Sleeping Beauty and the Lesbians


Once more, with feeling: A woman ‘jousts’ against a man armed only with her distaff

This is just a quick follow-up to my earlier post, on ‘Spinsters and the Right to be Offensive‘. In that post, I explored why the word ‘spinster’ developed offensive connotations, and had a little ponder about whether or not it’s ever really possible to ‘reclaim’ a term, or to declare that you don’t find it offensive because you feel able to ignore (or misrepresent, rant, rant …) its history. 

That post got a lot of responses, on twitter and facebook and in person. Obviously, a fair few focussed on the undeniable cuteness of baby Jesus in his walker, and I’m sure someone at Mothercare is scratching their head at some of the search terms coming up now for medieval baby toys. But people also had lots of thoughts about the connotations of these images of women spinning and weaving, and I wanted (with their permission) to share some of these.

First off, of course, is the post over at Glossologics, which is a follow up to her entry on text, which I linked to in the previous post. It’s an intricate untangling of the etymology of the verb ‘to weave,’ and a fun reminder of how ancient the terminology behind ‘the web’ itself is.

Another set of words that relate to spinning come from the term ‘distaff,’ the spindle you use to wind your wool on prior to spinning it. It gives rise to the cliche ‘on the distaff side,’ meaning ‘in the maternal line’. When I went to look up the etymology for that, I came across this mega-patronizing article, which made me think about the overspill of these terms into the arena of politics. You’ll notice that while the article credits Laura Bush with ‘diplomacy on the distaff side’ (aw, bless her, what a truly feminine skill she has, not like that nasty aggressive Mrs Clinton), the word ‘spin’ has been repurposed by predominantly male politicos, effectively replacing the positive connotations of clothing families and propping up the medieval economy with the currency of twisting the truth. Nice.

More allusively, the brilliant Þóra Greylock pointed out that the distaff in the image above evokes the spindle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger, and also, rather more earthily, observed that the word ‘distaff’ itself brings together a punning term for ‘penis’ with the prefix ‘dis-‘, suggesting the distaff as a kind of negative image of the masculine phallus. The role of the witch who visits Sleeping Beauty – a corrupting influence, if you will – is as a spinner of thread but also a weaver of spells, for spells, like texts and clothes, are woven. The fairytale conflates this female-dominated activity of malignant spell-casting with spinning and weaving, bringing all three together in a pattern deeply influenced by misognyistic fears of the power men did not want women to exert.

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

Sleeping Beauty, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

I haven’t checked my copy of Marina Warner, but I’m fairly sure pricking fingers is none-too-subtle analogy for loss of virginity, but the fact she’s spinning at the time made me wonder whether the warning is against sexual activity with men, or against women usurping or erasing men’s roles in sex. After all, the ending of that fairytale – the princess who only needs the kiss of a good man to ‘cure’ her mysterious affliction – has a familiar homophobic undertone to it. It disturbs me (and therefore, dear readers, shall now disturb you) to remember from my undergraduate reading on Freudian symbolism that woods and thickets are supposed to represent female pubic hair in the unconscious, so I shall leave you to make what you will of the thicket of rose-briars that grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s tower, or the role of the prince who hacks his way through it.

Note: I won’t put an image up here because of copyright, but please check out Jan Pienkowski’s amazing illustrations of this story if you get the chance. I love his work and this is precisely how I always imagine it.

PS – I apologise for the font changes in this post. If anyone knows how to control font size on WordPress, please get in touch, because it is driving me out of my tiny little mind.