Traditional Interpretations

Many of the fairy tales we have grown to know and love had their origins in the 19th century. In the past 80 years, these classic stories have become the foundation for the popular Disney Princess franchise. The images below are illustrations of these age old stories. With this section we hope to uncover the gender, sexual, and racial dynamics found in these stories.
Sleeping Beauty

Public Domain

This painting, titled Sleeping Beauty, by Henry Meynell Rheam was created in England in 1898. The piece features Sleeping Beauty deep in slumber in a vulnerable state, as the Prince looks over her. The painting reveals the power dynamics between women and men in fairy tales, especially in sexual situations. In addition, the story behind the painting, features the prince kissing the princess while she’s sleeping. This part of the story challenges the idea of consent, by condemning a nonconsensual act as appropriate, while disregarding the women’s agency to her body. This trend in Fairy tales teaches children that they can engage with someone sexually without permission, and that a women’s body is not her own to govern. The artist romanticizes, rape culture in his painting by conveying the scene as loving and beautiful. He also includes flowers, which are a sign of fertility in western art.  

-Maya Marrero English 
Beauty and the Beast 2

Public Domain

In this painting, Rousseau depicts the Beast having likely nonconsensual sexual intercourse with Belle.  In the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which is the best-known iteration of the story today, the Beast never makes unwanted physical advances, but rather plays a more passive role, hoping that Belle will ultimately give him what he wants; in this depiction, the Beast is unafraid to directly obtain what he wants.  Additionally, in the Disney version, the Beast is extremely anthropomorphized, wearing clothes and walking on two legs—a far cry from what Rousseau depicts with this four-legged creature.  In this image, Belle is entirely in the nude, and gazes into a mirror in her hand; this mirror harkens back to the magical mirror the Beast gives her in the fairy tale, so one cannot help but wonder what she has requested to look at.  Overall, this image presents a much harsher, graphic iteration of the story that so many know and love today.

-Suzanne Tarkuilch
John Smith Saved by Pocahontas

Public Domain

This painting depicts a powerful scene in the story of Pocahontas’ life in which she jumps in to save the white man, whom she loves, from death by the Native Americans.  Pocahontas falls both physically and functionally as a transition between the white man and the Native American man; she is partially undressed, wearing what may be a Western dress, but still wearing moccasins.  Additionally, her skin is also much whiter than that of the Native American she is holding back.  These choices by the painter to depict her as such are fundamental in shaping the viewer’s interpretation of Pocahontas; particularly, the choice to depict Pocahontas, one of the “good” Native Americans, as having whiter skin than the rest of the Native Americans implies that whiter skin, and thus European people, are more good, unlike the redder-skinned Native Americans who are trying to murder John Smith.  This image also reinforces the social strength Pocahontas is notorious for, unusual at the time for a woman, as she has the power to stop a man from being murdered.  Her actions are considered especially noble, as she has chosen to save the white man from the vicious Native Americans.  Although on the surface this may simply seem to depict the story of a woman saving the one she loves, it has strong undertones of white supremacy.

-Suzanne Tarkulich
Traditional Interpretations