Sleeping Beauty

Is this a reclamation or a bowdlerization or both? (Both.) By no means is the Disney company feminist; they're not now and they weren't then. However, by dint of trying to keep this from being a story of rape, by trying to market this toward both boys and girls, they accidentally crafted a story that centers women, that shows women repeatedly empowering, healing, and protecting each other, and they show powerful, capable women. At the same time, these powerful women are demonized (Maleficent), infantalized (the fairies trying to cook, clean, and sew), and/or simply ignored (the queen). Prince Philip might not rape Aurora, but he certainly invades her space upon seeing her, dancing with her without consent. (Somewhere some blood-raged child is demanding that there's nothing wrong with what Philip did--that child is so very wrong and that makes me so very sad.) And if she's 16, how the fuck old is he?

Yet. There is room here for a reclamation.

The easiest route to reclamation is the idea of awakening as a transgender or queer story. There's the whole pink vs. blue color battle going on, too. The fate vs. manipulation story has a lot of potential to be expounded upon. Maleficent has to manipulate Aurora into fulfilling her curse, but true love happened without anyone's machinations. Maleficent herself could easily be a queer or trans icon, monstrous and beautiful, transformative and dangerous and defiant and isolated. "Once Upon a Dream," a song about meeting the perfect someone in your subconscious, is pure trans metaphor. A sword, empowered by women, hurled into the chest of a woman turned into a dragon has so much to say about masculine vs. feminine vs. both vs. neither, but I haven't the energy to parse it.

I can remember seeing this several times as a child, but not in any contextual detail. The moments of the film stood out. Philip's ride to the castle through thorn and fire stood out, culminating in the impact of the word "hell" in a children's film (I recall my mom being surprised--but not offended). I remember the domestic ballet and magical duel in the cottage with whimsical pleasure. I remember the arrival of Maleficent and the sickly green pallor Aurora takes on when she touches the spindle. (That particular green light haunted me.) I remember pretty much all of it, but mostly, I remember "Once Upon a Dream," the melody of which has stuck with me, on and off, all my life. The scene itself mixes Disney cuteness, vivid backdrops (which are so much clearer on modern media), and a manifestation of cisheteronormative romance that none-the-less warms me. I don't want a prince to put his arms around me and sway me to a gentle song, but I want to know what it feels like. I want to be defined by that contrast even for a moment, a contrast I reject, but one that I yearn for at the same time. ("I want to know how you stay you/.../I want your brutal truth")

I also remember, subconsciously as much as otherwise, how this film looked. It perhaps informed my taste in animation as much as any other Disney animated canon film from my childhood. Watched on grainy VHS, it surely never looked like it did tonight, but the designs were clear. In my mind, dragons look like Maleficent, goblins look like her servants, and fairy dust is a gentle spray. The color palettes used in this film are so distinct, each setting, each group, each character has its own segment of the spectrum. Maleficent is black, white, and green, like shadow, winter, and poison. Her servants are dun and brown, grey and black, desaturated (metaphorically speaking) monsters whose dullness is antithetical to the three fairies, whose bright green, pink, and blue are shining torches in any given scene (their supernatural auras). (Before she takes on her ever-shifting princess dress, Aurora wears earth tones, blending in to her surroundings.) The castle is infused with gold (richness and authority), even when it's not; the cottage is surrounded by green and soft grey (flora fauna and merry weather hiding in nature with a hidden dawn disguised as a rose). The colors are not symbols so much as emotional fuel, (ehem) coloring the story as they go along.

This is coupled with character designs that have become iconic, most notably Maleficent, whose horns, pale countenance, jagged robes, and rigid sceptre make her appear to be the Devil, vampiric, and draconic all at once. She is a feminized coalescence of villainous iconography, made all her own; she is the "mistress of all evil." As much as I feel the stereotypical cisgender heterosexual femininity of Aurora and Philip's first dance, I feel the fearsome power of Maleficent. She makes kings tremble. She arrives in flame and darkness. She draws thorns from the ground with lightning; she is Hell's infernal might incarnate. Whatever backstory later films tried to give her is irrelevant; here, she is the fundamental evil of the world. She is scorn. She is called a "creature" by her enemies; her personhood is denied her. That denial is at the core of her power; her reality is malleable (and she is in control of it). If you consider the cisheteronormative problematics of the actual story, then Maleficent's rejection of kings and true love and civil nonsense is not villainy but defiance; yet I don't even want to--I want the villain this time. I want the darkness. I want to wash my enemies in green flame and bind them in black thorns and crush them under shattered stone. At least for tonight.

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