Join the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot Books

There have been some lively exchanges at Home Office lately about the need for spirited and dynamic heroines in our stories, rather than ‘limp-wristed blondes’ (I quote our esteemed senior editor, Kate De Palma, who has a different hair colour). Being quite a feminist bunch, we are on our guard to avoid storylines where the message seems to be ‘just lie around looking beautiful and a man will come along and solve your problems’.

So where does this leave stories like ’The Sleeping Beauty’? This question has preoccupied me, as I have reviewed my midwinter entertainment options and realised that what I most want to see is Matthew Bourne’s super-famous production of this ballet, which will return to Sadler’s Wells in London for the festive season.

Am I betraying my feminist principles by making this choice?

I don’t think so. Here’s why.

First, there is a quite particular dynamic in the set-up of this story that sets the context for Aurora’s fate. The king makes a serious mistake by failing to invite the thirteenth fairy, Carabosse. Perhaps it’s because he’s so overwhelmed with joy at the birth of a much longed-for baby girl that he simply forgets. Perhaps it is an intentional slight. Perhaps, as Angelina Jolie suggests in Maleficent there is an even darker backstory. Whatever way you look at it, though, this is a wounding of the feminine principle (Carabosse is a woman; only twelve fairies are on the godmother guest list and the number thirteen is the number of moon cycles in a year, driven out by more recent Western cultural traditions).

And this is the wound that sets the story in motion.

Join the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot Books

From The Barefoot Book of Fairy Tales, retold by Malachy Doyle and illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli

At the baby Aurora’s christening, there is a compelling power struggle between the death-giving anger of Carabosse and life-giving power of the Lilac fairy, both of them super-strong female presences. The outcome of this, as we all know, is that Aurora is saved from death, but destined to fall into a deep sleep when she pricks her finger on a spindle. So now we have an impasse—the life-death/good-bad wishes of these two magical women have created a situation which needs masculine agency to come into play for another shift to occur.

This can only happen at the right time, though—plenty of princes try at the wrong time and don’t get through the thicket of thorns to the palace. Florimund, the prince who is lucky enough to be successful, is a young man whose name strongly suggests that he is in touch with his inner feminine (his name translates ‘Flower World,’ after all). For him, the thickets bloom into rose bushes and part. To me, this speaks to that aspect of feminism which seeks to value and support feminine qualities in boys and men. Florimund does not need to be a sword-wielding hero; what he does need is the courage to step into a vast, surreal and eerie series of rooms where everyone appears to be dead—not an easy task and one which, I would suggest, can only be met by someone who cares about what has happened and is not afraid to step into a death-like space to find out.

A word too about Aurora before she pricks her finger. This girl is lucky enough to be blessed with many qualities from her twelve fairy godmothers, all of them ones which I think any mother wishes for her daughter. However, the godmothers cannot give this child a trouble-free journey through life any more than we can for ours. Aurora is also given to be curious  and independent—she is not a goody two-shoes who just hangs out at her sixteenth birthday party lapping up the compliments of local gallants; at the earliest opportunity, she slips off to do some exploring (uh-oh).

For me, there is something satisfyingly complete about the shape of this story: the feminine principle is wounded by a king’s careless act so it must be rectified by the loving gesture of a next-generation hero.

And it is.

What do you think? Is ‘Sleeping Beauty’ feminist? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Join the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot Books

…by the way, I think Tchaikovksy’s music for this ballet is wonderful. It’s no wonder to me
that ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is the world’s longest-running ballet production. I am booking my tickets today!

Join the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot Books

If you’d like a refresher on the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ story before deciding for yourself, you will find three versions of it in this season’s catalogue, in The Barefoot Book of Fairy Tales, The Barefoot Book of Princesses and The Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories:

Join the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot BooksJoin the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot BooksJoin the Conversation: Is Sleeping Beauty Feminist? | Barefoot Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

The major themes of the story are the same in each retelling, so you can take your pick! 

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