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We see a distinct
difference in the culpability of each gender. The most obvious instance being
in ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’ wherein the king rapes Talia during her deep sleep. It
is stated that he believes she is asleep and after calling her that she remains
asleep – there is a very clear lack of consent. His abuse of Talia and his coinciding
infidelity to his wife is not condemned but almost condoned. Basile comments
that he ‘felt his blood course hotly through his veins’ and he conveys a notion
that his inability to control himself is innate, perhaps even a masculine
tendency. The king then returns to his kingdom, not to think of his actions again
for some time.

 

The
lifestyles of male characters differ from those of female characters to an
alarming degree, even with secondary characters. In each text, the cook who is
ordered to bake the protagonist and her children is male; this would indicate
only men are capable of holding such a position. Notably in each instance, the
cook passes the woman and her children over to his wife to care for – most likely
as she is housebound. In each instance, the princess encounters a female with a
spindle, indicating female characters are bound to this form of domestic work.
The domesticated female stereotype is to be expected from seventeenth century
texts, but how modern child readers receive the texts is alarming. As noted in
a study of gender stereotypes in children’s literature, ‘if they (the child reader) have accepted the stereotype
that it is a female’s job to do domestic chores, they are unlikely to question
why Snow White so willingly agrees to become the house-maid for seven strange
men.’ Similarly, young readers of
Sleeping Beauty often fail to question why male characters exclusively represent
certain occupations and why female characters appear to be stationed in their
home. The contrast in the lives of male and female royalty proves that this
division is not reserved for the working classes. The princess is generally
bound to her castle, unless beckoned by a male character. We see the extent of
this in Perrault’s version. He remarks that the princess ‘happened one day to
divert herself in running up and down the palace’ – most likely for lack of any
other activity to occupy herself with. Later, a fairy remarks that ‘she might
not know what to do with herself, being all alone in this old palace’. This
begs the question of why it is exactly that she is confined to her palace when
she awakes. Even the evil female characters, whom I find to be much more active
in terms of the plot, make their actions through male characters. The exact opposite
is true of the male royalty depicted in each story. When locating the Sleeping Beauty
they are out adventuring or hunting and equally when they leave the Sleeping
Beauty it is due to urgent business they must attend to, a war they must wage
or alternatively, a wife in the capital city where they lead an entirely
different life. Ultimately it can be said that ‘Specifically, boys have been
encouraged to view a wide range of life possibilities for themselves, while
girls have been directed toward a much narrower range of possibilities—until
quite recently, almost entirely those centered in a domestic context.’  When considering all of the characters in Sleeping
Beauty, we see a distinct difference in the quality of life that can be
expected for each gender and it is important to consider how this translates
with a child audience.

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Moreover,
passivity is often not enough to cement the notion that a female character is ‘good’.
A trait found in each of the female protagonists is fragility, and this
fragility is a commodity in the world of fairy-tales. The first example of this
is set in the fact that the women enter such a deep sleep due to the prick of a
spindle. This small injury is prophesized to be the cause of their death, and
so it seems they are destined to be especially susceptible to danger. The
desire of the male protagonists to aid the Damsel in Distress figure makes
their weakness almost admirable in context. The stories play this off as a
positive attribute of the women in a way that resembles the story of ‘The
Princess and the Pea’, a fairy-tale plot based on the detection of a princess
due to her unusual susceptibility to injury. In Perrault’s story, the princess says,
“Do it; do it” as she stretches out her neck and Basile’s princess resolves to stalling
and screaming. The princesses are entirely incapable of affecting change in the
plot by resolving the dangers they encounter. In the face of murder, the
princesses do not so much as consider combat or creating an intelligent plan. Their
vulnerability acts as a catalyst for the interference of the male protagonist
and thus, the inflation of their ego and value. Potentially, the simultaneous
result is influencing female child readers to negate their strength and
competence in belief this will make them more appealing to the opposite sex.

Each version
of the story operates on polarising the ‘good’ female characters from the ‘bad’
female characters. The evil female characters tend to be very pro-active and
headstrong, even if their actions are morally unacceptable. They deceive male
characters, hatch cunning plans and order male characters to execute their
demands. Aside from the fairy in Perrault’s story who cleverly plans to thwart
her elder’s plans to curse the princess, this is the only initiative we see any
female character take in either version of the story. Therefore, we can
withdraw that the texts depict women as incapable of making any decision that
does not result in callous murder and thus, we understand that ‘good’ female
characters maintain their blamelessness through complete inactivity. This
interpretation is in line with Carolyn Steedman’s view that ‘Most simply and clearly the
fairy-tale tells the story of women in our culture, and simply states that
they must be either innocent and beautiful, so passive that they are almost
dead, or profoundly and monstrously evil: good mother, bad mother.’ The
good mother in Perrault’s story is so passive that despite her fiercely
maternal exterior, when she assumes her children dead she does not actively
search for them or try to avenge their deaths in any way.

