© Copyright 2017 Juvian Gonzales, Ryerson University
Since When Did Dreaming of Becoming a Princess be so Scary?
When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming a princess like the ones I read from fairy tale books. I imagined getting rescued from a locked tower by a knight in shining armor who goes by the name Prince Charming. The prince would ride on a horse with his wavy and suave hair, wearing perfectly aligned, white teeth. In my head, it was very magical and romantic.
Therefore, it did not even occur in my mind that something so small like a pocket book of Sandy Posner’s The Sleeping Princess (The Story of the Ballet) would present to be a bombshell due to its rather problematic content as a feminist text…!
This is the second edition of the picture book published in 1949 by Adam and Charles Black; its first publication date being 1945 established by Newman Wolsey Ltd.
It consists of images illustrated by Joyce Millen. This book was considered to be popular because of the rapid interest in ballet dance throughout the European countries during its publication period (Posner 7). It is based off of “La Belle au bois Dormant” (Posner 20), the French version of Sleeping Beauty: a known classical tale that portrays an enchanting love-story about a prince who wakes up a sleeping princess with a kiss.
Seemingly harmless at this point; a kiss is no threat. However, beyond this book’s manifestation is a latent encouragement for sexual exploitation imposed on young dreamers of females.
In The Sleeping Princess, we will look at how the prince comes to kiss the princess, what role the princess initially has, and how the readers are supposed to perceive their characterizations.
“Of all fairy tales Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most cinematic in its fashioning of a primal scene for visual pleasure” (Maria Tartar 143)
Formatting the Story Book
Posner tells the story of The Sleeping Princess in the format of a descriptive ballet play. Staying true to its form as a ballet book, Posner incorporates ballet terms like “arabesque” (80), a ballet posture, and “mazurka” (96), a group ballet dance. Instead of saying “they lived happily ever after” which is often how fairy-tales end their story, Posner ends the story with “the curtain falls” (96).
These traits depict The Sleeping Princess as a creative and sensual revision of the classical tale that should appeal to readers who are fans of ballet based on the book’s particularly unique references. It is using a “cinematic” design from how the story is told in motion of ballet dances, while the illustrations act as support with their “visual” effects.
“Curiosity and the desire to look mingle with a display that is both aesthetically and erotically charged” (Tartar 143)
The Female Gender Role
Note how Princess Aurora is illustrated elegantly with a very slim figure, focusing on her long bare legs (seen in Figure 2). Her bed chamber is also emphasized with royal drapes of crowns but at the same time induces a very inviting look (Figure 1 & 3). Princess Aurora is presented as a sexual object.
In appearance, this book may seem modest but it’s actually an “erotic” depiction of the female lead’s character that subjects her to a case of vulnerability. Based on Leslee Farish Kuykendal and Brian W. Sturm’s outline on role reversal, there is reference to Princess Elizabeth by Robert Munsch from The Paperbag Princess released on 1980, as an example of a female character that crosses literary borders in comparison to Aurora’s conventional character. Princess Elizabeth is the one doing the rescuing in the story by marching to the tower to face the presumed antagonist, a dragon, demanding for the release of Prince Ronald. Thus, she is portraying a strong and valiant female character in “reversal” to how children usually read the depiction of womanly roles (Kuykendal & Sturm 40).
In contrast, Aurora represents the conventional female character due to her docile behaviour. She lacks the agency to choose her own destiny by sleeping throughout the tale. Unaware of the things happening in time, she only has one duty which is to wait for the right prince who would save her from the sleeping curse and marry that said man. Looking at the publication year of both texts, it is important to note that The Sleeping Princess was released before The Paper Bag Princess. This is relevant because Posner’s picture book becomes proof to how women were portrayed as idle and useless figures in the past.
The Art of Mocking Women’s Social Class
Posner’s book mocks the social status of women by displaying Aurora to be just like any other “trophy wives” whose purpose is to make the prince look and feel good by rewarding his “tough” journey in the form of marriage (Elizabeth Aura McClintock 1101). In the book, Prince Florimond (Prince Charming) is “restless and disgust[ed] at his aimless existence” so he takes it his duty to wake up the princess to achieve something that should claim him as a hero (Posner 69 & 87). There is a sense of disguise from the prince to do something not out of kindness but to doing it for the sake of his own gratification.
Pertaining to the three illustrations above by Millen, in Figure 1, the image displayed is of the prince leaning down to kiss Aurora who is notably wearing a crown on her head. It means that Aurora had to have been from a royal bloodline if the prince were to save her in order for his efforts to be remarkably acknowledged by the town’s people. If Aurora were any ordinary girl, saving her would not have been an option.
Therefore, Posner not only shows support for the conventional female behavior, but also proposes that men regards the value of women to a bare minimum in terms of their social background.
A Closer Read on the Story’s Content!
In order to take a closer look on the content of The Sleeping Princess, I chose two other secondary scholarly sources to showcase the indecencies of how Aurora was depicted in the picture book that are offensive to feminist readers.
