sleeping beauty or dormant date: disney’s representations of women, men and wickedness
Recently my local cinema ran a Disney Princess film festival. The festival showed some of the Disney Princess classics: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Brave, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and my personal childhood favourite, Sleeping Beauty. At eight dollars a pop,tickets were cheap and the audience members, predominantly young girls, were encouraged to dress up as their favourite Disney Princess in order to win a prize.
I went in armed with my oversized popcorn and choc top and watched as Princess Aurora’s tale of good and evil, fairy godmothers, Princes, Kings and dragons unfolded.
But I began to feel an ache of disappointment when I realised something about Princess Aurora’s story: she only has one purpose – to marry a Prince and join two Kingdoms. She is a pawn in a broader social game of gender inequality. I looked sadly at my choc top and the impressionable audience around me, noting the film’s potential to lead the audience down a dark path laden with anti-feminist messaging.
As the film rolled on, all appeared to be going well for the Princess. She meets her future husband, Prince Phillip, is showered with affection, and presented with gifts of beauty and song, courtesy of her three fairy godmothers, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.
Until the wicked fairy godmother Maleficent arrived. More than a little miffed by the fact she wasn’t invited to Aurora’s Christening, Maleficent places a curse on the Princess: On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning needle and die. Luckily for Aurora, she is yet to receive a gift from Merryweather, who uses her gift to weaken Maleficent’s curse – instead of death, Aurora will fall into a deep slumber until she is woken by true love’s first kiss.
The audience gasped at Maleficent’s presence as her tall, lean figure and sickly green face materialised to place her wicked curse. The cliché of the jealous stepmother figure or the questionable single Aunt, Maleficent poses a threat to the social norms of her time. She is masculine in her physical appearance, decisive, independent and a leader. She is the polar opposite to Aurora’s Mother, Queen Leah, who is petite, feminine and silent, not to mention Aurora herself who is essentially a corpse at the age of 16.
Maleficent is a representation of women – in particular strong women – as grotesque. This is seen through her transformation into a dragon; in order to achieve her goal of defeating Prince Phillip, she transforms into a murderous beast. We see this similarly in Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Ursula the sea witch, whose final showdown with Prince Eric sees her getting pierced by the stern of his boat.
In both cases, the act of killing these women involves an act of penetration. The weapons can be viewed as an extension of the Princes’ penises, symbolising an exchange of power that restores the social balance and reinforces the notion that man should always be in power. The message is quite clear for young ladies: if you are a proactive, independent thinker, you will be punished. If you are inactive and complicit you will be rewarded and live happily ever after.
One could argue that the film does hold some feminist principles. The characters who drive the plot are all female. Maleficent, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather appear to be the only individuals competent enough to get shit done. Comically, when the three good fairies have to live as peasants without their magic, they appear to fail at the traditionally female tasks of cooking, cleaning and sewing. What is disappointing here is that while these are all strong women, their strength comes from a supernatural source, suggesting that the only way a woman can be effective is through the adoption of the paranormal.
The male characters, King Stefan, King Hubert and Prince Phillip, are all quite hopeless. I don’t know that I’d be resting my faith on King Stefan to run a Kingdom. He may appear powerful and imposing in stature (note the moustache) but we can see from the scene in which he gets drunk with King Hubert that he is a confused pushover; King Hubert is a bumbling, classist drunk and Prince Phillip is all hormones, swinging his sword about and chasing a skirt he knows nothing about. This appears to be consistent with other men in Disney: Belle’s Father Maurice in Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine’s Father in Aladdin – and even Aladdin himself – present as fools. And yet, the Disney Princesses are still inferior and placed in situations where their fate rests upon the direction of these men.
A recent exception would be Disney’s 2012 film Brave. The Princess Merida’s choices and actions drive the plot and her views challenge ideas about what a Princess should or shouldn’t be, presenting a strong role model for the next generation.
Through the action (or inaction) of Princess Aurora, little girls have been and continue to be told that if they are pretty, of a reasonable (preferably ruling class) and are most of all passive, they will be rewarded with a Prince who will save her and make all of her dreams come true.
There is something beautiful about the idea that love itself is the answer and that the power of love can set you free, but the film sets expectations around who you should love. What would happen if true love’s first kiss came from a person of colour? A woman? Or, dare I say it, someone who doesn’t look like Ryan Gosling? Would Aurora wake up? Or would she wait for the well to do white Prince who can provide for her and give her the life her mother and father had wanted.
Considering the position of women in the period the original story was set (late 16th century)and when the film debuted in 1959, Aurora’s options were simply this: Be dormant or be dateable.
Freedom, choice and feminism in Aurora’s world? Once upon a dream indeed.