Feminizing Fairy Tales

This might surprise you: I love watching old Disney movies. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and all those that teach girls that the best shot they have in life is to be pretty and cheery. (Well, maybe not Cinderella. She’s got a surprisingly strong and sassy character that’s overshadowed by the abuse.) I find that the long musical numbers and relatively simple plots make them great background noise while I make fresh attempts at knitting something other than scarves and blankets. It took me three times to make a goddamn hat, okay? Moving on.

A little while ago, I put on Sleeping Beauty, and out of curiosity decided to look up the original story behind the Disney classic.

If any of you have tried doing this with any fairy tale, you know that the originals tend to be very, very dark. There’s a frankly disturbing amount of torture and death in these so-called children’s stories. Disney had to scrub a lot of bloodstains out before presenting them to modern audiences, but Sleeping Beauty takes the cake.

In a nutshell: a king wanders into an abandoned castle with a sleeping maiden, rapes her, she gives birth to twins and wakes up, he comes back and marries her, only for his original wife to hear of this, blame the victim, and try to kill Sleeping Beauty and the twins. The queen gets chucked into a fire for her troubles, and Sleeping Beauty gets to live happily ever after with her kids and rapist.

Yeesh.

Obviously stories change over time, both for worse and–in this case–better. Stories reflect and reinforce the values of the people telling them. Disney is an interesting example. You can see the effect of feminism on America for the last ninety years, from Snow White to Frozen. Despite the long way we have to go, there’s still been remarkable progress that you can clearly track in our modern media.

And honestly, this is the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in a long time. Look at Sleeping Beauty  again. The movie came out in 1959, a.k.a. The Golden Age of White Supremacy and Sexism in America. The leading lady’s defining characterizations are that she’s pretty and likes to sleep in. The leading man is a little creepy. The overall theme is that romantic love will save the day. And let’s face it: character growth is almost nonexistent.

It’s still a far cry better than “Hey, kids, rape is a great way to kick off a romantic relationship!” And, despite being written in the ‘50s, there are a surprising number of strong femme characters. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather each have their own distinct personalities and major impact on the plot. And Maleficent is still considered one of the most iconic villains in history.

Then we have another jump: from Sleeping Beauty to Maleficent in 2014. While it re-introduces sexual assault to the story (Stephon taking Maleficent’s wings is a metaphor for date rape), it’s portrayed as the actions of a villain rather than a hero. The three good fairies lose their effectiveness, but Aurora gains some herself by taking a more active role in her story. Philip loses the creep factor. The day is saved by the platonic love between a mother and daughter figure. And there’s actual growth and arcs for the characters! Crazy.

So what’s the point of me rambling about this?

There are a lot of think pieces on the internet saying “you shouldn’t mess with a great story.” These tend to be people who push back against reboots and remakes. And while reboots and remakes sometimes deserve their bad reputation, changing a story over time can be a good thing. The way audiences view right and wrong, moral and immoral–that changes. Modern audiences are horrified by the original Sleeping Beauty story, and for good reason.

Like it or not, audiences love reboots. And a lot of stories need them.

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P.S. I’ve written a few fairy tale reboots myself, in a series called Twisted Tales on Patreon here. You can also hear me butcher some Spanish while I read one of them–a Little Mermaid remix–on the radio here.

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