Friday, March 27, 2015

Is a Spindle just a Spindle?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why is a spindle used to put the sleeping curse on the princess in the Sleeping Beauty stories? It is a bit curious, since knowing how to spin wool into yarn is not a skill that is required of a princess, so her interactions with the spinning wheel and spindle would have been minimal in her lifetime. For the time period that this story is deeply rooted in, this practical skill would have been beneath someone of royal blood. Even current adaptations of these stories show that a princess’s important attributed are more frivolous. Rika Tóth states although these high-born “heroines are not without talent – they play musical instrument, compose poetry, and draw – these talents do not have the slightest practical use.” So why does the spindle become the object of choice? Could it be that it is a critique of the noble woman’s lack of practicality other than producing an heir?

The association of the spindle with domesticity comes from early traditions where families would sit by the hearth and listen to the grandmother's tale, which is spun like the fibers of the very yarn she is making. However, this association with the happy family is lost when one puts it in context of Sleeping Beauty, who is subjugated by this weapon. Not only is this an intrusion on the domestic space, but it is also an imposition on the female identity. Domesticity and the identity of a mother are seen as confinement that trap women into a mold and rob them of any other way of life, reducing them to mere productive or reproductive units. This is especially true of the noblewomen who had no practical skills to sustain an independent lifestyle.  

One only needs to stop and look at the phallic shape of the spindle to further associate the creation of a forced domestic identity with an encroachment on a woman’s right to choose what she wishes to do with her body and with her life. The ignorant princess is unaware of the dangers the spindle possesses and is tricked into pricking her finger. This pricking and the bleeding that ensues can be read as a figurative rape of the naïve girl. In an allegorical reading, it can also represent the forced conformity to a domestic identity for women. While this type of violation on the female body is often associated with patriarchal power, it a woman who instigates the “rape” of the princess in this story.

But why would a woman choose to subjugate a young girl?

The fairy or witch who curses the princess does so, in most retellings, because she is insulted that she did not receive an invitation to the celebration of the baby’s birth while the other fairies did. In more recent retellings, there is some attempt at justifying the reason for this exclusion. The Grimm Brothers wrote that the King chose to invite 12 out of the 12 “Wise Women” in the kingdom because “he had only twelve golden plates for them to eat out of.” Charles Perrault writes that for the baby’s christening “all the fairies that could be found in the realm (they numbered seven in all) were invited to be godmothers to the little princess,” but then during the ceremony an aged fairy enters, “whom no one had thought to invite—the reason being that for more than fifty years she had never quitted the tower in which she lives, and the people had supposed her to be dead or bewitched.” Disney’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty implies Maleficent was not invited because she was evil and in their latest movie release, Maleficent has a dark history with the king. In each of these cases, the exclusion that the uninvited guest experiences implies she does not belong at the celebration of new life and new family.

Deemed unfit to join the family celebration, the dark fairy/witch is excluded from having a domestic relationship with the rest of the kingdom. So it makes sense that she chooses a spindle to carry out her curse: Not only is it a symbol of the domestic identity of women, but it also represents a tradition of disempowerment that is passed down from mother to daughter through the simple act of storytelling. Repeated tales of passive women who fulfill their gender roles provide no real value to women who wish for a life other than the domestic. Instead, these women are marked as abject and deemed unfit to join society due to their non-normativity. With this frame of mind, we can see that the fairy/witch is actually cursing the princess for her inclusion in the domestic space with the item that is used in reference to the domesticated woman. 

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