Last week, Sarah Hall, the mother of a six-year-old boy, asked her son’s primary school to ban young children from reading Sleeping Beauty. The fairytale, she said, teaches children an “inappropriate sexual message” – namely that it’s OK to kiss a sleeping woman without her consent.
The request was prompted by an adaptation of the historical tale Hall came across as part of the Biff, Chip and Kipper series often used to teach children to read. It features a prince kissing a princess after being told by Chip, “You kiss the princess. Then she wakes up. Everyone knows that!”
Hall posted a photo of the book’s pages on Twitter with the caption: “Tell you what, while we are still seeing narratives like this in school, we are never going to change ingrained attitudes to sexual behaviour #MeToo #Consent #mysonissix”.
Obviously, the internet kicked off. People called her a pervert, a terrible mother, a cunt, and one delightful gentleman commented: “Probably a single mom. No bloke would tolerate this nonsense”. Meanwhile, The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Times have all run stories this morning making fun of her complaint. The Sun printed this alternate version of Snow White: “Snow Flake finds that the palace is no longer a safe space, due to triggering language used by her father’s life partner… While she in unconscious, a royal person exploits his white male privilege to make a sexual advance without her consent, resulting in ongoing trauma.”
Hahahahahahahaha. Isn’t it hilarious? All these snowflakes with their knickers in a twist over a chap kissing a woman while she’s asleep. Don’t they understand that he was saving her? Don’t they understand that it’s just a children’s story? Because if there’s anything we’ve learnt in the last few months, it’s that there’s nothing funnier than a man using “his white male privilege to make sexual advances without her consent”.
This idea that fairytales are stagnant, that they don’t shift and change with the times just doesn’t hold water. At other points in history, people have stopped and asked themselves if these stories are still appropriate and adapted them to their audience accordingly
But here’s the thing that this sort of outrage misses: the story that we are reading now is an adaptation of an older, more sexually explicit story. In the original tale of Sleeping Beauty, written by Giambattista Basile, a king walks by Sleeping Beauty’s castle and knocks on the door but when no one answers, he climbs through a window. He eventually finds the princess unconscious, with her two children next to her. The king then carries her to the bed and rapes her before leaving – Prince Charming, indeed. In fact, it’s not the king’s kiss or his magical penis that wakes her, but rather her child who sucks a splinter from her finger. When the king’s wife finds out about his extramarital dalliance, she tries to have the children killed, cooked and fed to the king and wants the princess burned at the stake.
Perrault adapted Basile’s version of the tale into a more sanitised version, and then Disney adapted it again into a cartoon. And then Oxford University Press adapted it again in 2011, into the version that ended up in Hall’s hands. This idea that fairytales are stagnant, that they don’t shift and change with the times just doesn’t hold water. At other points in history, people have stopped and asked themselves if these stories are still appropriate and adapted them to their audience accordingly.
But the truth of the matter is we occupy such a strange point in history that when one woman questions if it’s appropriate that reading materials for her six-year-old son include a man kissing an unconscious women, national papers print double page spreads making fun of her, dragging out their favourite headlines about “snowflakes” and “political correctness”.
Hall explained her complaint: “It’s about saying, is this still relevant, is it appropriate?” She added, “These [stories] are indicative of how ingrained that kind of behaviour is in society. All these small things build up, and they make a difference.”
And personally, I think she’s right. After all, isn’t that what #MeToo was meant to achieve? Isn’t this what we wanted? For us to take a longer, deeper look at the societal forces that have made so many men feel entitled to touch and kiss women’s bodies without their consent. To think about where these ideas come from and all the ways they’re reinforced throughout a lifetime.