by Liesl Basile
I will not deny it; Sleeping Beauty is a love story. It is true that the film uses the now hated trope: the prince rescues the princess. In our present moment, women are beyond rescuing. They have their own powers; they can take care of themselves. There is no need to be insulted by a prince coming to save you. Of course, there are many insulting books and movies that feature this trope, like most Hallmark Christmas movies. But Sleeping Beauty is not one of these shallow stories; it is a myth about the importance of individual growth and balancing the powerful energies of the masculine and feminine within ourselves.
Most of us recall the basics. Aurora is cursed by a malevolent sorceress named Maleficent. Because of this curse, Aurora is asleep for much of the film, and Prince Philip saves her. But the delight is in the details, given at the very start of the fairytale. The King and the Queen hold a kingdom wide party for their new child Aurora, and invite many people, including three good fairies. However, Maleficent is not invited, and because of this she becomes insanely jealous and makes her “gift” a curse. She curses the princess, saying that on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. But Merriweather, the last fairy to give the princess a gift, bestows on Aurora the enchantment of sleep instead of death. When Aurora pricks her finger, she will only sleep until someone who truly loves her, and is willing to sacrifice himself to save her, breaks the spell.
Supposedly, this is terrible. My classmates are easily offended by Sleeping Beauty, claiming it as an anti-feminist film. But is it? Our culture cries out for equality, but it still privileges masculine traits like assertiveness, independence, and rationality across all genders. The film quickly becomes offensive to many because Aurora is not masculine in any way. She is prized for being exactly who and what she is: a beautiful, young girl singing about her dreams. But of course, in a fairytale, there is more to that role than meets the eye.
Now, I am not suggesting we return to some stuffy 1950’s gender code. For most of my life, I’ve lived in a society where maculine power is valued over feminine power, but balance between maculine and femnine power is critical for healthy individuals and society. Fairy tales, for the sake of instruction, often separate these energies, depicting archetypal roles but not stereotypical ones. No one could really live in the extremes of fairy tale genders, but by separating masculine and femnine powers into archetypes, Sleeping Beauty shows the importance of those balancing energies in real life, and how balance can play a part in our wellbeing.
Fairy tales are not modern love stories. Thus, they are supposed to be interpreted differently. This is not just a romance; it is a myth, a powerful one. And, as Ursula K LeGuin argues in her essay “The Child and the Shadow,” we need to read myths on their own terms. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, it means accepting the roles of maculine and femnine energies to remind our culture of an old, deep magic. We are out of balance. We just might need stories like this that are unafraid to explore this shunned topic. This truth is still present in the pages of our culture’s folk stories.
Femine power is the balance to maculine power. It is as Yin is to Yang. Femnine power is ethereal and mysterious, and that is why it is often confused for weakness or passivity when compared to masculine power. In contrast to Aurora, Prince Philip’s power is demonstrated through strength and action. Aurora’s gifts of beauty, an enchanting voice, and the power to only sleep deeply instead of die are not valued by most audiences because they can not be quantified the same way a pile of dead dragons can.
Auroras’ powers are internal. The very word for soul, anima, is feminine. Internal powers are associated with female energy, and this kind of energy is important because it balances the external masculine energies of strength, big actions, and ambition. In many stories beauty is the only thing the females have but Aurora has also been graced with a connection to animals. Aurora can access the natural world and make it interact with her, which she does with the animals in the forest. This is something not many people can do and has become a classic way to show the goodness and gentleness of the soul. This connection with nature also stresses her feminine energy, her oneness with Mother Nature, with the wild places of the world. When Prince Philip meets Aurora in the forest he is not just entranced because of her beauty, but because she brings a different kind of energy. In other words, the Prince loves her for what is most real and valuable in any living person: their inner life, their soul.
When Prince Philip meets her in the forest, they instantly have a connection. Some might criticize this for encompassing the love at first sight trope, which to many seems silly and implausible. In many films, falling in love so quickly is often ridiculous because it attempts to take something from a fairy tale and place it in an incompatible context. The rules of Faerie are not the rules of our world. In a fairy tale, one deals in extremes. The prince is purely masculine, pure action externally oriented. Aurora is purely feminine, talking about her world of dreams and internally oriented. This is not true to life, of course. No one is purely masculine or feminine energy. All people have both kinds of energy inside of them, so Aurora and the Prince’s connection speaks to the importance of balance. Together, they conquer Maleficent’s curse in the name of the highest power: love. But before Philip can save Aurora, he must learn something about his own kind of energy, which is not yet complete in itself.
