Sleeping Beauty

I watched this as a prelude to seeing Maleficent, for the first time since I was a very young child. At a scant 75 minutes, its plot is too simple and iconic to forget. But what leapt out at me, viewing the film as an adult, is how thinly-disguised its explorations of patriarchal sexuality are.

Because, really, who wins in the end? The two kings, one of whom assigns his young son to marry the other's newborn girl, in a move to consolidate their two kingdoms. I don't know if I'd say that Aurora has come out the victor here.

Maleficent explicitly stands in as the Lucifer figure of the story, but as Paradise Lost teaches us, is Lucifer really a villain? Or does Lucifer stand in for sex, passion, rage, spontaneity, the subconscious and the shadow? You don't have to wade too far into the binary subtext to get a picture of Maleficent as an unstoppable force of magic, power and sexuality, demonized by a patriarchal world.

The real conflict throughout the story is not between the Prince and Maleficent. The Prince is just a proxy for those dubious agents of this patriarchal society: the "good" fairies, gatekeepers of respectable womanhood. Two of these fairies, Flora and Fauna, are sort of hapless, imbuing baby Aurora with the gifts of rose-like beauty and melodious song. They create for her an idealized construction of femininity, without anything shadowy, an almost inhuman ideal. The subtle and enduring mystery of Sleeping Beauty is what the third fairy, Merryweather, intended to endow the infant princess with before being interrupted by the evil Maleficent. Once Maleficent curses Aurora to die on her 16th birthday (as blunt a metaphor for being destroyed by your own sexual awakening as I've ever heard), Merryweather uses her magic to gift Aurora with a second chance at life, installing a loophole in Maleficent's curse whereby a "true love's kiss" will awaken Aurora from her death-sleep.

Merryweather is the really elusive and interesting figure of the piece. It hardly seems accidental that she is constantly fighting with Fauna, the 'head' fairy, to be colored baby blue instead of hot pink. This choice of colors seems way too self-evidently gendered to ignore. Merryweather is the odd fairy out, the one who grumbles and resists giving up magic, exhibits anger and frustration, and continually insists on what the wonderful world of gender stereotypes has deemed a "boy color". Sleeping Beauty is a rich tapestry of colors and I think it's just ripe to be dissected for its color symbolism - I'd love to see someone make sport of the fact that the good fairies are red, green and blue, for example.

In the end, despite their efforts, the good fairies let Aurora out of their sight just long enough for her to be drawn towards Maleficent's trap, the cursed needle, which pairs to the spinning wheel, a heavily gendered object. I think Aurora's own organic sexuality is sublimated into malevolent green fire, orgies of beasts and devious ravens, roaring black dragons and gardens of black thorns. Her agency and sexuality, as seen through a lens of patriarchal power.

The "good" fairies, then, are actually sort of terrible! They are female in appearance but quite explicitly not human. They, more than anyone, aid the men in power in shaping Aurora into their ideal of feminine docility and sex appeal. Merryweather is the only one who seems to hang on to a few of her more Luciferian traits, perhaps then representing an uneasy compromise between the reality of patriarchy and the authentic forces of sex, spontaneity, rage, and joy. To the end, she refuses to allow herself, or Aurora, to simply "be pink".

The last piece of this interesting puzzle, for me, is the fact that Prince Phillip meets Aurora when neither has any idea who the other is. Despite the fact that they are betrothed, they meet as strangers and neither knows the other as their betrothed. You might say this is an argument for 'true love' or whatever, but actually I think it's an implicit indictment of those standards of femininity. By falling in love before they even know each other's names, it seems that Aurora and Phillip are already molded by the society they've inherited, regardless of royal pronouncements made years ago by their parents. In a way, that might be the most insidious thing of all: that patriarchy, before it is ever enshrined in money, might, and law, is something that takes root around the minds of children long before they know it's there. Almost makes you wish a big ol' sex dragon would come and blow it all away.

Dara K. liked these reviews