For those of you that don’t know, Sleeping Beauty is the story of a beautiful princess who, when cursed by an evil fairy, pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls into what is basically a magical coma. She lies around snoozing for a little bit – some say for a few months, some say for a hundred years – she is woken by a kiss from a prince, who conveniently happens to be her one true love, and they live happily ever after.
Much like Snow White, the story seems to have popped up in the early Medieval period, when making out with unconscious women was less of a red flag. Rather than being based on a real person, the story seems to have come out of an old Arthurian legend – but that’s a blog post for another time. The story spread across Europe like nobody’s business, and before long multiple versions popped up in pretty much every country on the continent.
The story has gone on to become hugely influential. The most popular version of the story is the one made known by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but the story has gone on to be one of the most well-known in the world. Sleeping Beauty has been adapted into films, poems, operas, musicals, a ballet, edgy YA re-tellings, TV shows, satire, anime and computer games – and, bizarrely, for Anne Rice’s brief jaunt into erotica.
There’s thousands of versions of the Sleeping Beauty story – but I’m only going to look at six. I’ll be looking at each variation of the story and seeing how it measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.
Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!
This version of the fairy tale is widely accepted as the basis for Perrault and the brothers Grimm’s child-friendly re-telling. The ‘sleeping beauty’ in this story is called Talia, and when she’s born her horoscope says she’ll die from a splinter, and because horoscopes are always completely and utterly infallible, this is exactly what happens. She falls into a deep sleep and is left in her house – only for a passing king to break in, rape her, and leave her to give birth to twins nine months later. The twins wake her up and she ends up trying to marry the king – but he already has a wife, who tries to feed Talia and her children to a BUCKET FULL OF SNAKES. Of course this doesn’t work, the wife is executed, and Talia and King Rapist live happily ever after (for want of a better term).
Talia has absolutely no control over her life in this version, doing absolutely nothing for herself. No hobbies, goals or beliefs she has are even mentioned and in fact, her personality is never discussed either – she’s a completely empty vessel. Her entire trajectory through the story depends on her beauty and her relationship to the king, and don’t even get me started on him. Talia doesn’t get to make any decisions about her love life because her ‘Prince Charming’ just flat out rapes her while she’s unconscious, and then brings her back to his castle to be his live-in side piece.
She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t have any weaknesses – but that’s because she doesn’t have a personality to begin with. The most she manages to do to influence the blog is get a splinter and drag out the bucket-full-of-snakes incident long enough for the king to rescue her but frankly, that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. The only other female character she relates to is the king’s wife, who’s jealous of her beauty – we don’t see any other relationship with a female character, even though she has a daughter. She’s also an incredible step backwards for gender stereotypes because her entire story rests on the poisonous belief that rape was not a crime, and that it could lead to a strong and loving relationship between the rapist and their victim. She’s a woman-shaped receptacle in the story, filled with outdated stereotypes and frankly disgusting ideas, rather than a character with any kind of agency or personality.
FINAL SCORE: 0.5/10
The version by Charles Perrault is much more child-friendly, as it thankfully doesn’t include any rape. The story travels along broadly similar lines, although this time the young princess is cursed by a jealous fairy who wasn’t invited to her christening. Death is scaled back to a really long sleep, and when she pricks her finger, the castle is covered in thorns and everyone else falls asleep along with her. One hundred years later, along comes a handsome prince who thankfully just gives her a kiss instead of going full Game of Thrones, she wakes up and they get married. The jealous wife of the previous version is now an Ogress and a jealous mother-in-law, who tries to feed her own grandchildren to her son, but thankfully the prince puts a stop to that and everyone lives happily ever after.
The princess in this version still doesn’t have much agency, as everything depends on curses, princes and a jealous mother-in-law, but we do get a sense of her personality. She’s generically kind, good and innocent all through the story, but goals, hobbies and beliefs are never mentioned. You can’t talk about her without describing her physical appearance or kiss from the prince, she barely makes any decisions at all and those she does are mostly to do with her love life, and she neither develops nor exhibits a weakness.