According to Maria Tartar’s article, by disregarding Aurora’s female agency, The Sleeping Princess is criticized for suggesting the concept of “necrophiliac charms” (153). In the picture book, the prince finds Princess Aurora fast asleep on a “dais” and is surrounded by the sleeping court as he makes his way to give her a kiss (Posner 88-89). This entails the vulnerability of the princess for sexual exploitation where anyone can touch her if they wish. Tartar states that princesses are “swaddled in white serenity, radiating innocence and purity even as they invite desire in the quiet beauty of their features and the soft curves of their bodies (153-4). Princess Aurora as a sixteen year old girl is described to be “radiantly beautiful withal” and therefore is a perfect representation of Tartar’s princess definition (Posner 78).
Without personally knowing her, Prince Florimond has access to touching Aurora with the way the chamber is opened and the alluring feel the room appears to produce (seen in Millen, Figure 3). Aurora is literally being handed to the prince without fuss that continues to show the princess’ little to no influence on her destiny. The consent on Aurora’s part is given by her parents, the King and Queen, who gives their child away in marriage without talking it over first with the princess (Posner 89). Aurora’s responsibility as a princess and as bride is ultimately not up to her own decision but by the people who take control of her.
Tartar refers to Briar Rose by Burne Jones (1885-1890) that illustrates Sleeping Beauty with “roses and thorns encircling the castle and who incarnates in her stillness the seductive pull of beauty and death” (152) shown in the above image. This presents that beyond literature, artists also sees Aurora’s character as a “seductive” woman because of her “stillness” in the unconscious state. An art representation like this correlates to the artist’s interpretation of the story. Therefore, as one views Sleeping Beauty as a sexual text, it may provide as a reason for parents not to read this kind of book to their children due to the inappropriate connotations reflected upon it.
Further, There is no dialogue written in the picture book. Everyone is described through a third person’s narration and by actions. The “stillness” not only comes from how Aurora is illustrated by Millen (Figure 3), but is also accompanied by muteness. The combination of these two themes signify a presentation of a bound, voiceless female and a sexual predator male in sight. Thus, it is unsuitable for writers to deem Aurora’s and the prince’s relationship as something happy and appealing to children.
Similarly, Martine Hennard de la Rochère discusses about the production of “La Belle au bois Dormant” and the depiction of this play in theater as being erotic while also trying to maintain an innocent image regarding marriage for young children to believe in. De la Rochère states that marital happiness is associated both in Perrault’s text and Carter’s translation “with the intimacy and privacy of the bedchamber (143). When Prince Florimond wakes Princess Aurora up in The Sleeping Princess, the members of the castle are put to sleep so no one may interrupt (Posner 88). This shows the community’s involvement to repressing the agency of the princess by providing a space where the prince can do anything he wants to the unguarded princess. This is scarring for children since the story is possibly promoting the act of marriage through means of rape since the wedding was prompted only after the prince had kissed Aurora who was in an unconscious state (Posner 89).
Its Shape of Disguise
Based on the class visit to the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Book, the librarian discussed about Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and its pocket-sized shape which is deliberate to fit the hands of small children who may choose to read alone sufficiently. Lambert notes the same claim where one important feature of picture books is that “they are sized to comfortably accommodate a shared reading audience, as opposed to a solitary one” (4). This pocket-sized book, however, opposes this preconceived idea due to the high level of vocabularies printed on the pages that does not accommodate for the intellectuals of very young readers.
The Sleeping Princess requires the intellectuals of adults to be the set story-teller in order for a child to know about its story. So it is important to note that for a child to perceive this picture book, the adults have the agency to tell it in a way that could or could not be harmful to the,. However, since the content still strongly implies the “stillness” in Aurora’s position in bed that gives access for the prince to sexually explore her body, and how marriage is taken lightly that disregards its sacredness in nature, it is not recommended for parents and children to pick up this particular book.
Overall, my exhibit focused on the misconceptions of a romantic and heterosexual love, and the theme of feminism in The Sleeping Princess that presents the suitability of child readership as being problematic. Princesses are to be depicted as docile figures under vulnerable conditions. So the main question remains. Is it still a great dream to want a knight in shining armor like Prince Charming? Even when it means that your existence is to be downgraded as a mere tool for sexual exhibitions?
- De la Rochère, Martine,Hennard Dutheil. “‘But Marriage itself is no Party’: Angela Carter’s Translation of Charles Perrault’s “La Belle Au Bois Dormant”; Or, Pitting the Politics of Experience Against the Sleeping Beauty Myth.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 24, no. 1, 2010, pp. 131-151,185, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS); Research Library, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/503524442?accountid=13631.
- Kuykendal, L.F & Sturm, B.W. “We Said Feminist Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales!: The Construction of the Feminist Fairy Tale: Female Agency over Role Reversal.” Children and Libraries, 2007, pp. 38-41.
- Lambert, Megan D. “That’s About the Size of It: Trim Size and Orientation.” Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See. Charlesbridge, 2015 Nov.3, pp.3-14.
- McClintock, Elizabeth A. “Support for Beauty-Status Exchange Remains Illusory. ” American Sociological Review, vol. 82, issue 5, 2017, pp. 1100 – 1110, doi:10.1177/0003122417725175.
- Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press, 1980, pp.1-32. Print.
- Posner, Sandy. The Sleeping Princess. Illustrated by Joyce Millen. Newman Wolsey Ltd, 1945, second edition by Adam and Charles Black Ltd, 1949, pp.1-97. Print.
- Tatar, Maria. “Show and Tell: Sleeping Beauty as Verbal Icon and Seductive Story.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 28 no. 1, 2014, pp. 142-156. Project MUSE, http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/546501.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.