Thanks for not turning away at this essay’s title, but I think that Sleeping Beauty is oftentimes criminally overlooked. Certainly, Disney has struggled with the whole “feminism” thing in the past (looking at you, Snow White), but they had already taken a few steps toward a more progressive female figure with Cinderella, who was witty and willing to risk the wrath of her abusive step-family for a chance at happiness (and I will probably write an essay on her and her movie too). When Sleeping Beauty came out in 1959, its female characters were nothing short of revolutionary, especially considering the gender-norms of the time.
If we look at Princess Aurora, then this argument is over in a few minutes, and I have lost completely. Aurora is my problematic fave, in that I love her, but I also know that she has only about eighteen minutes of screen-time and sleeps through a significant portion of it.
She is a very stereotypical princess: she only dreams of meeting her prince, sings to woodland creatures, and gets knocked out to await her princeps-ex-machina (I took Latin in high-school, I’m a nerd). While she is shown briefly to be clever enough to work out that her aunts are up to something, most of her character is romantically pining away over her true love (who knew her for all of three-and-a-half minutes).
But this movie is not about her. It is about these four fairies:
That’s right. Sleeping Beauty’s title character is not even the main character. In fact, this whole movie is not even about the humans in it. It is basically a fairy proxy war, with the two sides duking it out, using the humans as pieces in their war games. All four of them are ridiculously powerful, as demonstrated by their respective entrances. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather enter the castle in a beam of light, gently floating down to the ground. This is followed by Maleficent, who enters the hall with all the subtlety of a gun in an echo chamber. She blows open the castle doors first, striking the inside of the hall with a bolt of lightning, before appearing in a column of green fire. Two of the good fairies bestow gifts that radically alter the physical traits of the infant princess (even though she grows up looking just like her mother). Maleficent lays a horrible curse on the infant, so strong that Merryweather can only partially undo it. This starts the feministic trend of the movie: the women exert unquestionable power, and their power is very difficult to resist.
Of course the argument could be made that Maleficent is a “Women with power are evil,” character, but let us not forget that the three good fairies are also undeniably powerful. Their magic manifests in many different ways, allowing them to cut through solid metal, turn birds into stone, and roofie an entire castle. They are undeniably powerful, but also undeniably on the side of good.
Of course, a Strong Woman™ is vastly different from a strong female character. A Strong Woman™ is a female who is physically capable but still functions in the narrative solely for the purpose of a male-partner. A strong female character can be strong, but more importantly, she must have personality and a function within the narrative beyond the service to a male co-star. In this regard, Sleeping Beauty again excels. Not only are there just three male characters—Kings Stefan and Hubert and Prince Philip—they are only minor characters and the narrative can function completely without them.
Flora is the leader of the three good fairies, and she does a pretty good job. She knows Maleficent well enough to understand how to beat the dark fairy…not in a face-to-face battle, but in a battle of wits. Her willingness to enact such a plan shows great strength of character: to thwart Maleficent, Flora is willing to give up her powers for sixteen years. She is also powerful in a more direct sense of the word. When Prince Philip is fleeing the Forbidden Mountain, it is her magic that shields him from the most dangerous threats on his way, both in the form of the weapons that she gives him and by turning such perils as falling rocks and boiling oil into soap-bubbles and a rainbow, respectively.
She is not without her faults, though. When confronted with failure, Flora decides to put the entire kingdom under a sleeping spell, so that her failure remains undiscovered. This could quite possibly mean letting them all sleep forever, as she has no idea who might break Aurora’s spell, if anyone can at all. She is stubborn and refuses to compromise, leading to strain within the group; she interrupts and overrules the suggestions of Fauna and Merryweather at various points throughout the film. Merryweather and Flora often fight, but the most obvious example is their duel over the color to make Aurora’s coronation gown (which also demonstrates how petty both of them can be).
Fauna is the kindest of the three, and sees the best in everything. Where Merryweather balks at the idea of living as a mortal, Fauna sees only the joys of raising a child. She even tries to see the best in Maleficent herself, suggesting that they might reason with her.
Merryweather: With Maleficent?
Fauna: Well, she can’t be all bad.
When the three of them sneak Aurora back into the castle and Aurora is inconsolable over the loss of her love in the woods, Fauna immediately wants to comfort her and suggests that King Stefan be told about the boy. This implies that they could reason with the king and allow Aurora to marry her chosen love interest. She shows great fear of Maleficent, but also the courage to fight her fear for the sake of her adopted daughter when the three of them break into Maleficent’s castle. She is also brave in a more subtle way, as she is very open to new ideas and eagerly accepts challenges. For example, she bakes a cake even though Merrywether astutely points out that “[Fauna] has never cooked!”