She doesn’t really do a lot in the story at all – she’s rescued from the snake bucket by a kindly cook, and her pricking her finger is attributed to Fate rather than her own curiousity. Like Basile’s version, we only see her interact with the jealous Ogress/mother-in-law, and while this Sleeping Beauty doesn’t fall in love with her rapist she’s so passive and generic that she’s still a massive step backwards. All in all, she’s a pretty flat character.
FINAL SCORE: 1/10
The Disney version is probably the one that modern audiences are most familiar with. Drawing on the Grimm and Perrault versions but thankfully removing the part with the snake, this is pretty straightforward re-telling. The fairy Maleficent isn’t invited to the Princess Aurora’s christening and curses her to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. When the spell is softened to a sleep broken by true love’s kiss, she’s spirited away by three fairies to be raised in secret in the woods. She grows up and falls in love with the prince she’s supposed to marry, but when she’s taken back to the castle she pricks her finger anyway and falls asleep. The prince kills Maleficent, wakes up Aurora and they all live happily ever after.
Much like the original fairy tale, Aurora isn’t really in control of her own life – she’s led through the story by the curse and other characters. We don’t hear an awful lot about her goals, hobbies and beliefs, but we know she enjoys singing and wants to marry Prince Philip.
She’s consistently good, kind, sweet and innocent but can’t really be described without referencing her appearance or storyline with the prince. Her love life is actually the only thing she really wants for herself – she doesn’t appear to have any other goals or ambitions. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have a weakness, and she doesn’t influence the plot either. You could make a case that her falling in love with Philip is a force on the story, but it isn’t really – when she first meets him she doesn’t know she’s engaged to him, and when the fairies tell her she has to marry a prince (not realising she’s already met him) she instantly accepts that she has to marry him, even though she thinks she’ll be giving up her true love and making herself miserable.
She interacts a lot more with female characters – such as her mother, the three fairies and Maleficent – but these interactions aren’t given any detail. For example, even though they raised her, she barely differentiates between the three fairies. She doesn’t do much better in terms of gender stereotypes – she’s not much more than the stereotypical beautiful, kind and graceful princess. Long story short, she does a bit better than the original but she’s still an incredibly passive character.
FINAL SCORE: 2/10
Let’s fast forward to the nineties. This retelling of the traditional Sleeping Beauty story keeps a lot of the classic elements, but in a slightly different way. When Princess Sonora is cursed, she’s given other fairy blessings too – like the gift of intelligence. Already an insufferable know-it-all at six months old, she starts planning to use her curse to her advantage; she’ll only prick her finger and fall asleep when she’s good and ready for it. Unfortunately, her plan to use the curse to back out of an unwanted engagement backfires and it’s not until a hundred years later that a different prince wakes her up with a kiss.
From the very beginning Sonora is in control – she decides that since she’s been cursed, she may as well use it to her advantage, and hides away a spindle in case she needs it. She loves reading, believes that she doesn’t need sleep (what with that curse hanging over her) and her long-term goal is to get out of marrying an incredibly boring prince. She’s consistently logical, intelligent, creative and an insufferable know-it-all, and her lack of enthusiasm for her engagement means it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life.
Her love life is a pretty big feature of the story, but it isn’t the focus of all her decisions – she decides to plan ahead for her own future, to learn as much as she can and to avoid sleeping. She doesn’t really develop over the course of the story but she does have a weakness – her endless fount of knowledge makes her absolutely insufferable, she isn’t always respectful of other people and she can be very dispassionate, all of which stop her from making friends.
She comes up with a plan to subvert the curse and avoid marriage on her own, completely disregards the traditional passivity associated with the Sleeping Beauty story and proves herself to be a clever and manipulative young woman – not exactly typical Disney Princess behaviour. She also has a wide range of relationships with different female characters including her mother, the fairies and people in the palace, although most of these take the same slightly condescending tone. All in all, this is a very refreshing look at Sleeping Beauty that manages to keep a lot of the traditional elements – it’s definitely worth a read!
