A Study in Disney: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)

| December 12, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Sleeping Beauty: The classic animated movie was a Disney triumph (1959) -  Click Americana

When you evaluate Sleeping Beauty it is odd to note that the only single element that doesn’t work is Sleeping Beauty herself.  What a dull, lifeless person this Princess Aurora turns out to be.  She’s a tired bore who is barely more than a whisper in her own story.  That’s a strange observation when looking at a film that is otherwise nearly perfect.

Can we blame the writers for offering a heroine who is the equivalent of a block of wood?  These early Disney princesses weren’t known for their blustering personalities but at least you can say that Snow White and Cinderella gave you enough to gain an emotional foothold.  Princess Aurora spends much of the movie off to the side and doesn’t have time to develop into a character.  Like all classic fairy tale heroines, Princess Aurora is the prize to be won, the object to be sought, the rank of purity to be preserved until the arrival of the handsome prince.

So does that mean that we should dismiss Sleeping Beauty as a rank-and-file patriarchal vision of what a woman is good for?  Not exactly.  In spite of Aurora’s postage stamp status, this is a far more feminist statement than you might realize.  Really, think about it.  The most interesting characters in the film (i.e. the ones who actually drive the plot) are all women.  The fairy godmothers, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, are not at the service of a man outside of their loyalty to the king.  They make the decisions that govern the princess’s fate.  They are the saviors of her care when Maleficent strikes the heroine with a death curse.  They don’t seem to operate on orders, but with a sense of what is right.  It is their decision that dictates the actions of the rest of the film.  Of course, yes, there is a dithering quality to their squabbling, but the salvation of S.B. in large part belongs to them.  Plus, it is also nice that the saviors in the film are middle-aged women.  Most women of age in these films are usually wicked.

Disney’s female villains, perhaps, represent a position of power whether stationary or magical but they are evil and use that evil to bend the will of others.  The machinations are always skin deep.  The Evil Queen wants Snow White dead because she’s younger and prettier.  The Wicked Stepmother enjoys holding power over Cinderella because of her age and beauty.  Maleficent is snubbed at the christening ceremony.  These women are burdened by youth and by the prospect of a happy life that, for one reason or another, seems to have eluded them.  They are also largely alone save for a few loyal sycophants.  What is this model trying to impart?  Get married young lest you become a bitter old maid?

So, what does that mean for Princess Aurora, and for that matter Snow White or Cinderella?  They are young and good-hearted and are rewarded with the hand of a man who is not only handsome but also rich and of noble blood.  Are little girls being sold a message that is cheap and superficial?  Well, yes, but at the time it wasn’t all that unusual.  The function of an American woman in the 1950s was thought to be the trajectory of getting married, raising kids and keeping the home fires burning.  In that way Sleeping Beauty is a movie stuck in time, as an off-kilter model of the role of women and what was expected of them.  It is an interesting contrast to the time.  It was 1959 and the world was in a state of change.  Rock and Roll, Elvis, Playboy magazine, the sexual revolution and women’s lib were the tapestry of the second half of the 20th century, threatening to render the role model of the Disney princesses right out of existence.  What is interesting is that the Disney Princess didn’t go away, she just went into a dormant state only to be revived a generation later with far more consideration of her wants, her needs, her agency and her station in life.

That said, this was the last time this kind of model was used.  In point, it was the end of an era.  What would follow in Disney’s immediate cannon would be more male-centric stories, adventures more in line with Peter Pan than Snow White.  Disney’s last few remaining animated features before his death in 1966 would deal with dogs, bears and magicians.  The renaissance and restoration of female heroines in Disney’s animated output would just have to wait.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.