Although Prince Phillip loves Aurora, he is not actually in a good position to save her right away. When Philip appears in the forest, he does not appear very prince-like. By this, I mean, he is just a boy riding his horse and having a good time. There is no crown to obviously mark his status. After Philip meets Aurora in the forest, he returns to his father who says he must marry a Princess. He impulsively rejects the King’s wishes to marry. Phillip hastily leaves the castle, rejecting his identity as a prince to go find and marry the girl in the woods. When he arrives at the cottage he is captured by Maleficent and her demon-like creatures. Phillip is overconfident and unprepared for the trial he meets in the cottage. This exhibits his masculine energy through his quick decisions to act, showing his emphasis on the external rather than the internal. He does not spend time thinking about what he is about to do; he simply does it because he can. As a result of his impetuous actions, he is taken back to Maleficent’s castle and chained in the dungeon. Now that he is in danger, he learns the truth. The girl from the woods is indeed the princess to whom he was destined, and her life is now in his hands.
Although Phillip loves Aurora he would not be able to save her without the fairies’ assistance. The three good fairies guide Aurora and Phillip to their destinies and use the connection between them to defeat Maleficent. The fairies never directly fight Maleficent, yet they rebel against her by gifting Aurora at birth. And they help Prince Philip defeat Maleficent through his own set of gifts. Femine energy does not have to undergo an external battle; she is complete in her identity and it needs only to be revealed at the right moment. But the Prince is masculine energy, so he must search and become who he is meant to be. But both of them depend on the gifts from the fairies to meet their destiny, which brings balance and harmony to the kingdom through their union.
The Prince is an archetype of masculune power and force, but in the beginning it is misdirected. He acts, but with impulse. In order for that energy to be properly spent, he learns to wield it the hard way through capture and near death. The fairies break the Prince’s chains, and they gift him the sword of truth and the shield of virtue. Swords and shields are objects necessary for external battles as they are associated with male roles of warriors. He uses these timeless traits of truth and virtue to fight his way to Aurora. Unlike Disney’s The Little Mermaid, where Ariel forsakes her identity and duty but never learns anything from her impassioned behavior, Prince Philip actually has to reckon with the consequences of his rashness. His journey is highly externalized through the climax of the film, and Phillip is only able to defeat Maleficent, the self-proclaimed powers of Hell, when he comes into a knowledge of his identity as the Prince. He knows who he is and for whom he is fighting.
Prince Phillip is the archetypal man; he must learn how to live into his male power and identity through struggles. By the end, he has reached the state where he is complete in his male energy; thus, he is able to give Aurora the saving kiss of life. In the end, it is not about a prince getting what he wants because some magical fairies help him. In the end, it is not about a passive princess without purpose being taken by a prince. In the end, it is about uniting and balancing masculine and feminine powers that are complete unto themselves before coming together. The result is not just a happy marriage, but also the harmony and happiness of the kingdom.
No one is completely masculine or feminine. But in order to talk about these distinct powers, fairy tales give them gendered roles. Now, we are quick to criticize any gendered character that does not meet our modern ideals, especially women. But to read myths in such a manner is to miss the greater truth. These powers are not, in fact, limited to their gendered depictions. But extreme images of princes and princesses remain useful for us, if we are willing to let myth be myth.
In our quest for equality between the sexes, we’ve forgotten that two kinds of energies exist in each of us, and each should be valued for what it is. American culture, on the whole, values externality, action, and power. We value productivity over sleep. We value self-reliance over community. We value impulse over patience. But prioritizing archetypal masculine energy means there is little room for archetypal feminine energy. One is not better than the other; we need both.
Individuals need a balance of energies within themselves. When modern audiences view this film, they should not be so quick to dismiss its value. Health and balance have become important parts of our lifestyle, and we are constantly seeking new ways to find harmony in our hectic lives. But what if the answer isn’t more yoga and kale? Sleeping Beauty offers insight about archetypal energies and how they might relate to the health of our mind and bodies today, both for ourselves and others.
Liesl Basile recently completed her sophomore year at Stanford Online High School.