True Love’s Kiss? Consent in the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty

Yesterday, The Metro, amongst other news outlets, reported that a mother has asked for the well known fairy tale Sleeping Beauty to be taken off her six year old son’s curriculum due to it’s problematic portrayal of consent.

Sleeping Beauty is a young princess, who on her sixteenth birthday, is destined by an evil fairy to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. Distraught at this consequence, Sleeping Beauty’s father asks three fairies to fix the curse. The task is impossible for the three fairies, however they are able to change the consequence of the curse from death to a deep sleep lasting one hundred years that can only be awoken by true love’s kiss. When Sleeping Beauty inevitably pricks her finger on the spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday, she falls into a deep sleep, with her only hope of awakening before the one hundred year curse ends is a Prince. After the Prince has defeated and escaped from the evil fairy, he finds Sleeping Beauty asleep in a tower and wakes her up with ‘true love’s kiss’. This is a basic plotline for the story which has been rewritten many times in literature (and sometimes in a more graphic way), as well as having multiple screen adaptations. Most however, will include the problematic, ‘true love’s kiss’ that occurs whilst Sleeping Beauty is asleep.

But what could possibly be wrong with such a fairy tale? After all, fairy tales are often read to and by children, they can watch them in films and television series, and they are featured in education. In addition, this is not the only fairy tale that raises issues with consent, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also has a princess in a death like sleep, that can only be awakened by ‘true love’s kiss’. With fairy tale’s being so accessible to children, in and outside of education, the messages that fairy tale’s can send really do matter.

Mrs Hall has not received a positive response from this request, according to The Metro. In the comments section of the news article alone, the public are not forgiving. It would seem many believe that it is ‘just a story’ and perhaps we are reading too much into it.

But, we cannot treat fairy tales as something trivial, they contain messages and narratives that are still relevant for society today. We can use fairy tales as a means of understanding social interactions and to send messages about what is to be considered as good behaviour and bad behaviour. Fairy tales can also assist us in developing morals about the way we should behave in society. With this in mind, we have to consider the behaviours that we are celebrating as ‘romantic’. When fairy tales raise issues such as consent, we have to treat them with importance, especially when these issues are still so prevalent in our society. 

The issue of consent has been featured in the media regularly. Now, we can see videos, articles and social media posts explaining consent and how to get it. But, are these accessible to children? Some organizations have been trying to resolve this accessibility issue, such as the NSPCC and their PANTS campaign and activity packs. This is an important step, and there have been other steps taken to introduce parents to new ways of discussing consent with their children at various ages.

Ms Hall explained that her “son is only six, he absorbs everything he sees”, and this is something we have to consider when discussing consent with younger children. When young children see these problematic narratives, how likely is it that they will internalize them, rather than think about them critically? I think that Ms Hall has a strong case for removing the fairy tale from her son’s reading list, especially when there are other stories that children can focus on that don’t have such problematic messages. Of course, as Ms Hall points out, when they are older, schools can use these fairy tale’s as a platform to discuss societal issues such as consent and also the representation of gender and race.

I have spoken about teaching children to think critically about representation of gender and race in the classroom, which is often regarded as an unnecessary part of education. However, teaching children to interpret fairy tale’s will not just help them to understand important issues in society, but could actually enhance their critical thinking skills at an earlier age. The most appropriate age however, is something that needs to be debated. 

If we removed Sleeping Beauty and other fairy tales from a school reading list, we can still overcome the negative messages in fairy tale literature by discussing them at home with our children, whether that is by reading the fairy tale itself or watching an adaptation on the television or at the cinema. There are new interpretations of fairy tale’s being produced all the time that are more diverse in their storyline and characters.

So, perhaps we should start using fairy tale’s more often as a discussion point when talking about societal issues and moral codes. It is not the only way, but it is certainly a starting point.

Thank you for reading this blog post! If there are any questions, feedback, or requests for future posts, please feel free to email me or post in the comment box below!

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