Sleeping Beauty on Exhibition
by Jacqueline Lew

Unlike Yolen’s “Sleeping Ugly” or Garner’s parody, Anne Sexton’s poem “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” preserves the plot of the Grimm Brothers’ version.

Furthermore, Sexton reveals how the events directly affect Briar Rose, thus

revealing the impact of patriarchal notions on gender role — espoused by the Grimms’ fairy tales — on a woman’s psyche

Briar Rose realized that she loses a sense of herself, saying “Each night I am nailed into place/and forget who I am” (lines 149- 150) as a result of being forced into a proscribed gender roles, which denied her individuality.

Sexton restores Briar Rose’s voice and draws attention to her character as a female with her own thought and striving to express them, all the which the Grimm Brothers’ stripped of the princess.

After Briar Rose’s awakening, Sexton examines how Briar Rose’s mind has been debauched by the events, employing Briar Rose as a

paranoid insomniac who feels suffocated by her oppressed position in the story

Sexton’s powerful use of incestuous images, imprisonment, and insomnia underlie Briar Rose’s reactions about being forced into prison as well as a position of passivity, and overall being deduced to an object.

According to Lew,

Sexton’s poem lays the tale, in all its contemporary maliciousness, out in the open

Sexton aimed to eradicate the relevance of Grimms’ anciently chauvinistic values by encouraging readers to question said values to their contemporary lives.

In her poem, Briar Rose’s father not only rapes her, but smothers her with overprotection, further reinforcing her passive role.  In portraying such, Sexton suggests that just as Briar Rose is oppressed by patriarchy, the result of women who are forced into roles of passivity is stunted social, emotional, and intellectual development.

By likening Briar Rose’s passive role to imprisonment, Sexton’s version further explores how forcing women into passivity denies women freedom to explore and shape their individual lives and personalities. Unlike the Grimms’ Briar Rose, who is portrayed as being freed from her hundred-year sleep, Sexton’s Briar Rose merely passes from one prison into another.

In the sense that Briar Rose acknowledged that she merely passed from sleep-induced passivity to societal-induced passivity.

Sexton manages to do so via references to modern invention.  In doing so she also happens to suggest that the

Sleeping Beauty” tale deals with issues that are relevant today, such as the impact of socially determined gender roles on social development and remind the audience that every story reflects the cultural context in which it was written (Anne Sexton’s Feminist Re-reading)

Sexton’s Briar Rose is aware of her status as a relic of century-old gender role conceptions.  She realizes that the archaic values that she represents should be “dying” or dead in her new time.

Lew, perfectly encapsulates the importance of Sexton’s feminist retelling.

Sexton’s poem presents the story faithfully, but reveals, under contemporary lighting, that it is not nearly as attractive as we remembered in our imaginations, and that it does not match the rest of the values that furnish our culture.  Although the tale may have been beautiful in its own time, we find, with Sexton’s guidance, that in its deteriorating state, it should be encased in glass and displayed as a museum relic, an artifact in an exhibition on the evolution of the feminist struggle.