Women’s stories have often been twisted, stolen, and locked away, often in iron-clad phallocentric cages. This has led to benevolent witches turning wicked, powerful woman being framed as bitches, midwives cast as baby-killers, queens/princesses truncated into damsels in distress and, perhaps most pervasively, the demonization/murder of mothers and motherhood.
To hide this ironclad prison house within which women’s lives and stories have been imprisoned, we have been given the fairy godmother, the innocent maiden, the asexual nanny-figure. In ways, the new Disney flm Maleficent—a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the view of the “villainess”—rights (and re-writes) all of these wrongs, finally breaking down the phallocentric prison within which female tales have been trapped.
Ironically enough the film is brought to us by a key builder of such prisons: Disney. While I am not naïve enough to think Disney has truly turned over a new feminist leaf (more like they are following the money and banking on upping the profits of Brave and Frozen), Maleficent still deserves applause. The intentions of Disney may be profit-driven (when are they not?), but the message of the film is important and groundbreaking nonetheless.
There is much to be said of the film from a feminist perspective, from its wonderful revisioning of the character Aurora, played fantastically by Elle Fanning, to its condemnation of fairies who see beauty and eternal happiness as great gifts for a female, and most significantly, to the fact we finally have a positive, complex depiction of a witch/mother figure in Maleficent, brought to life exquisitely by Angelina Jolie.
If you have not already done so, please fly your horned self to the nearest cinema and see Maleficent! If you read on, though, be aware that THERE ARE MANY SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!
The film opens with the line “let us tell an old story anew,” something Disney has done many times before (although usually by making such stories less feminist-friendly, not more). We then learn of two kingdoms, one that is vain and greedy—the human—and another that “needed neither king nor queen,” as all “trusted one another.” In my read, that’s one kingdom that is patriarchal (human/male) and another that is egalitarian. Is it happenstance that this more feminist kingdom, filled with all sorts of queer creatures, is called “the Moors?” In this kingdom, there is “moor” diversity, camaraderie, freedom, joy. You know what there is not more of? Human males. (And though this post argues Maleficent is “the wrong Disney dyke,” I would suggest the representation does queer the character in positive ways.)
When we first see they young Maleficent (Isobelle Malloy) in Moor kingdom, she is described as a girl but “not just any girl”: a fairy. However, we don’t see human-like males flitting around Moor-land. The first human male we see is Stefan, who will become Maleficent’s friend, then love interest, then the king of the human realm (which he achieves by betraying Maleficent) and ultimately Aurora’s father (perhaps one of the worst father figures ever to grace a fairy-tale film).
Though this is not made overt in the film, masculinity is the true villain in this bi-kingdom world. There are some positive males to round out the villainy of the evil kings and soldiers, such as the Crow turned Man, Diaval (Sam Riley), and the puckish Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites). However, for the most part, the film is dominated by females, and complex ones at that—a rarity indeed.
The males, in contrast, are rather one dimensional. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) lacks any backstory to justify his badness. The same goes for his predecessor, King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). Likewise, the kill-happy warriors are not given any motivation to war with the Moors, other than orders from above. Here, masculinity, more so than humanity generally, is cast as evil and power-hungry. While the film fails to tease out how norms of masculinity are damaging—not maleness, per se—its suggestion that the power/kill drive that defines traditional masculinity is problematic at least steps away from the image of a savoir prince lionized for kissing deathlike princesses without their consent.
Early in the film we learn that iron burns fairies, and we see young Stefan (Michael Higgins, Jackson Bews) throw away his iron ring so as to not to burn his newfound friend Maleficent. As the film progresses though, males are inextricably linked with iron, from the iron armor warn by the kings henchman to the iron chain Stefan uses to cut off Malificent’s wings to the iron bars that criss-cross the glass case Stefan uses to house her castrated wings to the final battle scenes in which an iron net is thrown over Maleficent. Ultimately, this iron-clad maleness—not Maleficent’s supposed villainy—is what leads Stefan to his death.
Though some have bemoaned the final battle scene as too long, the culmination of the battle in which Maleficent and Stefan face off against one another is made all the more powerful by the dramatic, brutal, lengthy scene that precedes it. High up in the castle, Maleficent faces Stefan and says assuredly, “It’s over.” Given that she does not kill him but turns away to leave, we can take “it’s over” to mean that their relationship is over, their battling each other is over and that she is well and truly done. However, as so many males of Stefan’s ilk often do, he refuses to let it be over. Instead, as she goes to fly off the parapet, he attempts to push her to her death. She takes off in flight, but he has become caught in one of the iron chains he was trying to bind her with. He falls to his death because he could not accept “it’s over.”
In contrast to this steely male kingdom where cruel kings wage pointless wars, in the non-patriarchal realm of Moor kingdom females such as the young Maleficent are allowed to be powerful and healing. Indeed, the first act we witness Maleficent do is heal a tree. We then witness extended images of her flying—not on a broomstick, mind you, but with wings. The imagery is not one of villainy (as in the iconic Wizard of Oz ) but of freedom.
This recasting of the powerful, magical woman as not wicked is a colossal depiction in the world of Disney, a corporation that has heretofore rarely shown positive depictions of magical women, and when they have graced the screen they’ve been asexual (Bedknobs and Broomsticks), practically perfect (Mary Poppins), grandmotherly (Cinderella’s godmother) or, most recently, an icy figure in need of taming by her kinder, more traditionally feminine sister (Frozen).
Though Jolie purportedly insisted throughout the making of the film that “She is still a villain. Still a villain,” and though most reviews frame Maleficent as such, she is far more of a hero. She saves Aurora and returns the kingdom of the Moors to its pre-Stefan glory, doing so with humor, grace and without need of recognition. She has aspects of villainy, yes, but would these be so focused on if she were a male protagonist? Methinks not.
