Monday, October 12, 2009

The Sleeping Beauty

On a bad day I believe that the fairy tale princess in the Sleeping Beauty story is the Ideal Woman of this culture:

She's seventeen, beautiful and asleep, only to be awakened by the prince who does all the actual work in the story by breaking through her hymen the thorns which defend the castle in a hundred-year slumber.

On a better day I realize that she can give me a blogging topic: The Ideal Traditional Woman Has No Agency!

The Sleeping Beauty doesn't choose the prince; she is chosen. Snow-White is also kissed (while a corpse herself) by a prince who then marries her. We are never told anything about how willing the princesses are to do this. The story of Cinderella isn't that much different, though she does want to go to the ball: The ultimate choice is not hers but belongs to the prince who picks whoever can fit the glass shoe.

The hero in traditional European fairy tales almost always gets the princess and half the realm as his reward, even when he didn't rescue her from the dragon. What the princess thinks of this all is unclear.

Yet these stories were told to all the children, including little girls. The message is obvious: If you are passive and long-suffering enough, good things will come to you! The Beast holding Beauty prisoner turns into a handsome prince, because Beauty obeyed her father. Things "happens to" the girls and women in fairy tales, with only a few exceptions. It is men and boys who MAKE things happen.

You can step outside the fairy tale world and still find the same norms. The Virgin Mary is the ultimate long-suffering, patient and passive woman. The eternal virgins promised to Muslim men in paradise don't seem to mind their lack of agency. Neither do all those wives and girlfriends in the he-man movie genre whose speaking roles consist of saying: "You need some rest, honey," while gazing at the hero with adoring eyes. Or the Quiverful wives who have relinquished their bodies to god and the starter key to those bodies to their husbands. A good woman has always been a modest woman, a woman who stays silent and long-suffering. A woman without many demands.

Some of this is probably a logical consequence of the way the Hero's Tale is told in most cultures. Such tales don't need uppity women walking into the scene, yelling and demanding attention, stomping their feet. It ruins the intended path of the Hero's Tale. But too many of the suffer-in-silence stories exist for this to be the whole explanation. It does look like women have been traditionally trained towards passivity. A certain kind of eternal sleep.