Will the Real Villain Please Stand Up: Antagonists in Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY

1 June 2014

Most people would agree Maleficent is the antagonist, or villain, in Disney’s 1959 animated feature film Sleeping Beauty.  After all, she works for the forces of evil and even calls upon the powers of hell when doing her bidding.  No questions about it, Maleficent is not one to cross.

In Sleeping Beauty, she earns her villainess reputation when she curses a baby with death, an undeniably cold, unforgivable offense.  Yet, she is not the only character to bestow supernatural fate upon the baby Aurora; the three “good” fairies also bestow “gifts” upon the child, and, from one perspective, their gifts and overall presence in Aurora’s life are as cold and unforgivable as Maleficent’s.  Maleficent may be the traditional, obvious antagonist of the fairytale turned animated film, but the true antagonists may actually be the three fairies who curse Aurora with a life of oppression and restriction, removing any trace of her true self and shaping her into an ideal woman by 1950s standards.

Sleeping Beauty movie image Walt Disney

Imagine you were an infant, born into royalty, and your parents hosted a kingdom-wide event to introduce you to the land.  In this fantasy, you have three fairies to dote on you, and each has magical powers.  Each one will bestow one gift upon you.  The first approaches and presents you the gift of beauty; the second approaches and presents you the gift of song.  Pause right there.  These fairies are magic, yet beauty and song are the best gifts they can come up with?  These are the qualities a baby girl needs to be successful in life?  According to Sleeping Beauty, yes.

Before the third fairy grants her gift, a sorceress, who is furious she was not invited to this party, storms in and curses you with death at the young age of sixteen; you will prick your finger on the spindle of an enchanted spinning wheel and die.  Thankfully, that third fairy can cushion this curse with her gift, a gift that will keep you alive.  Instead of death, you will fall asleep when you prick your finger, and only “true love’s kiss” can awaken you.

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As suggested, the gifts of beauty and song are problematic presents.  Why? They are oppressive.  Had Aurora been Aaron, would the fairies have offered the same enchantments?  Likely, no. Aurora, as developing woman, must be beautiful and graceful.  Why? Unattractive and clumsy girls are, apparently, lesser in 1950’a society.  Moreover, Aurora must be able to sing.  Singing, very different from talking, will do what for her?  Like beauty, song is something one possesses to benefit others.  Put another way, others will appreciate Aurora’s beauty and her gift of song more than Aurora will appreciate them herself.  In thinking about her gifts this way, the fairies presented her gifts which, ultimately, make her more attractive to others and increase her value in the world’s marketplace.  Even the final fairy’s gift, the gift of sleep, oppresses Aurora.  The only way she may wake up is when her “true love,” a strange man, fondles her while she is unconscious.  That is a rather disturbing thought.  Not only does it try of cast romance over Aurora’s victimization, but it also forces her into heterosexuality because her “true love” is a man.

Moving beyond the gifts, Aurora’s parents, the king and queen, fearing Maleficent’s curse, agree the fairies should raise Aurora, suggesting the fairies are the safest and most capable beings to rear their child.  But, are they?  First, they remove her from society and seclude her in a cottage deep in the woods.  Alone and isolated, is that really the safest place for a woman to be?  There, they change her name and conceal her true identity.   This suggests her identify is unimportant, or that she does not actually have an identity; she is nothing. Moreover, they teach her not to speak to anyone.  She can sing like an angel, but she has no voice.  The aforementioned gifts bestowed on Aurora are oppressive, and her upbringing with the fairies is a continuation of that oppression.

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Furthermore, in their cottage in the woods, the fairies hide their magical powers.  They do not use magic for sixteen years and never let Aurora know of the magic they possess.  Not only are their gifts and treatment of Aurora oppressive, but they themselves live an oppressed life. They deny their power and conceal their own identities, teaching Aurora to be submissive and sacrificial.  Why?  It is not just that they are protecting Aurora from Maleficent; they are keeping her from Maleficent because that sorceress is the antithesis of a 1950’s ideal woman, the type of woman the fairies are desperately trying to shape Aurora into.  Maleficent is a strong, powerful, outspoken woman, which, in the world of Sleeping Beauty, is monstrous and threatening.

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Maleficent has just as much power as the fairies, but she never hides it.  Maleficent has no “true love”; she does not need a man to save, protect, and fight for her.  Maleficent has found her voice, and she never holds her tongue.  Looking at Maleficent on a greater slant, she proudly possesses two phalluses, the horns upon her head. Connected to this, her curse is that Aurora be “pricked” and “die,” which, psychoanalytically, could easily be read as a sexual awakening (pricked can substitute for penetrated and an orgasm is known as a little death). Is she really cursing Aurora with fatality, or is she cursing her with promiscuity? Both are equally harmful to Aurora.

And so, Maleficent is presented as monster, quite literally.  She is such a repulsive woman, in fact, that she is disembodied in the film’s conclusion and turned into a dragon.  Then, she is slain with a more phallic object than the horns she once possessed, Philip’s sword (which the fairies have, of course, enchanted, to kill Maleficent).  Maleficent, the villain, is defeated in Sleeping Beauty, not because she curses a child, but because her revolt against the ideal representation of woman is so threatening to the young, impressionable generation of girls, like Aurora, that patriarchy, in all its phallic might, takes her down.

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The fairies, who steal Aurora’s identity and condition her to be an oppressed, restricted, submissive, voiceless woman, are heroes in the end.  Curious. And, it is worth pointing out that the film conclusion proves the fairies conditioning of Aurora is effective; when she wakes from her sleep, embraces Philip, and returns to her parents and kingdom, Aurora does not say a word.  She is truly voiceless and without a true individualized identity.

To conclude, it is not that Maleficent is not a villain; it is more that she may not be the greatest antagonist facing our heroine, Aurora, in Sleeping Beauty.  Maleficent may curse Aurora in death, but the fairies curse Aurora in life.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 01/06/2014.

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