 

The evil female figure is denounced for more than her lack
of grace and aesthetic appeal. Each version contains a female character who is
to be feared and loathed. Basile’s answer is in the jilted wife of the king.
Where the new object of desire, Talia, is introduced – we see the queen descend
into psychotic envy. Interestingly, Talia and the Queen do not unite in
disapproval of the king’s actions – despite his infidelity with Talia lacking
consent. Rather, the queen seeks to murder Talia and her children and thus reinstate
herself as the object of desire. Terri Suico summarises the rivalry: “Rather than being
a source of solidarity and strength, other girls are cast as rivals. Romance
stories dictate that, in order to get the object of her desire, the heroine (or
heroines) must contend with other females for attention and power.” The king has ultimate leverage in this instance, he
dictates the worth of the female characters through his preference. His wife
allows his selection to cement an extreme course of action which we can only
assume was induced by her husband’s relentless mentioning of another woman’s
name. The reluctance of the women to confront their assailant and rather
contend for him is a particularly damaging scenario to present to children,
Suico also mentions that the rivalry depicted in stories of this nature ‘can undermine
readers’ views on what female friendship can be and provide unhealthy models
for readers to follow.’

We can therefore assume that the extremely anti-maternal actions
of the ‘bad’ female characters is completely intentional, with Basile depicting
the queen attempting to feed her husband his own children and Perrault going as
far as to depict the queen mother as an ogress with an insatiable desire to eat
children (including her own grandchildren).

‘As mother and only as mother, woman is exonerated of Eve’s
crime. The mother’s assumed capacity for unconditional love, uncontaminated by
self-interest or anger, makes her sacred; her pain in childbirth, her
self-sacrifice in childraising purify her sexuality.’

The mark of a ‘good’ woman often lies in her maternal
qualities. Perrault’s version is particularly emphatic about the king and queen’s
intense sadness at being unable to conceive a child and both texts convey
jubilance when a child is conceived. The texts seem to infer that a child is
necessary to the fulfilment of the couple. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty begs to
be slaughtered in order to re-unite with her children whom she assumes dead and
Talia’s maternal instincts supersede any reaction to the fact that she has been
raped in her sleep. A modern audience would not blame Talia for being aghast at
these children, given that they are the product of said rape – however it seems
Talia does not even consider this. Coppelia Khan’s potentially explains why
maternity is a paradigm of a ‘good’ woman:

Each text creates an ideal female character in their
‘Sleeping Beauty’. Appearance is paramount in the stories, Basile’s version
contains three mentions of beauty or youth and Perrault’s longer version
contains twelve. Perrault’s version sees fairies with the ability to bestow
gifts of characteristics and talents upon the girl prior to her birth. It is
notable that here we see gifts geared to entertaining and pleasing those around
her, for example she is given beauty, musical aptitude and the ability to
dance. Interestingly the story deems these assets more valuable to the princess
than gifts of say, integrity, persistence or strength. The small concession we
see in these gifts is the offering of the ‘wit of an angel’. While wit would
certainly be considered an asset to both males and females alike, we see this
softened by the notion of this wit being somehow ‘angelic’. This somewhat
mirrors the rest of the text wherein there are frequent mentions of her grace.
Perrault notes the princess falling down in a ‘swoon’, her ‘breathing softly’
and that the prince was immediately charmed by ‘the manner in which they (her
words) were spoken’. We see a stark difference in the way Perrault conveys the
tone of voice of the queen mother who speaks ‘in the tone of an ogress’ and
‘with a most horrible voice’. The emphasis placed on the voice and movements of
each character indicates not only their level of morality but also, the extent
of the femininity of the character. The difference in the portrayal of the
princess and the queen mother, and the resulting interpretation by the reader supports
Judith Butler’s view regarding ‘the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of
various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self’. In
essence, the princess who conforms to the standards set for the ideal female,
is accepted as such. However, the ogress queen is denigrated for superficial
attributes deemed unfeminine.

This essay will focus on two versions of the classic
fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty.  I have selected Charles Perrault’s ‘The
Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ and Giambattista Basile’s ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia’.
Each of these versions cast a staggering difference between male and female
characters. Male characters consistently represent bravery, courage and
strength whereas female characters are grouped into categories of passive,
amenable princesses or evil, disagreeable enemies.

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