Next Generation: Be Bold! Second prize

Ubiquitous morals: the (safe?) path for sleeping beauties (or the annoying chewing gum under my shoe!)

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 20.12.2013

A critical (maybe even feminist) analysis of Perrault’s and Basil’s fairy tale as well as of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’:

[Fairy tales like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, are one of those many chewing gums that are making their way under my shoes to stay for good, just like hairs on my woolen scarves. This chewing gum is making it considerably harder for me to proceed, making me feel uncomfortable and eventually forcing me to stop in the middle of the pathway, while everyone swishes past. “Sorry”, “sorry”, “excuse me”, costing me valuable time (and peace of mind) when trying to scratch the sticky substance off my shoe (with something like a pencil) and if not ruining my shoe, ruining the balance of my day. This is how I feel, when I get confronted with a patriarchical moment. It triggers an annoyance comparable to the stickiness of a chewing gum.]

To start with, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a ‘fairy tale’. This is due to the appearance of the eight fairies at the beginning of the story. They make it a supernatural and magical tale. The latter and ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ configure as folklore material, due to their ‘word of mouth’ character and their implicated moral and social codes.

This analysis will discuss gender issues by reflecting upon the active/passive role of the different characters in Perrault’s late 17th century ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and Basile’s 15th century ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’. In brief it will look at what the characters are doing or not doing in order to define their place and purpose in community.

In the Thesaurus ‘social code’ has following synonyms: ‘set of principles, set of standards, set of customs, manners, ethics, morals, morality, convention, accepted behaviour, etiquette, protocol’.1 Morality usually incorporates safety and ethical rules that make it possible for humans to live peacefully side-by-side implying that everyone shows respect for his/her neighbour. A social code or etiquette, however, implies rules of behaviour and good manners often referred to as social etiquette or protocol. Both are culturally constructed entities and contain predominant gender tones that are all too often misused. One should be aware that they are heavily intertwined structures that should be handled sensibly.

[Chewing gums can be damn sticky!]

As a start, in Perrault’s tale, the princess Sleeping Beauty has no first name. She, who is the main character in the story, is named after a human perception, just like a ‘falling stone’, any falling stone with the addition that ‘sleeping’ is the most passive activity a human being can do. Perrault’s story incorporates in its core a thing-like approach to female beings; it represents an act of debasement that gives the reader a hint towards the social standing of women in Perrault’s time, before and after. In the tale, the reader will notice that Sleeping Beauty is a woman with no opinions, feelings, or viewpoints, who’s existence will be serving as a goal: the happy-ending of a fairy tale and the complied balance of socially constructed standards.

In Basile’s ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’, Talia, or Sleeping Beauty, has a name, but that’s as free-spirited as the fairy-tale goes. After Talia grows up into a fifteen/sixteen-year-old woman, she keeps busy with observing the world from her chamber windows. Windows symbolise a person’s indirect imprisonment and their desire to go beyond. It is a peephole from where she can look at the world outside, the world of doing and being free.

In Perrault’s piece, Sleeping Beauty was gifted with the most exemplary values a (shallow) girl could seek for in society: beauty, grace, dancing, singing and musical skills. At the end of the story, the reader realises that none of those were of any real value to the girl’s character and should have been traits such as courage, self-confidence, own initiative, and critical thinking.

[Fairies are very superficial.]

And then one day, when she sees a woman spinning, doing something, it immediately catches her interest and fascination. She wants to do it too – and her curiosity becomes her doom (is that another moral of the story?) – she stings her finger and falls into a deep sleep, the sleep of passivity. Bruno Bettelheim claims that those hundred years of sleep are ‘symbolic of a period of passivity that most adolescents go through before they awake to sexual maturity.’2 A prolonged sleep can entail different meanings such as eternal beauty and youth, the psychological metamorphose of a girl into a woman, or the wallowing in between worlds (medically seen as a coma).