Of course, both of these women pale in the face of their ally, the trope-busting wonder that is Merryweather. She is not traditionally beautiful (drawn as short and full-figured) and has dark hair that contrasts against both Flora and Fauna’s more graying follicles. She is pugnacious and combative, and while this film offers many gems that display this trait in her, that could be a whole other essay. Instead, the highlight reel can be seen in her responses to Maleficent.
Merryweather: I’d like to turn [Maleficent] into a fat, old hop-toad.
Fauna: Now dear, that isn’t a very nice thing to say.
Flora: Besides, we can’t. You know our magic doesn’t work that way.
Fauna: It can only do good dear, to bring joy and happiness.
Merryweather: Well that would make me happy.
Despite being established as far more powerful than the three fairies, Merryweather shows no qualms over going toe-to-toe with Maleficent many times, and Flora has to physically restrain her on two separate occasions. She also grates against authority, shown not only by her constant bickering with Flora, but also when she expresses her anger with Aurora’s betrothal to “…any old prince,” seeing the pain and misery it causes her surrogate daughter. She is also practical, and this plays into her almost foolhardy bravado when she and the other fairies are preparing for Aurora’s birthday. Merryweather knows that the three of them will not be able to make any satisfactory gift for their daughter, so she immediately suggests the use of their wands, bluntly pointing out how abysmally unskilled her companions are in their chosen tasks.
It should also be noted that these three fairies undergo a small, collective transformation as they raise a child in the woods as humans. When the movie begins, they are almost divine entities, entering the great hall with splendor and announced with the style “their most honored and exalted excellencies.” Not even King Hubert could muster that much adulation. Throughout the first act of the film, they fly around and work magic (glittering all the while), clearly removed from the mortals that surround them. When Aurora is threatened, their concern seems to be less for her safety and more to thwart Maleficent. Even though they acknowledge the pain that it will bring to King Stefan and his Queen, it is barely a passing mention; a footnote in their grand scheme.
The movie picks up sixteen years later. The three fairies are all a titter about their ward’s upcoming birthday. They want to make her happy, and to that end they risk their cover to give her the birthday party that they think she deserves. When Aurora bursts into tears at the prospect of never seeing her love again, their concern is not for their plan for her future, but for her broken heart, and they are visibly upset at the prospect of hurting her. They must do it anyway, but their faces say it all
Of course, all their love for Aurora comes to a poignant head when they return to Stefan’s castle. Maleficent strikes, catching the three completely off-guard. They never call Aurora by her given name, only by the one they raised her with: Rose. They are so afraid for this child that they forget their magic, first trying to push down a stone wall before remembering that they can use a spell to clear it, and then running on foot as they desperately search for Rose. This scene always gives me goosebumps, listening to the panic in heir voices, seeing the concern on their faces, and nothing but their own voices in the stone castle echoes back to them. It is harrowing, but their efforts are all for naught, and they weep as they lay their Rose to rest.
These the fairies are no longer quite what they once were. Once, they were aloof and calm, showing affection only for each other and mild concern for humans. Now they are very human, and they are experiencing true, self-sacrificing love for another, something that their purely fairy rival, Maleficent, will never understand.
Maleficent is the perfect foil for the three good fairies, as she never undergoes any character development and remains as she always was: vain, spiteful, and cruel. Just consider how petty you have to be when you, an almost god-like entity who can summon lightning bolts on a whim and commands a sizable army of demonic creatures, decide to kill an infant because you were snubbed for the christening. She even makes time to go taunt the prince that she has chained up in her dungeon, promising to release him in a century, just because she can.
She does show the capacity to feel and she clearly likes her raven, Diablo, more than anyone else that features in the movie. She trusts him to succeed where her minions have failed, and he is in charge of all her forces while she rests. Then, when Merrywether turns Diablo to stone, Maleficent is visibly disturbed.
Still, she gets back to business as soon as she realizes that all of her hard work is about to be undone by four lovesick fools and a horse.
In the end, this movie is all about love and its transformative effect. In most fairytales, love happens at a glance, usually between a prince and a princess, and barely functions outside of its role as a deus-ex. Sleeping Beauty challenges that. Sure, Aurora and Phillip fall in love after an afternoon in the woods and a couple of spins at the lakeside, but once again, the story is not about them. It is about three women who lived alone in the woods, raising a child, and risking everything for that child. Maleficent loves only herself, and could have easily destroyed Phillip and the Fairies if they had faced her alone. Instead, they fought together, Flora enchanting the blade so that Phillip’s throw could pierce Maleficent’s scaly hide, destroying her cold, empty, loveless heart. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather have saved the one that they love most from her curse, and that is enough for them.
Well… not quite…