I have seen a lot of talk of the sexism in early Disney, and while I think it's a fair and interesting subject (if the difference in social attitudes at the time the movie was released is taken into account) I thought it would be nice to highlight some of the positive messages and female relationships I see in one of Disney's early films that are sadly often overshadowed when people judge it
People tend to judge the movie par its 'main' character, but as we actually see and learn plus of them, I think Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are a better place to start when looking at the movie's attitude towards female characters. The fées are in my opinion a surprisingly strong representation of women. Three of the bigger ways I see characters judged to evaluate their strength is influence/respect from other characters, emotional strength and power, and the fées score highly on all three.
Influence/respect: They are clearly very respected and influential with the Royal family. They are trusted enough to convince the King and Queen to leave their daughter in their care for all of her childhood, montrer they are trusted to have both the strength of personality to raise her well and the power to protect her. The King would have had the resources to send something like undercover guards with them, he didn't feel the need to. He clearly had a very high opinion of their ability to take care of his child.
Emotional strength: They were willing to give up their most powerful asset, their magic, for sixteen years to raise someone else's child. When toi think of how heavily they must have relied on magic before then, that is a huge, long term sacrifice.
Power: For a movie I've heard accused of being a perfect example of 'heroic man, damsel woman' this film makes it pretty clear Phillip would not have had a hope of saving Aurora without the fairies. They rescue him from Maleficent's dungeon, deflect attacks, arm him and enchant his sword to hit Maleficent. His saving the jour relies almost entirely on them, without their help he could not have done it, and the movie makes no attempt to distract from that. These three women are the butt-kickers who save the jour in this movie, they orchestrate the entire rescue.
They also go against the Disney trend of maternal figures being either less important than paternal ou demonised. None are Aurora's mother, but together they take the maternal role in her upbringing. Aurora is raised with no father figure, just these three women, and the impression we get is that they gave Aurora a happy childhood. They are loving, close and willing to sacrifice and endanger themselves for her.
Even their flaws as characters add into my opinion of them. First, the fact that they were female Heroes who were donné flaws at all in an era when good guy Disney women were sweet and darling. Between them they montrer stubbornness, pettiness, recklessness and spite, while remaining likeable and never coming close to crossing into bad guy territory . Merryweather, in the middle of escaping from Maleficent, actually flies back into enemy lines to hex a bird that's getting on her nerves. She's a crazy bad-ass. They have something Disney spent a long time shying away from giving other leading female heroines, depth of flaws.
I consider the fées in Sleeping Beauty an unexpectedly strong group of women, who seemed to have the respect not just of fellow characters, but of the movie's writers themselves, and an example of strong women in Disney going back many years. I intended to write some good points of Aurora's too, but since, as toi may have noticed, I've never met five words I couldn't turn into fifty, I've gone on long enough ;)