Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sleeping Beauty’s Three Good Fairies

or, What Makes a Feminist Protagonist Anyway?

I do not think this image is proportionally representative of the film.
For a few reasons, I have decided to re-watch many of the Disney films in the coming weeks (or months, if that’s what it takes). The first I watched, however, was not a re-viewing, but a viewing for the first time: Sleeping Beauty (1959), which I had never seen before (to my memory). My expectations were therefore fairly few. Nonetheless I discovered upon watching the film that I did have some expectations after all: I expected Princess Aurora and Prince Philip to be the main characters. I do not think that this expectation was fulfilled.

These days there is a lot of talk about how women characters are portrayed, and Disney princesses are a popular subject of this conversation. One can even find lists which rank the princesses according to how feminist they are. Princess Aurora usually does not fare well in these discussions. Granted, it would be difficult to rig a version of Sleeping Beauty which is particularly feminist: the princess spends almost all of the story a victim, and in most of it an entirely passive one (she’s sleeping!). As a character, Disney’s Aurora is hard to make out; she seems clever and active enough when left to her own devices, but she falls in love with a strange man after one song (mind you, he’s the only man she ever met and she’s sixteen, so it’s not implausible) and then weeps all the way from there to the fateful prick. As far as the plot goes, Sleeping Beauty is a feminist’s nightmare: the princess is marked out as a victim from infancy while simultaneously subject to an all-powerful patriarchal authority (father and king in one figure); her life is planned out for her, and she raised in seclusion under the assumption that she must always be protected, rather than taught to protect herself; all men are kept away from her, and as a result she does not know how to interact with them; when her aggressor finds her, the princess is inexorably drawn, without resistance, to a domestic and traditionally gender-linked device, which promptly puts her to sleep; the princess then waits passively until a male hero defeats her aggressor and binds her to himself in matrimony. (Maybe even worse, the villain is a classic instance of a woman who wants power becoming evil.)

While I am not about to suggest that this nightmare is actually absent from the movie or that the movie is somehow not problematic, I will suggest that we might perceive Sleeping Beauty to be worse than it is if we imagine either Prince Philip or Princess Aurora to be the protagonist of the movie. Rather, I think a strong case could be made that the Three Good Fairies are the protagonists of the film. They get more screen time than the prince and probably even the princess, and they get more control over the events of the story than any of the royals, too. If it had been up to Prince Philip, the sleeping curse would have lasted for the traditional one hundred years, but the Three Good Fairies circumvented that—so, in a more metafictional sense, they did change the story from the original to the Disney-version. Sleeping Beauty is in a lot of ways what happens if we take the behind-the-scenes-operators and give them the main attention of the narrative, which is an interesting experiment.

But you might object that the Three Good Fairies are not feminist protagonists. I certainly agree that they are not feminist characters in the sense that we are used to them. Most obviously, they are incompetent and silly a lot of the time. When trying to imagine how they might save the princess, one of them suggests turning her into a flower. This is precisely the kind of silliness a chauvinistic man might attribute to women. Worse, their squabbles over what colour dress Aurora should wear is what gives away their position to the enemy. What better metaphor for a woman’s supposedly misplaced priorities? Bear with me, though. They do ultimately wind up being competent: in a show of remarkable bravery, they infiltrate Maleficent’s castle, sneak into Prince Philip’s cell, remove his chains with magic-wand cutting torches, arm him, and protect him from enemies during his escape. Prince Philip cuts through the thorns and fights dragon-Maleficent, yes, but during his moment of weakness they arrive and cast a spell on his sword, which allows him to finally defeat Maleficent. As far as support roles go, they do almost all of the work. Prince Philip gets to be the regular masculine hero, victorious through violent monomachy, but the focus is on the support. The heroism of support could be a strong opportunity for feminist re-tellings; after all, women have historically be shuttled (whether willing or not) into support positions, and those stories so rarely get told. Sleeping Beauty may not be explicitly thematizing this unfairness, but insofar as the Three Good Fairies take protagonist positions, the movie is doing some of the work of telling those stories. The Good Fairies are not Whedonist super-powered women or self-aware anti-heroic Atwood types, but that does not mean they are not “strong role models” for all that.

