Fairytales Can Be Feminist Too: Beauty and the Female Rescuer

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ATTENTION: This post may have spoiler content for The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Note this is part of a project I am doing for my Women in Literature course.

We all probably remember watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a child and dancing with invisible partners around the living room to the tune of Once Upon A Dream, right? 
No? Just me? 
Well, even so, fairytales have always been a part of growing up thanks to Disney reinventing the original tales given to us by the Grimm Brothers. And the reimagining of Briar Rose is no different. 

Not only has the movie industry capitalized on retellings of folk and fairy tales, but so has the book industry. Just in the last year, there have been three YA retellings published based on the Sleeping Beauty tale alone: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas, and (the one which I will be analyzing) The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. 

Because of this recent flux of retellings hitting the YA shelves as of late, I began wondering how and why they differ from the original fairytale. What makes these new retellings more palatable to young adults? What makes them more relevant to society? And what messages do the recent adaptations send to the masses in comparison to the original fairytales?

That is where I discovered two things that were very interesting in the original tale:
1. Beauty
2. Agency

Upon reading the tale, I came to realize the use of the word "beauty" in relation to Briar Rose. Due to the fact that she is never seen doing much other than touching the spinning wheel and sleeping, we only know about her character based on what gifts the fairies bestow upon her at birth, which are: virtue, beauty, riches, gentleness, cleverness, and of course the ability to sleep and not die from the evil fairy's curse.

I wrote a tally of how many times Briar Rose was attributed with these gifts within the tale:
Virtue: 2
Beauty: 5
Riches: 1
Gentleness: 1
Cleverness: 1
Sleep: 1

I discovered that there seems to be a resounding emphasis on beauty. Throughout the narrative "beautiful" was virtually the only adjective used to describe Briar Rose. This is troublesome because in emphasizing her beauty, the princess's worth is represented in how beautiful she is, which in the end is not a feminine standard but actually a male perpetuated view of ideal beauty.

I then realized that throughout the entire tale, the princess had no agency whatsoever. First, she was cursed at birth by an offended fairy and was fated to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and sleep for one hundred years (Grimm 169). As we all know, "fate" isn't something a character can circumvent, it becomes fact and will happen no matter what the character's choice is. That being said, Briar Rose's choice in anything becomes moot, and therefore, takes away her agency completely. 

Even in the end, when the prince finds her in her tower asleep, he makes the choice to kiss her while Briar Rose has no say in the matter. In today's society, feminists would see this as objectionable, because the only person given agency within this story is the male rescuer. He is the one "who [is] not daunted" and chooses to bravely rescue the sleeping maiden, and he is the one who eventually chooses to awaken Briar Rose with a kiss, while she is left without choice (Grimm 170).

In Neil Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle, I noticed that he tackled the idea of beauty and agency in a very different manner in comparison to the Grimm Brothers. So let's first understand the world for which Gaiman is writing. Grimm's Fairy Tales have been in circulation since before he collected the stories which were published in 1869. Society has changed drastically since the publication of these tales, and as a human race, many events have occurred to alter our views and standards. For instance, the many waves of feminism have happened since the publication of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and thus our own retellings of those fairytales should reflect that change. 

The Sleeper and the Spindle excellently reflects the feminist views society has adopted in the last decade. Neil Gaiman himself reflects on this idea and says, "You don't need princes to save you. I don't have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men... I like stories where women save themselves" (EpicReads). 

 In Gaiman's retelling of Briar Rose, he does not use the male rescuer archetype, instead he uses a female in order to save the sleeping maiden in the tower, and not only that, this female heroine is a queen, one that the reader understands to be Snow White. 