As detailed in a piece at Vox, male villains are often portrayed sympathetically, as with characters such as Dexter or Norman Bates (especially in the new Bates Motel). Alas, Maleficent is still interpreted in the main as a villain (as here and here), even though her main acts of villainy include casting a curse she then tries to remove, and turning a crow into a man—hardly the stuff of a serial killer or sociopath. Perhaps the tendency to still insist she is a villain is linked to her name—something various reviews take umbrage with, noting it makes no sense that this “good fairy” has a name that means nefarious and malicious. However, cannot her name not be linked to her status as female? Women, in much folklore, mythology, and philosophy are often presumed to be evil—as with Aristotle’s famous dictum that females are deformed, lacking men. As such, Maleficent’s name can be read as a reflection of this patriarchal fallacy rather than as something describing her character.
Further, her name reflects the complexity of identity, suggesting we all have some maleficence in us, but also some beauty and goodness. As Aurora fittingly notes at the end, in voiceover, “My kingdom was united by one who was both hero and villain.” Maleficent is both, but as rendered in this reboot, she is all the more marvelous for being mainly a heroic figure misconstrued as a mainly villainous one (as this review recognizes).
Significantly, her acts of villainy are prompted by allegorical rape, another thread of the narrative that implies she is not evil, but society, and particularly patriarchal society, is. Stefan’s drugging of Maleficent and cutting off her wings as she is unconscious is a fairy-tale version of date rape, one rendered horrifically palpable by Jolie’s anguished screams when she awakes to find herself de-winged. Significantly, the loss of her wings causes extreme physical pain and leaves lasting scars, a fact the film emphasizes at length and which echoes the lasting pain and scarring endured by real-world rape survivors. (For screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s explanation of this backstory, see here.)
In the film, this allegorical rape prompts Maleficent to cast her infamous curse on the baby Aurora—not her jealousy or need for vengeance. Is it villainous to enact her vengeance on the daughter of her rapist? Of course. But Maleficent is redeemed when she realizes the error of her curse, and steps in to protect/nurture Aurora (variously played by Vivienne Jolie-Pitt, Eleanor Worthington Cox, Elle Fanning) when the three hapless fairies ignore the starving child, plugging their ears with cotton so as to sleep through her desperate cries. Maleficent prevents Aurora’s starvation, saves her from falling to her death and watches over her as she grows.
Though some condemn this depiction of Maleficent as mother-figure (as here), this protectoress is no June Cleaver with horns; she is not a vapid, ever-smiling baker of goods or band-aider of ouchies. No, she is more like the amazing aunt who does not smother and the mother who encourages her daughter to check out other kingdoms, does not scare-monger about Aurora’s attraction to a hot young prince and encourages her daughter to get dirty, take risks and, most magnificent of all, crowns her as queen, not princess. That she is the type of mother many would frame as “bad” and as “hating children” is not lost within the narrative itself. Indeed, the first time Aurora sees Maleficent as a toddler, she announces “I don’t like children” and then humorously reveals her failure to live up to this claim as she immediately picks up the young Aurora when she says “up, up.” In perhaps the most poignant moment of the film, the toddler first touches her horns and then her wing stubs admiringly, appreciating the beauty of Maleficent’s “beastly” power (her horns) on the one hand, and lamenting the horror of the violence done by wing castration.
Fittingly, Maleficent calls Aurora “beastie,” and she is indeed a beast off the old block—as fearless, wise and headstrong as her stand-in mother Maleficent. This is not a one-sided relationship though—Aurora brings about healing for Maleficent by prompting her to recount the harm done to her, to break the silence about her wings, when she asks, “Do all fair people have wings?” Here, the double play on words indicates not only Maleficent’s fairy being, not only that she is “fair” and beautiful, but also that she is fair as in just. She is not a villainous, vengeful harpy, but a survivor of abuse attempting to make her way in the world after irreparable, unspeakable harm has been done to her. Maleficent’s response to Aurora’s question is, “I had wings once. They were stolen from me. … They were strong … and they never faulted … I could trust them,” underscoreing their theft as horrific violence—a violence that takes away her ability to soar as well as her ability to trust, much as rape does to all too many humans in the real world.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERTS ABOUT THE ENDING AHEAD!
The film also suggests that the infamous “true love’s kiss” upon which the Disney house was built, is itself a violation and a falsity. Once Aurora falls into her inevitable sleep from the prick of a needle (yes, another allusion to rape), Maleficent rushes Philip to the castle, thinking his kiss might save her. She never encourages him to kiss Aurora though–it is the misbegotten fairies that do this. To his credit, Philip replies “I wouldn’t feel right about it,” noting they only just met. However, her beautiful sleeping face wins out over this sentiment and he does, in the end, kiss her at some length—a non-consensual kiss that honestly made me squirm in my seat with dread. Waiting in the wings, Maleficent is saddened this does not awake Aurora from her deathly slumber, even though she had insisted there was no such thing as true love’s kiss, thus delivering Philip to the castle out of sheer desperation.
Saddened, Maleficent goes to Aurora’s bedside and speaks to her as she sleeps, crying, “I will not ask your forgiveness,” adding that her own behavior was unforgivable. Explaining that she was “lost in hatred and revenge,” she bends down and kisses Aurora’s forehead in goodbye and turns away. And yes, you guessed it, this is the “true love’s kiss” that awakens the sleeping Aurora. A Frozen-like moment, but one that takes the love between women in a deeper, more complex direction, and one that does not have a man waiting in the wings. Magnificent indeed.
The positive, complex depiction of female heroines and villains is long overdue in Disney films and films generally. Let’s hope for moor like Maleficent soon!
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.