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
This recent adaptation of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t focus on the princess, but the wicked witch at the centre of it all – the titular Maleficent. A retelling of the Disney animated film, this version makes Maleficent the central character, spending a significant amount of time on the relationship she had with the princess’s father. After he steals Maleficent’s wings, she curses his daughter in revenge, prompting him to send her out into the forest for her own safety. Maleficent, however, soon finds herself bonding with the child, and ends up trying to lift the curse. When true love’s kiss doesn’t work, Maleficent kisses the princess herself, all the maternal love she has breaks the spell, and the two go on to overthrow the princess’s father and rule in peace.
Aurora isn’t the central character in this film and spends a substantial amount of it as a very young child, but as she grows older she gets a lot more agency, going back to the castle of her own accord and giving Maleficent back her wings. Later in the story she wants to find out about the curse and help Maleficent, we don’t see a lot of her hobbies but she seems fascinated by fairyland, and she believes a lot of generic stuff about kindness, goodness etc. so I’ll allow her the point. She’s consistently cheerful, sweet, kind and good, and it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life or appearance as both are played down to an absolute minimum. Throughout the film, her decisions are motivated more by the desire to find out about herself and her environment rather than Prince One Direction Knockoff.
She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – she’s naïve, but anyone would be if they’d been raised out in the woods by three idiots who don’t know that it takes a while to get babies onto solid food. She only really starts to influence the plot in the last half hour or so – before that she does very little. As far as gender stereotypes go she’s in the middle – she’s generically kind, sweet and good but rejecting familial bonds and siding with Maleficent (not to mention saying that maternal trumps romantic love) is very subversive. When it comes to other female characters, she has a few different relationships – namely with Maleficent and the three fairies – but these don’t really change, even after she finds out that Maleficent cursed her. All in all it’s a pretty solid effort, but I think if they’d spent less time on Maleficent’s backstory and more on her relationship with Aurora, this version of Sleeping Beauty would have been a much stronger character.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
This is a very different retelling of Sleeping Beauty – but it’s Neil Gaiman, so what did you expect? This version follows a grown up (and non-vampiric) Snow White investigate a mysterious sleeping sickness on the borders of her kingdom and find a castle covered in thorns with a sleeping princess in the tallest tower. She kisses her awake, only to find that the sleeper is the creature who cast the curse, and the mysterious old woman hobbling around the castle is the real princess with all her youth and beauty stolen from her.
This version of Sleeping Beauty is a different kettle of fish. She’s very much in control, as it’s implied that she cast the spell on the princess to steal her youth, beauty and social standing. We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies, goals or beliefs either – apart from that she’s a creature that wants to stay young and in power – which is pretty similar to Gaiman’s other retelling of Snow White (Snow, Glass, Apples). She’s consistently portrayed as intelligent, ruthless and cruel with strong magical powers, but you can’t describe her without talking about her appearance as the desire to look young and beautiful is what motivates her.
She doesn’t appear to have any genuine feelings for anyone, so her love life isn’t really an issue. She doesn’t develop over the story but she does have a weakness – she’s over-confident, which does set her back. She’s the driving force behind the whole story and relates to other female characters in different ways, manipulating and taunting the real princess while trying to seduce Snow White. As far as gender stereotypes go, she’s on the fence – progressive in that she’s ruthless, cruel and manipulative (traits not always seen in female characters) but less so in that her main goal in love is to stay young and pretty forever. All in all I really enjoyed this retelling, but I felt that this particular version of Sleeping Beauty could have been fleshed out a little more.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
And there you have it – that’s my analysis of Sleeping Beauty! Long story short, most of these adaptations’ problems stem from the fact that the main character’s most significant contribution to the plot is her falling asleep – I can tell you from experience that it’s difficult to subvert the patriarchy when you’re unconscious. The traditional versions of the tale didn’t expand her role beyond token pretty lady, and while some modern adaptations have gone to great lengths to change this, it doesn’t always work.
Next week, I’ll be back with my original ten question test and looking at one of my all-time favourite books. Rebecca, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.