Not only does Gaiman undermine the male rescuer archetype, he also addresses agency of not only the sleeper (which I will address later) but the female rescuer as well. In the beginning of the novel, the queen reflects on the fact that she will be married in a week's time:

[Getting married] seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. (Gaiman 14)

At the very beginning, Gaiman addresses the importance of agency in life. As soon as the queen hears that the sleeping plague is no longer confined to the princess in the tower and is spreading toward her own lands, she makes the executive decision to postpone her wedding and leave to save the sleeper in the tower and ultimately save the rest of the land (Gaiman 20-21). Just as any male rescuer would, the queen donned a "mail shirt" and "called for her sword... for provisions, and for her horse" before riding out toward the sleeping plagued city (Gaiman 21). 

Gaiman is trying to relay that men are not the only ones who have strength and courage to go into danger. He makes this idea apparent on more than this single instance, when the queen's three dwarven companions hear a barmaid retelling those who have gone to rescue the maiden: "And brave men... Aye, and brave women too, they say, have attempted to travel to the Forest of Acaire, to the castle at its heart, to wake the princess, and in waking her, to wake all the sleepers..." (Gaiman 16).

In Gaiman's retelling, there are no names, so I feel that it is important to name them in such a way that there could be no confusion:
The Queen, the Old Woman, the Sleeper.
The female heroine also known as the female rescuer is often referred to as "the queen." The Old Woman is a character who resides in the castle, but cannot sleep or hurt the sleeping maiden. The Sleeper is the young woman asleep on the bed in the highest tower.

Ultimately, what makes this book overtly feminist is that the Sleeper is not saved by a man; instead, the Queen, a woman, rescues her. Which brings us to the idea of the rescue itself. There are two major obstacles for the Queen to overcome: 1) the hedge of thorns surrounding the castle, 2) the sleeping spell. 

1. The Hedge of Thorns
Carolina Fern├índez Rodriguez argues that "the wall of brambles is [an] element of the narrative that contributes to the princess's well-being, since it prevents inappropriate men from reaching the sleeping maiden" ("The Deconstruction" 60). It is also important to note that in Grimm's version, it says, "Princes came endeavoring to penetrate the hedge into the castle; but it was not possible, for the thorns held them, as if by hands, and the youths were unable to release themselves, and so perished miserably" (Grimm 170). 

It is virtually impossible not to pick up on the sexual connotation of the word "penetration" in this context. As Rodriguez says, the wall of thorns were to keep unworthy men out; however, Gaiman is the first story that the hero, or in this case, heroine, is not hacking away or trying to "penetrate" the wall of briars. Instead, she lights the thorns on fire, "leaving just blackened stone" behind (Gaiman 46). Gaiman forgoes the idea of penetrating the briars, and I would argue that this is done because a woman is the rescuer, and male actions generally resemble phallic actions in order to prove masculinity.

2. The Sleeping Spell
Rodriguez argues that there are three alternatives to the Traditional Male Rescuer: 1) "female cooperation, which plays out in mother-daughter relationships or simply relationships between two women," 2) "self-liberation," 3) "homosexual relationships" ("The Deconstruction" 57). Taking Rodriguez's assertion into context, The Sleeper and the Spindle fall into a mixture of categories 1 and 3. 

The Queen, is the one to kiss the Sleeper awake, and initially, you might assume that this would directly fall into the third category. In this retelling, however, the evil witch that bestows the curse and the Sleeper are one and the same, and she puts herself under that spell in order to drain the power, youth, and beauty from the people who have fallen under her sleeping plague. It is the Old Woman who is in fact the princess. 

Considering this, and the fact that there was never anything overtly sexual about the kiss between the Queen and the Sleeper, one might argue that this alternative to the male rescuer falls under the first category

I argue that it is a blend of the two, and this is why:

"She lowered her face to the sleeping woman's. She touched the pink lips to her own carmine lips and she kissed the sleeping girl long and hard" (Gaiman 49).

It is unclear if the kiss was "long and hard" because the Queen wanted to make sure that the action would awaken her or if it was because of her desire to kiss the Sleeper, but I would argue that it very well could have been both considering that the Queen was thinking about how final her wedding would be and how she was to lose her agency. In homosexual relationships, there is less of a threat against agency, and less of a power struggle between partners; therefore, it makes sense that this could be a mixture of categories one and three. 

