At my nephew’s birthday party, parents talked about Disney Movies with strong, female characters. Moana came up, of course. As did Brave. And a bunch of others I, the childless one, had not heard of.
“Sleeping Beauty!” I added.
One dad raised an eyebrow. “Sleeping Beauty is a strong, female character?”
“No,” I said. “But the fairies are!”
As a little girl, I always wanted to watch Sleeping Beauty, but the friend who had a copy rarely agreed to watch it. Now, as an adult, there seem to be a lot of people who were equally obsessed with this movie (Hello….Angie Jolie making a Maleficent movie???), but it seemed a highly under-watched by my peer group when I was growing up. Doesn’t matter, now. My little niece and nephew ARE into it and we watch it together when I babysit. My nephew and I even chanted “Make it pink! Make it blue!” while we made brownies earlier this month.
But after not having seen it in maybe fifteen years, my sister and I were delighted to see that such an old film had some very strong female characters indeed.
From the beginning, they are publicly honored for their power and skill, rather than their looks or marriageability.
In older Disney movies, powerful women are equated with evil (evil Queens) or secrecy (think of the Fairy Godmother who only appears to Cinderella and her mice-friends). The fairies are honored publicly and arrive in court after King Stephen and Prince Phillip which shows they are higher on the status ladder.
They utilize team work to solve a problem.
After Maleficent hurls a terrifying curse at the newborn baby, quick-thinking Merryweather modifies it with encouragement from her co-fairies. “Do your best, dear.” Then, they make plans to circumvent the whole thing, while staying within their personal moral codes. When Merryweather suggests the hoptoad plan, Fauna reminds her that their Magickal code is to ” only bring joy and happiness.”
Then, Flora’s plan seems to work! They’ll raise the baby away from all spinning wheels. Three single moms in the big, scary woods…no suggestion of a man to chop wood or hunt or do any “manly” things. “We’ll all pitch in,” says Flora of the upcoming duties.
Of course, we all know Merryweather ended up doing all the grunt work, as this post confirms.
They’re not perfect.
Too many Disney women characters are impossibly kind, gentle, and blah blah boring. The fairies are not. They screw up their Magick. They even screw up their own plan and leave Aurora alone right before sundown on her 16th birthday and she gets snared by Maleficent. However, even though the fairies argue, flail, and even fail before putting aside their differences to do what’s best.
Amongst themselves, they actually act like real women–jabbing each other, pulling some power plays, they have a massive row over creative differences (“Make it pink!” “Make it blue!”)–even though they’re not supposed to be human at all. And then they reconcile and move forward to get the job done.
They subliminally suggest that it’s impossible to get all of a “woman’s work” done without the help of Magick, perhaps suggesting that the standards for women in the 1959 home were ridiculous.
Flora’s attempt at making a dress is a disaster. Fauna’s attempt at baking a “fancy cake” is even more disastrous. Nothing gets done until Merryweather puts her little blue foot down and insists they use Magick. I wonder how many mothers took their kids to see Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and said, “They’re right. There’s no way my life can get done without Magickal intercession. Fuck this.”
Focus on duty–not beauty.
Before presenting Aurora to the Court, Flora makes her a crown and says, “It is thy right and royal duty.” She is reminding Aurora that her marriage is not that being a spinster is certain death, but about strengthening an alliance with a neighboring kingdom, which will hopefully benefit the common people. (We can hope, right?) Flora may have given her the gift of beauty, but in her talk with Aurora, we see her greater concern is about Aurora’s civic duty.
They demonstrate compassion–but also question authority.
Aurora is devastated when they return her to the castle. Realizing they’ve thrown a lot at the poor girl telling her a.) Her parents have been alive all this time. b.) After never meeting anyone but small animals, she has to enter a life of service and interact with the public regularly c.) She also has to marry a stranger therefore, she needs dump her new boyfriend…all on her birthday. They decide to “Leave her be,” but then immediately question the whole dynamic. Merryweather says,”I don’t know why she has to marry any old prince…” But Flora reminds her, “That’s not for us to decide, dear.” They stick to the word they made to Aurora’s parents, but not without question and discussion, first.
Of course, “leaving her be” turns out to be a fatal mistake.
Realizing they’ve screwed up, they set out to rescue Aurora, themselves.
First, they put the entire kingdom to sleep to spare their disappointment–or really, to keep them all out of their way. When they figure out that Prince Phillip is the boyfriend who won Aurora’s heart, they set out to find him as he’s the only one who can release Aurora from the sleeping spell. And when they figure out Maleficent has him, they then set out to rescue him.
Phillip couldn’t have gotten to the castle without their help.
They fashion weapons for him. They turn Maleficent’s weapons into flowers, bubbles, and a rainbow. They even help him through thorns and fire.
And let’s not forget about Merryweather going after the evil crow and turning him to stone.
“Thou sword of truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure!”
When Prince Phillip’s back is to the cliff’s edge, and he is surrounded by fire and danger, and a huge, scary dragon threatens him, the fairies empower the sword (that they gave him) to kill off Maleficent.
Moral here: Behind every great man is three great fairies empowering him to do what he needs to do.
Maybe Disney’s original feminist icons?
Yeah, Flora and Fauna’s gifts to Aurora were about looking good and pleasing people with a pretty voice. But it was what the three of them demonstrated–teamwork is good, men need them and not the other way around, being fallible is okay, and housework or princessing are not females’ only two options–is what gives them my vote in the Disney Feminist Awards. If such a thing exists. It should, don’t you think? (*****Author’s note! Since I’ve written this, I finally saw Moana. Moana now officially gets my vote in the Disney Feminist Awards. This doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect Sleeping Beauty, which was certainly ahead of its time at its time, but did want to clarify where my vote now lives!***)
Besides, we’ll never know what Merryweather’s gift was supposed to be. Maybe it was great instincts in stock buying.
But of course, the big love goes to Maleficent as all the powers of HELL hath no fury like the weird girl left out of the party.