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On Sleeping Beauty: Who Holds the Prick and the Bush?

path of pins
path of needles
 wooden splinter
spinning wheel
swords and armor
thorny arbors
choose your weapon
kiss a steal 

The story of Sleeping Beauty as canonized by Disney in 1959 can trace its ancestry back to women's folk tales of Germany and France (as recorded by the Grimm brothers in the early 19th century), which were heavily influenced by French author Charles Perrault's literary work in the 17th century, which drew upon oral traditions of men and women from various linguistic groups and tribes, all the way back to the Norse myth of the shieldmaiden Brynhildr and beyond. And of course, Sleeping Beauty's family tree branches out in many other directions as well; no folktale can be claimed as authentically owned by a single language group or culture--these stories mix and blend as freely as human DNA.

When I look back at the exchange of narrative elements among groups of Western-culture transmitters of this story over time--epic poets, common housewives, literary aristocrats, Hollywood screenwriters, children's book authors, and more--what emerges is a conversation centered around the sexual agency of a desirable woman.

Many elements of the story persist across time--the beauty is cursed, she sleeps, she awakens and marries her suitor--but with mate selection taken completely out of her hands by unconsciousness, the sexual agent(s) who do the deciding on her behalf switch around like players in a game of musical chairs.

On the surface, this story looks to many like a primordial tale about how women attract mates by being pretty and men earn mates by their strength. But I would guess that this interpretation is most attractive to modern Americans, whose culture I would describe as largely "ricocheted Germanic." We individualistic cowboys (and girls) love ourselves a hero and a princess, those all-powerful Mary Sues and Gary Stus that reinforce the myth of an individual's completely self-centered locus of control, based on either what we are (princess) or what we do (hero).

But the ancients did not assume the romantic notion that human males and females freely choose each other as mates, or even that individual alpha males could choose their own mates without social collusion.

Brynhildr's sexuality-in-a-coma belonged to her own father, who cursed her for disobeying him by choosing a different man to support in battle than the one he had ordered her to choose. He punished her by imprisoning her in a ring of fire and letting strange men compete to penetrate the magical barrier and rape her. Ouch!

By the time Perrault crafted his literary take on the story, it had evolved into a nicer, if that word can be used, folkloric rape story. Popular variants of the tale by that time had passed through the romantic late middle ages and bottle-necked through the literary publication of Perceforest, when it became important that the princess' rapist fell in love with her after violating her unconscious body, and the enemy of both the princess and suitor, who tried to maintain sexual agency over the princess (sometimes both before and after the coma) became female--an angry fairy, an evil mother-in-law (as common a villain in Eastern folklore as the evil stepmother has become in Western fairy tales), the suitor's existing wife, or some combination of female characters.

The French and German peasants and housewives who carried on the story after Perrault adopted some key details he had chosen to include (which he had, of course, adapted from the body of existing folklore) of the spindle that pricks the princess' finger to cause the sleeping curse (formerly a splinter in some versions, and always eerily symbolic of sexual violence by an older family member or neighbor desiring ownership of the princess' sexual capacity) and the magical bush surrounding the sleeping princess, which the housewives described more as a protection around her than a barrier to freedom--keeping danger out rather than keeping her trapped inside. Interestingly, the same magic that grows the foliage also stills and surrounds the fire burning inside the castle--consuming the power of Brynhildr's father (as well as the princess' literal entire familial household) inside a giant vagina dentata nightmare. In the housewives' stories, the authority of sexual consent has passed definitively into the will of this magical vegetative barrier, which has the ability to open of its own volition when Mr. Right comes along.

man-eating Victorian vagina dentata

It is unclear in many of the newer variants whether the magical shrubbery obeys the wishes of a benevolent fairy, the princess herself, or any other female power. Perrault's princess wakes up and comments to the prince that she had been waiting for him, implying that somehow she had anticipated his arrival, even while unconscious. In any case, the storytellers after Perrault clearly have interpreted the foliage (which they transformed from Perrault's tall trees to the delicate flowers of Briar Rose) as lady business.

From the first publication by the Grimm brothers of "Briar Rose" (translated by Jack Zipes):

"And a hedge of thorns sprouted around the entire castle and grew higher and higher until it was impossible to see the castle anymore.

"There were princes who heard about the beautiful Briar Rose, and they came and wanted to rescue her, but they couldn't penetrate the hedge. It was as though the thorns clung tightly together like hands, and the princes got stuck there and died miserable deaths. All this continued for many, many years until one day a prince came riding through the country, and an old man told him that people believed that a castle was standing behind the hedge of thorns and that a gorgeous princess was sleeping inside with her entire royal household. His grandfather had told him that many princes had come and had wanted to penetrate the hedge. However, they got stuck hanging int the thorns and had died.

