepts her fate and duty as a Princess and future Queen, and returns to the castle with her guardians. Not the best option for personality or strong women, but she does get points for willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of her kingdom. Prince: Insults his father and the King of the kingdom he’s visiting (as an honored guest), and runs off recklessly into the forest to abandon duty, family and throne so that he can marry some peasant girl who is clearly a good life partner because she has magical singing. Aurora’s going to get points here for not being a total selfish, spoiled nitwit.
Royal actions actually benefiting the kingdom: 1
Usefulness: 1

Off in the forest, Phillip runs right into a trap, wishes he spent more time taking combat training and less time fixing his hair, and Maleficent throws him in her dungeon. Very low-magic solution here, but very effective. Phillip has no army, no tools, and told no one where he was going. Great planning skills from the future king.

While everyone else is being idiotic and useless, the fairies take care of not leaving Aurora on the floor, putting the rest of the castle to sleep so that no one panics (or declares war, which seems possible given that King Stephan and King Hubert are both nitwits, and Hubert loses his temper pretty quickly).
Decisive actions for the fairies: 4

They investigate, find the worst, then go to rescue Phillip. They release him, arm him, lead him out of the castle, and cleverly deal with obstacles in his path. Phillip helpfully swings his sword about.
Fairies: 9
Phillip: 1
Then Phillip swings his sword about some more, and the fairies help him out more than once, in addition to telling him how to kill the dragon, and even enchanting his sword so that he can’t miss (I’m pretty sure that without the enchantment, he would’ve missed).

Yay, they win, they dance, and everyone lives happily ever after. I think it’s very interesting that Prince doesn’t actually really save Princess. The fairies have to save BOTH of them. Thankfully the fairies stick around afterward to protect the kingdom, because both royal families are apparently composed of nitwits.


4 Responses to “Feminist Readings on 1950s Cinema: Sleeping Beauty, or, How the Fluff-Heads Save the Kingdom.”

  1. 1 Daniel

    So, while it was only a brief mention in the beginning of this post, and while this post is about unnecessary sexism in media, I have to ask how The Princess and The Frog measures up racially. Now, I did not get to see the movie yet, but here is what I took away from the trailer.

    1). Disney: “Yay! Look at us! We’re progressive! We have a Black Princess, finally, to join the ranks of our “Princess” franchise.”
    2). “Princess” isn’t even a princess, that’s just her name.
    3). Congratulations, first black princess… only she promptly is turned into a frog, and spends most of the movie, not as a princess, but an amphibian. So, wouldn’t she really be their first “green princess”?
    4). Our intrepid, racial boundary crossing heroine… is still chasing after a decidedly white prince? (http://www.racebending.com/v3/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/princess-tiana-and-paa4781.jpg)
    5.) In an attempt to reverse their sad curse, hero and heroine tromp throughout Cajun land, meeting an ever extending parade of bad, African-American stereotypes.

    So, having seen it, would you say that this perception gained only through previews is correct, or does it do a good job with things?

  2. 1) You’re right, but I also think that’s a bit unfair. They’ve already had a Native American Princess, an Asian Princess and an Arabic Princess. The movie industry is overwhelmingly white, and it’s extremely rare to have a minority in the lead in ANY movie. Disney is at least trying, and their track record for minorities is actually pretty decent. What about Pixar? (Before or after being bought by Disney.) They were supposed to be a progressive company, but they have yet to have a minority (or a woman) in a leading role–and they’re rare in supporting roles, either. No one expects Disney to be progressive, yet they’re getting judged pretty harsh on their black princess, when at least they’re trying.
    2) The movie was originally called “The Frog Princess”, which would have been more accurate. But as to her not being of royal birth, I say so what? The Disney Princess franchise has been based for years upon the idea that every girl is a princess. Mulan and Belle weren’t princesses, either.
    3) Yes, she spends most of the movie as a frog. So what? Mulan spent most of the movie dressed as a boy, does that make her the first “boy princess”?
    4) That picture does make him look unfortunately pale-skinned, but no, actually, Prince Naveen appears to be vaguely Arabic. He is from a country called Maldonia, of unspecified location, and there’s never any attention drawn to his race. Try this picture, instead: http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/9400000/Prince-Naveen-disney-9444181-766-407.jpg
    I do, however, think this is a very interesting point, and worthy of discussion. I think the Arabic choice for prince was probably their only option. If Naveen had been white, like your original objection, it would seem like the ideal “prince” was still white. If he was black, that’s just as bad–then it seems like she’s required to marry within her race. The vague choice of a possibly-arabic but definitely non-white prince seems to me like the only option left.
    I also object to your “intrepid, racial boundary-crossing” comment, because like I pointed out above, she’s not Disney’s first non-white princess.
    5) This is almost entirely inaccurate. I (as most people) was on the lookout for how stereotypes were handled, and I think they did a wonderful job. I felt that every issue they approached was handled respectfully–it was Disneyfied, of course, but still respectful. One of the ways I didn’t expect this was the Voodoo. I had expected a strictly Christian worldview from Disney, but they actually managed to pull off a feeling of a… Voodoo-worldview? There wasn’t a single note of Christianity, but there was a lot of Voodoo, and I thought that was very interestingly handled, especially how it was Disneyfied.
    There was only one instance in which I felt they relied upon stereotypes instead of handling things respectfully. While tromping through the swamps, they came across three hillbilly brothers–all idiots, all probably inbred, all stereotypes to their core. But, they were white. It was the one thing in the movie that I didn’t think was handled respectfully, but I wasn’t sure it needed to be. Those three characters were the three-stooges of the movie. I would be very interested if anyone DID think that section was offensive, but for the entire rest of the movie, I think Disney made a very heartfelt effort to be respectful of everything it presented.

    I think you should go see the movie. It’s not the best movie you’ll ever see, no, and it’s up to you if it’s the best Disney movie. I thought it was adorable, and I had very few complaints.

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