Why She Slumbers: Recognizing Sleeping Beauty’s Personhood

Last week I discussed how one of the essential elements of the Sleeping Beuaty story seems to be treatment of her as some sort of object a person can possess and treat as he or she will. Whether it’s the evil witch from the Disney film, the handsome but brutish prince from Anne Rice’s novel, or her own father in my version of the story, powerful people seem to think Sleeping Beauty doesn’t get to make any choices for herself.

In my short story, Rex, the father, hunts down a spell that causes his daughter Beth to fall into a coma. Just like in the classic, only True Love’s First Kiss can wake her. He imagines this will keep her safe from the teenage boys he perceives as lusting after her.

As horrible as what Rex does is, though, he’s not the only person in the story who thinks he can possess Beth. Her mother Marie is no better. At first, she appears as a sympathetic character. She just wants to get her “Pretty Princess” back from the spell her husband cast. She wonders if Carl, the teenager who comes to visit Beth a few times a week, is the person who can break it.

As the story progresses, though, we see Marie isn’t admirable either. We discover that Marie has been entering Beth in beauty pageants from the time she was three years old. A flashback scene to when Beth was 12 reveals Marie for whom she really is. After Beth comes in second, Marie is disgusted and tells her she needs to work harder and not be satisfied with second place:

“For God’s sake, Mother, I was first runner-up,” Beth protested as they drove home.

“First runner-up is second place,” Marie scolded.

“That’s pretty good!”

“Stop being satisfied with less than the best. You are talented, Beth. You deserve to wear the crown. If you go through life thinking it’s okay for some other girl to win, that’s what will happen to you.”

“What do you mean?”

Good lord. Beth was sweet, smart, and talented, but sometimes she just didn’t get it. When was the girl going to figure life out? She was twelve, after all.

“I mean, if you think it’s okay to come in second, then you will,” Marie explained. “As long as you think someone else is better than you, as long as you think it is okay for you not to be number one, you will never win anything. You’ll be first runner-up at the pageants, someone else will be captain of the cheer squad, some other kid will be valedictorian of your class, and some other woman will marry the man you want.

“It’s time for you to start being tougher on yourself and on the competition. Beauty pageants aren’t just for fun. They’re training for life.”

From Marie’s perspective, she has Beth’s life all planned out — she’ll be valedictorian, cheer captain, and get happily married — and Beth is messing with her plans by not being competitive enough. It doesn’t occur to Marie that Beth might not want any of the things she has planned. She sees beauty pageants as “training for life,” and Beth needs to get better so she can “win.”

But what if Beth doesn’t want to be a cheerleader or the top of her class or even get married? What if Beth doesn’t even want to compete in beauty pageants? What if Beth has an entirely other destiny in mind for herself?

Like Rex, Marie is unconcerned with her daughter’s individuality. Where Rex sees her as a burgeoning sexual being, and he doesn’t want that to happen to his little girl (in essence, he wants to keep her as a child all her life), Marie sees her as needing to grow up to be a certain kind of person. Marie has no objections to Beth becoming an adult . . . as long as she becomes the person Marie wants her to be. At the end of the scene:

[Beth] didn’t get it yet. That was okay. This was not an easy lesson to learn. But Marie would keep teaching her. She would make sure her Pretty Princess grew up to be a powerful and successful queen.

Marie has no more respect for Beth’s personhood than Rex has. She just treats her as a different kind of object. Rex sees her as a sex toy. Marie sees her as queen. Both of them see reflections of themselves in Beth and try to make her into what they want.

If there’s a lesson we should take away from Sleeping Beauty, it’s that we need to treat women as masters of their own personal destinies. They are not sex objects as Rex or Rice’s Prince see them. They are not tools to make (as Marie sees Beth) or unmake (as Malificent sees Aurora) an empire. They are human beings who get to make their own choices about who they want to be.

I describe my version of “Sleeping Beauty” as a cautionary tale in the marketing blurb, but it seems to me we should view every version of the story in that fashion. Both the heroes and the villains of the various versions of “Sleeping Beauty” forget she is a person. That’s why she slumbers.

It’s time for all of us to wake up.

“Sleeping Beauty” is available for your Kindle here.

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