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Pop Culture Rewind: Sleeping Beauty

TW: Sexual Assault, Rape

Deemed as one of the less adventurous Disney princess stories, the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty can be a telling tale of how a good night’s sleep can change your life, both in the 14th and 21st century. Despite being one of the Disney characters who speaks the least, with only 18 lines, second to Dumbo who didn’t speak at all, Sleeping Beauty has become a nostalgic piece of cinema for many generations. But so few know the origins of the story. This pop culture rewind will not only dissect the cultural impact of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty but also the unflattering origins which led to its mainstream appeal.

The story follows the young princess Aurora navigating her way through a secret curse that has been kept from her for 16 years. The movie begins with a narration of the physical story book, with the audience gradually transported into the animated world of 14th century Europe. The complication of the story arrives when the evil fairy Maleficent is not invited to the celebration of the princess’s birth, to which she bestows a curse upon her that she will die before the sun sets on her 16th birthday by the prick of a spindle. However, the princess is rescued by the gift of another fairy, who alters the curse to instead put the princess in a deep sleep, only to be broken by true love’s kiss. The remainder of the story follows the three good fairies raising the now disguised Briar Rose, a nod to earlier renditions of the story, until the curse is voided. However, Maleficent has other plans and corrupts the princess, luring her to a spindle where the curse is fulfilled. The fairies find the sleeping princess and put the kingdom to sleep with her. When all hope is lost, Prince Phillip arrives to battle Maleficent in the ultimate battle of good vs evil, defeating the fairy, saving the princess and living happily ever after with Aurora in marital bliss.

Although it’s not exactly the heroine story we have become accustomed to, it’s not just the story that makes Sleeping Beauty so impactful. The music in the film enhances the story for audiences, with the scenes correlating with crescendos in the music. From Hail to the Princess Aurora to The Fairies Plan instrumental that plays when the fairies take the princess from the king and queen, the soundtrack is powerful in changing the mood of the story. But perhaps the most impactful song is Once Upon a Dream which encapsulates the essence of the story and the relationship between Aurora and Phillip. The song is presented in different styles, from the duet between the Prince and Princess to its orchestral arrangement throughout the film; the song has become synonymous with Aurora’s story. Additionally, the visual elements remain impressive, with notable scenes including the green light that illuminates Aurora when she is lured away by Maleficent, to the orange and lime background that highlights the final fight between Prince Phillip and Maleficent. The artists behind the movie have a way of presenting the duality of the story. Features such as Aurora’s blue and pink dress can represent the contrast between the life she wants to the life that is expected of her, the fairies fighting over which she is more entitled to. Additionally, the stylistic choices behind Maleficent went on to inspire future generations of villains, with the green becoming a staple for Disney villains such as Scar in The Lion King, Dr Facillier in the Princess and the Frog and Cruella Deville in 101 Dalmatians.

Whilst the 1959 Sleeping Beauty has many elements that people of all ages recognize and love, the film is based on a long history of a similar retelling. The 14th century first documented the story in Troylus and Zellandine with Princess Zellandine cursed to an eternal sleep, only in this retelling, the prince is significantly less charming. The princess is pricked and falls asleep, where, in the meantime, Prince Troylus arrives and impregnates the princess as she sleeps. Don’t worry, it gets worse. Princess Zellandine gives birth to the baby, who ends up being the hero of the story as it suckles on her finger and releases the flax which had originally cursed her, bringing the sleeping princess back to consciousness. To conclude the story for Princess Zellandine, a bird appears and takes her baby away, freeing up her schedule so she can then marry Troylus in good conscious. Yea. This early rendition contains deeply troubling themes that encourage the misogynistic views that women are merely objects, qualities that unfortunately were translated down into Disney’s 1959 classic, just with less baby abducting birds. Aurora is sidelined in a movie about her, with the focus switching between every other character and their response to the curse placed on her. Towards the end, Aurora and Zellandine experience similar fates, with their lives cemented by sudden and rapid marriages.

Despite age carrying wisdom, this was unfortunately not the case for the Sleeping Beauty story. In the three renditions following Troylus and Zellandine, the story developed to include different elements, but none seem to give the princess any additional agency or control, in her own story. In another rendition from 1634, Sun, Moon and Talia also depict the princess becoming impregnated against her will, but includes added challenges such as her birthing twins, becoming the prince’s mistress as he is now married, and hiding with her children in the dungeons of his castle. This version of the story also creates the rivalry between the queen and Talia, with the plot including the queen ordering her chef to bake Talia’s twins. Meanwhile, the king turns on his hungry queen, as she is burned to death whilst he weds Talia. Other authors tried their luck at retelling the story, with Charles Perrault first proposing the idea of the princess fulfilling the 100- year prophecy in his 1697 The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, only for her to encounter an ogre mother-in-law who tries to eat her children. In 1812, The Grimm Brothers transitioned the story closer to the one presented by Disney in Briar Rose, coining the name that would later be used in the 1959 animated classic. The story’s evolution over centuries can be accredited to low literacy rates or the inability to document fairy tales and other stories. This, however, did not stop future storytellers from further capitalizing on the narrative, with 2014 Maleficent detailing the story from the perspective of the antagonist, providing new commentary into the story and agency acquired by Aurora.

In spite of its tumultuous past, the story of the cursed sleeping princess has survived the test of time, developing and shifting to tell a story of perseverance and correct dinner party etiquette. The Disney film Sleeping Beauty showcased the narrative to mass audiences and cemented it as a pivotal piece of fairytale history, bringing audiences a suspenseful, yet misdirected insight into Aurora’s story. Through music, visuals and other creative elements, the animated classic pulls the story into the modern age, whilst not entirely utilizing the potential the story could have employed. Since then, however, Aurora’s journey has continued beyond her sleeping curse, giving the princess agency, character development and determination that runs deeper than her becoming a mother or wife. The story has grown with its audience to inspire new perspectives, as Aurora, Briar Rose, Talia and Princess Zellandine are solidified as the protagonists of their own stories.

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