Let’s go back to the part where the Good Fairies are incompetent. What is it that they are not competent in? Clearly they are good at magic. No, when they are most useless it is in domestic activity. They are terrible domestic help. One of the most amusing parts of the movie is watching them make a childish mistakes when trying to prepare for Aurora’s sixteenth birthday: one of them, making a dress, cuts a hole in the middle of the fabric for the princess’s head and neck; another, making a cake, puts the icing on and stacks the layers on top of each other before putting it in the oven. I find it very interesting that these female characters, clearly ones we are supposed to admire (eventually), fail consistently at being “good women.” Now, this comedy relies on an expectations that three grandmotherly-types would be good at domestic arts, and the recognition that domestic arts take real skill is undermined when they just magic it all away in the end, but I think that at least we can acknowledge an ideological tension present between Good-Fairies-as-unconventional and Good-Fairies-as-domestic-fairies. Put differently, they are shown as both unrealistic domestic goddesses and as real, futzing people who are not terribly good at cooking. (Also, they are old and they are not offered as sexy eye candy. Chalk a few more for the good guys.)

I am not hailing Sleeping Beauty as a feminist masterpiece. But I do have two lessons that I have taken away from this. The first is that we might need to re-imagine what a feminist protagonist would look like (and this is work already well underway, has been for a while, but we need to continue re-imagining); the second is that part of ethical reading (or viewing) involves asking questions about who the protagonist is (who is driving the action? with whom is the film trying to ally the viewer’s sympathies?) and trying to monitor one’s assumptions about it.

[Some lingering problems: 1. Women are often encouraged to let men take credit, because men are not penalized for self-promotion but women are. Is celebrating women who stay in the background a way of telling women to wait for others to notice their accomplishments and do the promoting work for them? If so, that promotion—and so the career promotions—will not happen. 2. What about Maleficent? She seems in lots of ways like a regular wicked witch, a standard evil-women-with-power. There's also a whiff of sexy=evil. What can we do with her? 3. Did anyone else prefer Aurora's peasant dress to her princess dress?]

1 comment:

Armando said...

Finally, someone actually took notice. I have this urge of hitting someone when they insist that Aurora and Phillip are the protagonist of this story.

They are not, the three fairies are as you explained in you wonderful post.

I didnt considered everything you wrote about Auroras character, merely because I understood that everything that happens is really not her choice. She was a baby when Maleficent cursed her and spent all her life living a totally normal life so I think no one can blame her a lot. It was a shock for her learning the truth but had so little time taking it all in to even consider acting somehow.

But the fairies... They start like really silly characters, but even then you have to admire the sacrifice they did in protecting and caring for this girl that was not her own. They give up magic and must learn to live like normal human beings. Thats a major responsability I think not anyone could pull that off. They have this mission of protecting her till she is 16 yo. When they fail, its not much the sense of duty that compels them to rescue Phillip, but the love they have developed for Aurora akin to that of a mother.

The story at least to me is of motherly love and sacrifice. Its love that makes them risk everything for her adopted daughter and is what powers the spell on Phillips sword.

They as protagonist stand in stark contrast of Maleficent who doesnt understand love nor she cares about it. She didnt consider that someone would love another being so deeply that they would risk entering her dark castle just to save Aurora and that was what actually led to her downfall. Check the movie, Fauna describes Maleficent as someone who does not understand or care about love and it shows in the movie and it pays off in the end. They wouldnt dare confront Maleficent at the start of the film, they are terrorized by them. At the end of the film, they confront her out of the love they now have for there little girl.

Its a love story but not really in the traditional romantic way as other Disney films. So yeah, the three good fairies ARE the heroes and protagonists of the story.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin