The Underlying Sexual Content of Sleeping Beauty

Beneath their plots, most fairy tales have hidden implications. Each event is symbolic of something, and can have many interpretations depending on the number of variations the story has.

Angela Carter referred to these hidden implications at ‘latent content.’ When she was writing her own collection of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, she specified:

My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.’
Quote from The Guardian, read the full article here.

Angela Carter The Werewolf
‘The Werewolf’ by shoddyRagdoll

Carter was criticised for presenting fairy tales as violent, erotic stories, but she justified this by saying that in the stories she used, ‘the latent content is violently sexual.’ She chose to bring this to the surface, to make it clear to readers what the tales are really about. Carter wrote new versions of Little Red Riding Hood, The Snow Child, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast in this way.

From reading around Sleeping Beauty, I have discovered that this fairy tale also contains numerous underlying sexual themes. Bruno Bettelheim explores sexuality in Sleeping Beauty in his book The Uses of Enchantment, which is a study into the psychology of fairy tales and how they are integral to a child’s development. He says the following:

However great the variations in detail, the central theme of all versions of “The Sleeping Beauty” is that, despite all attempts on the part of the parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.

Furthermore, parents’ ill-advised efforts may postpone the reaching of maturity at the proper time, as symbolized by Sleeping Beauty’s hundred years of sleep, which separate her sexual awakening from her being united with her lover. 

The curse given to the girl by the evil fairy/goddess/Wise Woman can be seen as a metaphor for menstruation, which Bettelheim claims her father ‘does not understand the necessity of’ and therefore tries to prevent it. This is shown by his order to burn all of the spinning wheels. However, her progression into puberty is, of course, unavoidable. The girl finds a spindle despite his efforts (in a hidden chamber – ‘a formerly inaccessible [area] of existence’) and pricks her finger.

spinning wheel distaff
The long, pointy bit on the far left? That’s it. Distaffs are used to hold the un-spun fibres. As Bettelheim points out, ‘it does not take much imagination to see the possible sexual connotations in the distaff.’ Image from Southwest Spirit.

The other interpretation of the blood spilled in this story comes from these connotations. The girl pricking her finger and drawing blood mimics the blood spilled during the loss of virginity. Either way stands for the girl’s sexual maturity, and either way she still ends up falling asleep afterwards. This implies that she was not ready for such an experience, and so the sleep is her way of dealing with it and waiting for the time when she will be.

In the Grimms’ version, ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ a forest of thorns grows up around the sleeping girl to protect her until she is ready to awaken. Many potential suitors try to break through this to reach her, but they fail and perish. According to Bettelheim, this is ‘a warning’ that premature sexual arousal ‘can be destructive.’

Sleeping Beauty Trina Schart Hyman
A forest of thorns protects sleeping beauty until she is ready to receive the prince. Image by Trina Schart Hyman, found on Maleficent Magic.

However, when the hundred years are up the forest naturally withers and allows the prince to pass. When things are ready to happen, they will do so naturally and the successful prince does not have to fight for the girl like those before him; she has now come to terms with her maturity and is prepared for what comes next – love, marriage, sex, and motherhood.

It is noted at the beginning of both Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions that the king and queen had wanted a child for a long time before she fell pregnant. It can be inferred from this that sometimes it can take awhile to find sexual fulfilment. The same can also be inferred from the girl’s hundred year sleep, and neither she nor the queen end up any the worse off for having endured this wait. Bettelheim interprets this into the moral that ‘there is no need to hurry toward sex’ because ‘it loses none of its rewards’ no matter when it is experienced.

This is reminiscent of the moral at the end of Perrault’s version:

Lovers lose nothing if they wait, and tie the knot of marriage late. They’ll not be any less content.‘ 

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty
The Prince Finds Sleeping Beauty by Ambrose Dudley. Image sourced from Sofi on Flickr.

Perrault’s sleeping beauty awakens refreshed and eager to get to know the prince, and, the same as in ‘Sun, Moon and Talia,’ they wed, have children and spend the rest of their lives happily together (well, after vanquishing the evil wife/stepmother/ogress first, as you do!) After this, Perrault goes on to say that ‘young girls, though, yearn for married bliss.’ Those who rush into love before they are ready will not get the chance to mature properly, and therefore will miss out on enjoying their relationship to its full potential. So there you have it — proof that good things really do come to those who wait!

Whilst Bettelheim’s work is just one possible interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, it is nevertheless a credible one. Sexual imagery can be found in lots of fairy tales, but it seems to fit this story particularly well because of its narrative structure – an unavoidable ‘curse’ which will draw blood, the father’s attempt to prevent it, the long sleep and finally the awakening and acceptance of adulthood. In this way, the sexual content in Sleeping Beauty makes it into a coming of age story, as opposed to the sexual power struggles and feminist ideas that Carter uncovered in ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘The Snow Child,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Bluebeard.’

It’s fascinating – once you look at a story in a different way, so many new things come to light. I believe that it’s healthy to question stories and look into their depths, even if you don’t find anything. At least you’re giving yourself the freedom to entertain new possibilities. For one thing, I know I will never look at a distaff in quite the same way again…

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Amelia Starling is a writer, editor, and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and currently lives in Japan and works as an English teacher. She is also a content editor for Folklore Thursday. Folklore-wise, she's particularly interested in the selkies, witches, and spinning wheels. In her spare time she enjoys travelling, photography, and attempting to play guitar.

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2 comments

  1. I like the sexual interpretation, but I've seen it taken to some extreme levels! I love the fate aspect, too. It makes it feel as though everything is inevitable, and that all the bad fairy did was warn them of it. I like your point about the father needing to trust his daughter – I hadn't thought of it like that before. Given me some inspiration for my project, thank you!

  2. The sexual interpretation had never really made sense to me, but when you think about it in context, as in when girls would get married pretty much as soon as they were of age, and often against their will, it makes more sense.

    Probably my favorite aspect of Sleeping Beauty is just that sense of fate with the spinning wheel-that in the father's attempts to prevent the curse from happening, he caused it to happen, rather than choosing to trust his daughter with the truth. I had always seen this as more general symbolism about the dangers of trying to control things too much, or parenting too conservatively, but you could definitely see it as trying to prevent a child's sexuality.

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