In Perrault’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and Basile’s ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’, the father of the princess (the mother has no presence in the story except for the act of giving birth) loses hope almost instantly when his daughter falls into a coma, confirming the foretelling of the fairies: her destiny of a continuous sleep (considering that all it takes to bring her back in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ is removing the flax splinter from her fingertip). The reader notices a certain apathy and passiveness in a moment of great distress which would naturally result in attempts of changing fate, comparable to Oedipus and Sisyphus.

As a matter of fact, the princess’s father shuts her body away to one of the finest rooms in Perrault’s tale and one of the furthest mansions in Basile’s tale, to exhibits her like a lifeless ornament by laying her on a bed ‘all embroidered with gold and silver’ or sitting her into a ‘velvet throne under a canopy of brocade’, without taking into consideration that she could be vulnerable to evil-minded intruders.3

[A hundred years...just imagine how often tourists touch and photograph artifacts that they shouldn’t. An absolute nightmare.]

In Perrault’s piece Sleeping Beauty got away considerably lucky (we aren’t told what happened before the final prince arrived); she only received a kiss, whereas to the reader it already signalises an act of possession, something we would call ‘sexual assault’: the prince is forcing his lips unto the lips of a fifteen-year-old girl who is unconscious. In Basile’s story, Talia, however, has to suffer a much greater felony from her fairy-tale King:

At last he came to the salon, and when the king beheld Talia, who seemed to be enchanted, he believed that she was asleep, and he called her, but she remained unconscious. Crying aloud, he beheld her charms and felt his blood course hotly through his veins. He lifted her in his arms, and carried her to a bed, where he gathered the first fruits of love.4

Talia was raped by a male stranger while being in a deep coma. The intruder, in this case a ‘King’, but of name only, is aware of the fact that she is in a deep sleep and helpless but nevertheless takes the opportunity to satisfy his sexual needs.

Leaving her on the bed, he returned to his own kingdom, where, in the pressing business of his realm, he for a time thought no more about this incident.5

Although the King’s wife, the ‘evil’ character in Basile’s tale being a victim too, tries to cook Talia’s children and burn Talia at the stake to take her revenge. The reader notices, that she cannot really be blamed for her cruel attempts as she has no say in her marriage, nor can she judge her husband for what he does, but must play the obedient and forgiving wife. The King has her burn at the stake as a punishment and marries Talia (it is not like Talia was allowed to say no, the absence of her opinion in the text is saying more than any words). She has been doomed into an everlasting bond of suppression, paternalism, sexual and physical assault. What a happy ever after! The moral could be:

[When a man is a killer and crueland in the night has raped youDon’t be angry, don’t be blueYou must forgive him with your witsAs he will make a damn good fit]

So the ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ finishes with the following moral (– no joke!):

Those whom fortune favorsFind good luck even in their sleep6

This is a particularly disgusting chewing gum, isn’t it?

In no instance of the story is the reader provided with Talia’s opinions or feelings about the rape and her rapist. All she claims in a moment of distress is that none of what has happened was her doing: ‘Talia…began to excuse herself, saying that it was not her fault, because the king her husband had taken possession of her territory when she was drowned in sleep’7

All in all, the reader can summarise the image of sleep as a metaphor for women’s passivity, helplessness, and surrender to the opposite sex. The victimisation of women in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ is poignant and shocking for a contemporary audience, which is why the Grimm Brothers’ and Charles Perrault’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale is the preferential version. It is, however, a tale, which is still hinting at an unequal balance between men and women. In the more moderate version it is recognisable through the act of the kiss as well as the absence of the female characters’ names, actions, feelings and self-perceptions. What is a moral and what is a gender rule is often difficult to tell apart. Sexual assault might not be tolerated anymore, but other inequalities are not far off. As long as such stories as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ count as the canon of children’s literature and media, gender boundaries will persist and distort children’s perception of equality.

[Language is a tool that constructs our world…

And the moral of the storyIs of no impressive gloryAs long as litter on the streets persistMy piece of mind – goes amiss.]

The author was born in Luxembourg in 1991 and studies in London.
Fiona Koster
© 2017 d’Lëtzebuerger Land