Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The
stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped shaping the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of such tales, these 101 series of articles aim to reach a greater understanding of the beginning of fairy tales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairy tales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.
Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:
• Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty
• The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid
• The 21st Century Fairy Tale: A modern twist on traditional works.
Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty
Deriving from folktales, fairytales quickly became popular within the children’s literature genre. Adults would use them as bedtime stories, assuming that they have the power to instill moral values and social norms in their children. Set in magical settings and always ending with happily ever afters, children would identify with the protagonists of these stories who were portrayed as virtuous, pure and innocent. However, modern scholars started questioning the moral validity of these tales and whether or not they convey any principles at all. Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty (1697) is the center of many controversial debates, as feminist scholars argue its patriarchal and abusive nature. This article will attempt to explore its origins and analyze its concealed gender stereotypical aspects.
Fairytales have a tendency to revolve around helpless female characters and their macho hero coming to the rescue. What is mostly interesting is that the villains in these stories are almost exclusively women, including mothers and stepmothers. This contrast does not really convey a healthy familial environment or a stable parent-children relationship. Ironically, it creates a fear based correlation between children and their mothers. Shamna (2017) states that: “Motherhood is thus degraded in most of these fairy tales and simultaneously young boys are indirectly encouraged to disregard and neglect their own mothers” (p. 28). The controversy lies within this feminine double standards where the villains are overly powerful and violent characters in comparison to the weak and helpless protagonists. In the most famous retellings of Sleeping Beauty, the princess is awakened from her curse-induced coma with a kiss. As the girl is clearly unconscious, this is a case of sexual harassment as she is unable to give the prince her consent. Not only is she awakened by a stranger but she eventually marries him, although she does not know him at all.
Furthermore, the tale has various plots that were written by multiple authors throughout the time. All of them include the fatal needle that leads to the slumber of the princess. Generally, many critics see the needle as a phallic symbol, the manifestation of a dominant patriarchy. The needle puts Aurora to sleep, a still state of silence. This is representative of an abusive society, which silences women as soon as they reach the appropriate age. Aurora had just turned 16, the17th century equivalent of adulthood, and is immediately neutralized before she has the opportunity to form her own identity and opinion. She is, thus, the victim of a toxic masculine society that reduced her to an unconscious and thoughtless object, conveniently enough, with the help of an item specifically attributed to obedient housewives. According to Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz (2003), “Children’s fairy tales, which emphasize such things as women’s passivity and beauty, are indeed gendered scripts and serve to legitimatize and support the dominant gender system” (p. 711). Scholars were left to explore the kind of moral lessons this story is teaching a vulnerable and sensitive audience: for girls to be pretty and silent; for boys to harass and dominate. Yue (2012) takes this notion a step further and claims that: “Sleeping Beauty’s unconsciousness is not so different from her conscious state: both actual passivity in sleep, and presumed activity in waking, are subject to the whims of men” (p. 33). The fact that not many people realize the absurdity of having a motionless and static protagonist for almost the entirety of the story is shocking to the modern researcher’s discerning eye.
Although the story presents a variety of versions, all of them seem to have some kind of male hero that eventually saves the day and marries the beautiful princess. The only exception is Basile’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, entitled Sun, Moon, and Talia (1636) where Princess Talia is awakened by her two children sucking one of her fingers, not by the interference of a man. Nonetheless, male characters play the role of hero throughout the rest of Basile's story: Talia's children are saved from being devoured with the help of a male cook. Another interesting twist was added to the original tale by the Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela, who creates a one-of-a-kind prince. According to Rodriguez (2002), in Valenzuela’s story, we meet a hero who despises his role, which is to wake up a protagonist who has been asleep for a hundred years because, according to the narrator, his kisses have the power to awaken all the damsels he has kissed throughout his life. The issue is that his kisses not just to wake them up, but they also recover their own will and desires, which the prince abhors. This showcases an extreme side of patriarchy which cannot fathom the idea of a woman having her own dreams, desires, and life.
If one decides to focus on the title itself, it becomes rapidly clear that this is an old tale, not worthy of 21st century readers. The title is made up of two parts: sleep and thus lack of motion, and beauty. There seems to be no obvious correlation between the two concepts, however, after having read the tale, the critical reader realizes that part of Aurora’s charm and the prince’s love for her is the fact that she is a doll-like, lifeless figure. Semsar (2014) mentions that: “In Perrault’s version, there are clear classical pre-revolutionary ideas of patriarchy and gender-specific ideals of female passivity” (p. 4). Thus, the story is a perfect example of the French proverb “Sois belle et tais toi!” which roughly translates to: Shut up and look pretty. This is an outdated way of objectifying and undermining women that just does not fit in the 21st century. Baker-Sperry & Grauerholz (2003) claim that: “Fairy tales, like other media convey messages about the importance of feminine beauty not only by making ‘beauties’ prominent in stories but also in demonstrating how beauty gets its rewards” (p. 722). The so-called protagonist Aurora is then reduced and limited to her innate attractive physical appearance which is the extent of what is told about her in the story. Shamna (2017) debates that:
“The unnecessary importance laid on the attribute of beauty here, again injects wrong impressions into young boys, who by reading such fairy tales would probably grow into individuals who believe beauty is the only factor that determines their happiness in married life” (p. 28).
Therefore, the tale is anti-feminist and explicitly allows the degradation, sexualization and objectification of women, revealing to the reader the 17th century social mentality.
To sum up, Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty is not as morally rich and empowering as previously thought. It is a tale of rape, patriarchal oppression and feminine passivity, thus, perfectly reflecting its time period. However, the modern audience has no use of such a story that revolves around physical superficiality, non-consensual sexual harassment, and pedophilic tendencies. These key elements in the tale deem it unfit for children as it does not provide any meaningful moral values and ideals, but instead will instill in their minds the kind of gender stereotypes that have conditioned women to a discriminating and difficult life.
Baker-Sperry, L., & Grauerholz, L. (2003). The pervasiveness and persistence of the feminine beauty ideal in children's fairy tales. Gender & society, 17(5), 711-726.
Basile, G. (2001). Sun, Moon, and Talia. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, 685-688.
Perrault, C., & Cruikshank, P. (1889). The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. William W. Gibbings.
Rodriguez, C. F. (2002). The Deconstruction of the Male-Rescuer Archetype in Contemporary Feminist Revisions of" The Sleeping Beauty". Marvels & Tales, 16(1), 51-70.
Semsar, S. (2014). Sleeping Beauty through the ages.
Shamna, R. (2017). The Making of Masculinity: Readings on the Male Stereotypes in Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 3(11).
Yue, G. (2012). Two sleeping beauties. Film Quarterly, 65(3), 33-37.
Alexander Zick (1900), Dornröschen [Painting], Märchen, Grot'scher Verlag, Berlin 1975.
Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1902), Sleeping Beauty [Oil Painting], Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
Gustave Dorés (1867), La Belle Au Bois Dormant [Illustration], Les Contes de Perrault.
Louis Sussmann-Hellborn (1878), Dornröschen [Marble Sculpture], Old National Gallery.