Critical Analysis – Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty

As part of my Grimm Project, I have been slowly going through the original Grimm’s tales and writing my own re-imaginings. The motivation behind this is not only that I love a haunting fairy tale, but that I want to consider the added layer of darkness inherent to these stories because of tropes and conceits that are downright disturbing. Mainly, the treatment of women.

Like a lot of people, when I think of Sleeping Beauty, I think of Disney. I think of that iconic moment wherein the Prince kneels down, and wakes Aurora with true love’s kiss. Of course, since he doesn’t know Aurora from a hole in the wall, there’s absolutely no argument to be made that he does in fact love her. Thus, what we witness is straight up assault. We have a man who is lust-struck by a beautiful, unconscious woman, and kisses her without her consent (we see this in Disney’s Snow White, as well). This sincerely creeps me out; always has.

When, as an adult, I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper and learned about this dark corner of medical history, the rest cure, I immediately connected some dots. In short, there is a long history of women being subdued in response to any form of deviation from social expectations. Specific to women, this was often referred to as “hysteria,” an umbrella diagnosis (a wandering womb making us restless and crazy) for anything from not listening to your husband to what we would now consider clinical depression, and everything in between. Wife doesn’t feel like cooking dinner tonight? Hysteria! Daughter wants to pursue a career? Hysteria! Wife seems to be withdrawn and sad? Hysteria! You get the picture. The rest cure was designed to subdue this NOT REAL disease called hysteria… She just needs some rest. Shackle her to a bed, she’ll be fine. The idea was that after a long stint in bed with lots of sleep, a woman would calm down and be ready to resume her womanly duties as a quiet, happy, wife and mother.

This is what makes the Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty tales so cringe-worthy. They mirror these sentiments that should have never existed in the first place. Take the Disney picture. The king actively tries to protect Aurora from getting herself into trouble by not allowing her near spinning wheels, as she has been foretold to prick her finger on one and fall victim to a curse. And yet, curiosity gets the best of her, and she touches the wheel, which activates the curse. This princess is told to be passive, and is thus punished for her one active choice – touching the wheel. She stepped out of line: Hysteria. Put her to sleep: The curse. Who can break the curse? A man, who is willing to take her on as a quiet, happy wife.

It’s worth noting that in the original Grimm tale, Briar Rose, things play out a little differently. Once the 100-year curse is activated, a number of men die trying to get to the sleeping Briar Rose, believing she will be theirs if they can break the curse. This goes on for the full 100 years of the curse, and it is by chance that a prince arrives at the moment the curse is breaking. It’s therefore easier for him to reach her, and when he sees her lying there, unconscious, he is struck by her beauty. He kisses her (ie sexually assaults her) and at that very moment, she awakes. He does not facilitate the breaking of the curse. But he’s the face she sees as she opens her eyes, and therefore becomes all she knows; her entire world. They then marry and live happily ever after.

This is a lot like the oh-so-problematic Born Sexy Yesterday trope, in which a man falls in love with a beautiful but infantalized woman; a woman who knows so little about the current world that she is essentially a clean slate he can mold to his liking. By the same token, he becomes the person who shows her the world (cough Aladdin cough cough), and thus becomes her everything.

Not cool. Very creepy.

For my Grimm Project, I wanted to re-write this tale in a way that would be more celebratory of female activeness, rather than passivity, while still thinking about the complexity of it. I didn’t want to put the princess to sleep. I didn’t want the man she falls in love with to be infantilizing her, or sexually assaulting her. Crazy, right? I’m a wild card that way.

What I came up with was a story I call 100 Years.


Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

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