04:27, November 27 68 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-27 04:27:04
Once upon a sexual assault … it’s not outrageous for fairytales to get a modern update

When is it acceptable for a man to foist himself on a sleeping woman? You may be thinking that the correct answer would be “never” – unless, of course, you are the father of former Stanford student Brock Turner, who wrote a letter to the sentencing judge to protest about his son’s conviction last year for assaulting an unconscious woman after a party.

The one other exception to the rule of not initiating sexual contact with women who haven’t given consent due to not being awake is if you are a fairytale prince and she’s trapped in a 100-year enchanted sleep. If you’ve just hacked your way through a forest of thorns, you can’t be expected to dither over the niceties of permission when there’s a wicked fairy breathing down your neck. And in any case, princesses are raised to be grateful.

But the maelstrom of stories about consent or its absence means that now even charming princes can’t escape scrutiny. Last week Sarah Hall, a mother from Newcastle, made headlines by asking her six-year-old son’s primary school to remove the story of Sleeping Beauty from the classroom of younger pupils because of its unhelpful message about kissing sleeping girls, though she did suggest it could be saved for older children as part of a useful discussion about consent.

Her comments to this effect on social media were met with predictable frothing from the PC-gone-mad brigade (“You do know bears don’t eat porridge?” remarked one commenter), but it turns out that Hall’s concerns were instinctively correct.

The version of Sleeping Beauty with its chaste, true-love kiss that most of us remember from Disney or the Brothers Grimm derives from a 17th-century Italian tale called Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile, based on folk legends dating from the 14th century. In these early versions, the sleeping princess is raped and impregnated by a passing king – but it all ends well because after she wakes and recovers from the initial shock of finding she has twins, he returns and marries her. This constitutes a happy ending.

I grew up with the Grimm and Disney versions of Sleeping Beauty, and as a child it never occurred to me – or anyone else – to question whether it was appropriate for the prince to kiss her when she had no say in it; that was his role, just as hers was to be rescued. If we’d been read the Basile version it might have been a different matter; by the end of that story, after the king’s original wife has tried to kill the princess Talia and have the babies cooked and served to her errant husband for dinner (spoiler: the cook replaces them with lambs), you’re positively rooting for Talia to end up happy ever after with her rapist – he is no longer the worst offender in the story. As in Fatal Attraction, it’s the raging, jealous woman who becomes the destroyer of family, not the guy who can’t keep it in his pants.

But this is how stories work; it’s generally understood that what we regard as acceptable or even desirable within the context of a fictional world is not a morality that translates to real life. Even quite young children are capable of grasping this; it’s why they love stories about naughty anti-heroes such as Horrid Henry while also knowing they’d never get away with behaving like him.

Even so, Hall is not the first person to recognise that fairytales, with their centuries-old concerns and power structures, can be particularly problematic in shaping children’s sense of gender role and agency. The negative effects on young girls of “princess culture”, as pushed by Disney and its related marketing, are now the subject of numerous academic studies; Disney, for its part, has tried to mitigate this by introducing feistier heroines in recent years, but the white, passive, heteronormative girl with impossible waist measurements still prevails.

So is the answer really to ban every story that advertises an outmoded version of relationships? Maybe the solution is to reinvent those old tales with a modern twist; Angela Carter did it, as did the Shrek movies, and there’s now a thriving market for books that offer positive role models after the success of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

Fairy stories have served for centuries as ways of examining our fears; as long as men like Brock Turner still see consciousness as optional in a sexual encounter, it may not be outrageous to suggest that some of the old tropes might stand questioning.

Stephanie Merritt is an author, and former deputy literary editor of the Observer