This article is part of a series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.
- Bechdel pass: yes
- Number of female characters: 6
- Goals: To marry her true love; to protect the princess; to kill the princess
- Lesson: Don’t leave the evil witch out of your birthday party
As I’m think many many people have discussed before, Sleeping Beauty isn’t really about Sleeping Beauty. It’s difficult to critique the way a Disney Princess is presented when she only has about 10 minutes of screen time and doesn’t say a word for the entire second half. There’s a reason that there’s no Sleeping Beauty 2 — Aurora doesn’t have enough of a character to support it.
Opinions will differ on whether or not this is a bad thing. While there isn’t time for her to show depth and character development, there isn’t really time for her to be “anti-feminist” either. She’s mostly an excuse for the rest of the plot to happen… and that plot, in a first (and possibly last?) for Disney, is driven by three older female characters.
I think the film would be better if Aurora had a bit more characterization. How does she feel about suddenly being told that she’s a princess and that her “family” isn’t really hers? What did she imagine her future being when she was just a peasant in the woods? How did she survive for sixteen years when her guardians seem completely incapable of even basic tasks without magic?? She would be a better character with more agency, with a voice of her own… but, as I said, the film isn’t really about her. It’s about the struggle between other female characters, not based on sexuality or jealousy, but on a pure “good vs evil” level.
Maleficient isn’t an ageing beauty or a vicious mother — she’s just an evil witch who delights in revenge and in emotionally torturing others, and she’s a pretty amazing (and terrifying) villain as a result. I mean, she changes into a dragon at the end. This is a villain who isn’t going to be chased off by a group of dwarfs or restricted to handing out extra chores. You don’t mess with Maleficient.
Meanwhile, the three fairies — Flora, Fauna and Merryweather — manage to be amusing and endearing, while still being badass in their own good, sweet way. Their initial gifts to Aurora (beauty and song) don’t seem the most useful things they could have bestowed, but as soon as the princess is at risk, they step up to the plate. They’re willing to put their whole lives, and all their power, on hold in order to raise her in safety. They clearly have an affectionate relationship with Aurora — unusual, when we consider that the last two Disney princess movies had the unconventional/non-birth mother figures as the villains. And although the film ostensibly shows Philip riding to Aurora’s rescue after the curse begins, he does nothing. The fairies drive every step.
Seriously. They fearlessly go to Maleficient’s castle to rescue him, reverting the idea that the prince must save the woman (or at least, having the woman’s mother figures rescue him first before he can actually get on this fairy tale hero business). They free him and provide him with a sword and shield. They turn any attacks against him into harmless flowers and give his horse superpowers to jump over the rising drawbridge. They cut him free of the thorns, when he rather uselessly gets himself tangled up in them. And when he faces Maleficient the Dragon, they are the ones who drive the sword into her heart.
Sure, Philip kisses the princess. But the fairies — the older female characters — do all of the rest. They are women who are clearly terrible at stereotypical domestic tasks, but who have power, and who use it fearlessly for good. They have personality and quirks, they are not conventionally beautiful, and they are certainly not young… but in the end, they are the heroes of the story.
Which, in my opinion, is pretty awesome for a movie made in 1959 by a company accused of anti-feminism. Sleeping Beauty might not be a kick-ass princess, but she has some pretty kickass mothers into the bargain.