Why I also argue that this novel falls under category one as well is the fact that after understanding who the Sleeper is--that is the evil witch that has spelled the land to sleep--she has every desire to kill her and break the spell upon the land and its people, which then makes this relationship between the Queen and the Sleeper merely a non-sexual or non-attracted female relationship.

Now, after understanding who each of these characters are, it is easier to understand exactly why certain characteristics are mentioned in this novel. It is important to note that Gaiman is not liberal with adjectives or the list of characteristics I have mentioned below. He is fairly standard in referring to characters. Because there are no names, these characters are referred to by "the queen," "The old woman" and "the young woman" or "the sleeper," and much like Briar Rose, I wrote a tally to see how this retelling compares to its original counterpart:
The Sleeper's Beauty: 5
The Sleeper's Cleverness: 1
The Sleeper's Youth: 2
The Sleeper's Power: 2
The Queen's Beauty: 1
The Old Woman's Cleverness: 1
The Old Woman's Youth: 1
*Though some might argue that youth and beauty go in the same category, I have separated them because the use of the word "youth" in this context directly correlates with age. 

As you can see, beauty is emphasized above all here as well; however, the beauty noted, in all cases except for two within the novel, are seen as evil. For instance, the Queen mentions that "It's always the same with [witches]. [They] need youth and [they] need beauty... and [they] always want power" (Gaiman 56). In this context youth, beauty, and power become an evil trifecta of sorts. 

Moreover, it's important to recognize the type of power the Sleeper possesses: she has the power to command the people who have fallen under her sleeping spell to do whatever she wishes. The Sleeper says, "[she] likes them asleep. They are more...biddable" (Gaiman 56), and in another section, she talks of how she took away the Old Woman's choice to harm her while she slept (52). In this thirst for domination, the Sleeper has taken on patriarchal values and turned it into power over the weaker, which are those who are sleeping or less powerful than she, and in so doing has thus taken away their agency.

This entire novel is about making choices and agency, and the defeat of the Sleeper is no different. The Old Woman is the one who gains back her agency by "[thrusting] the point of the spindle" into the witch's chest, saving the the rest of her people while simultaneously putting the Old Woman to sleep as the witch turned to bones and dust (Gaiman 59).

I think it's important to note that the Old Woman did not magically become younger. Youth is not a strength, rather agency and courage of the heart is what allows her to protect and save her land (Gaiman 62). 

There are choices, [the Queen] thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.

This line is one of the most important and overarching themes of the novel, and it is clear every step of the way, even at the very end when the Queen chooses not to return home and get married; instead, she "[walks] east...away from the sunset and the lands [she] [knows], and into the night" (Gaiman 66). In that last moment of the book, she made a choice for herself and regained her own agency.

It is because these two tales differ, that young adults identify with these kind of characters and stories more than their Grimm counterparts. As teenagers, they consistently have a lack of agency in many situations and imposed by various authority figures. It is my opinion that this is why these books are so important. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. [He] has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon" (Chesterton, Ch. XVII The Red Angel). In the same way, young adults read these books to know they can gain agency and choice in their lives and ultimately make decisions for themselves.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble Classics
Neil Gaiman Explains Why Fairytales are Badass by EpicReads
"The Deconstructions of the Male-Rescuer Archetype in Contemporary Feminist Revision of 'The Sleeping Beauty'" by Carolina Fernández Rodriguez
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Tremendous Trifles by G.K. Chesterton


  1. Beautiful post, Amanda! I agree with a lot you said, and you made me think more deeply about Gaiman's interpretation compared to what I thought about it when I initially finished reading it.

    1. Thanks so much for reading it! Sometimes I get caught up in story and how much I love a book, but I don't really look at WHY I like a book, so that's what I did here. I thought it said a lot more than what I originally thought... and also, I think that's why it was so long lol! The other two won't be that long...hopefully haha!


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