"'That doesn't scare me,' said the prince. 'I'm going to make my way through the hedge and rescue the beautiful princess.'

"So off he went, and when he came to the hedge of thorns, there was nothing but flowers that separated and made a path for him, and as he went through them, the flowers turned back into thorns."


Taken in the context of its own development since Norse myth, this is a story of a young girl's sexual redemption. Thousands of years after Brynhildr, the daddy's-girl ring of man-made fire has been conquered by a ring of prehistoric, primordial briar roses (which have grown on the earth since the time of the last dinosaurs, as a cool side note) that smell of delicious fruits and bloom with soft, pretty flowers--when their needs are met.

In the version of the story that the Grimm brothers recorded, attempts to penetrate a woman's sexual agency without her consent end in death to the attempted perpetrators. And the fate of that woman's entire household rests upon the maturation of her sexual agency. What was put to sleep by force must be awakened by true love.

It is fascinating to me what the creative team of Disney, a fabulous example of the "ricocheted Germanic" commercial American myth-generator, did with this story in 1959. In the United States, the middle of the 20th century was a unique time period that was even more socially and politically conservative than the Victorian era, when Wilhelm Grimm was straining most of his fairy tales through the same moral filter that pushed Sigmund Freud to invert his findings on endemic incestuous child molestation into a commercially successful theory of childhood rape fantasies.

"Ricocheted Germanic" culture in the United States has forcefully recoiled from the authoritarianism of Germany through the First and Second World Wars, placing a huge moral burden on the individual to resist authority and take personal responsibility to an unprecedented extreme. At the same time, it has carried along many unconscious memes of sexual repression and patriarchal values. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who fetishized both the mythic Norsemen and individual anti-conformism, championed the new American value of individual supremacy, which apparently developed as the rebellious child of white supremacy but didn't fall so far from the tree. Not incidentally, the supremacy of the individual will (FREEEEDOOOOMMM!!!) applied strictly to males.

I love how this was demonstrated in the archetypal American version of the old rape fantasy myth: Disney's Sleeping Beauty, a commercial masterpiece that has informed the cross-cultural evolution of the story. The Disney team struggled with the storyboard of this film for a long time as they were forced to grapple with the discomfort of the question of sexual agency. Certainly, the whole concept of this story as a battle over the sexual rights to a girl's unconscious body was too icky for mid-century American audiences to stomach without a lot of sugar-coating and Victorian-style window dressing.

But the patriarchal cowboy fantasy of strong-man-wins-pretty-lady was too seductive to pass up. So Disney invented the unique story element of having the princess meet and "choose" the prince by flirtation before the sleeping curse, sanctifying the later "rape" (reduced to a very polite closed-mouth Hollywood kiss) with the patriarchal notion of "consent" as a woman demonstrating any attraction to a male at any previous time.

Done and done.

They couldn't keep the part about the thorn bushes spreading apart and blooming like a happy vagina, because in the prudish patriarchy of mid-century America, only a filthy whore would positively choose sexual union (as opposed to demurely refraining from resistance--perfectly enacted by being asleep). So they referenced the mythic "ring of fire" in the form of a fire-breathing dragon, while keeping the less-threatening-to-Daddy female cock-blocker (in the character of Maleficent).

Acting on behalf of the princess, the benevolent fairies also hand the prince a set of magical weapons, giving him the additional authorization to actually cut through the briars, which do not part for him, because they are controlled by the evil female sexual agent, not the innocent princess or any magic representing her own "unchaste" wishes. Thus the prince gets to be The Ultimate Decider of the sexual union, by the personal use of violence against female forces, while his actions are purified according to mid-century American mores.

Disney successfully invented the heroic, romantic rapist-conqueror whose actions are sanctified by the princess's naive consent before contact (though not during, because that would make her a slut) and pre-authorization by her legitimized, ultra-friendly and cute sexual brokers (the "good" fairies). The plot of the film is actually pretty baroque and complicated as it back-flips through the minefield of mid-century American fantasies and fears about sexual relations.

My novel Briars and Black Hellebore (and its continuation in my new manuscript The Grove of Thorismud) is a response to the larger narrative conversation that has been unfolding since ancient times, and it also compares and contrasts the Sleeping Beauty story with the similar, gender-reversed tale of Beauty and the Beast. In both stories, I have taken the modern American cowboy myth and applied it subversively (cowgirl style) to present the question: What if the "beauties" in each of these tales took opportunities to wrest control of their own mate selection? How would that work out for them in their somewhat opposite roles in each of these stories?

And most importantly, how does a radical feminist variant of Sleeping Beauty manifest when I write it while listening to Rammstein nonstop?

Schalte ein!


For dessert: a couple of my favorite classic Rammstein fairy tale music videos!


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