The lively discussion of the film Maleficent has focused on the turn of the plot after its title character is drugged by the human she loves and stripped of her wings, her ability to fly and, he presumes, her power. Jolie told the BBC,
We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene in question] was a metaphor for rape. … The core of [Maleficent] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people.
Others have judged the scene to be a “symbolic castration.” But no one, so far as I can find, has connected the surgical removal of her wings and Maleficent’s subsequent recovery of both body and power with the real-life loss of Jolie’s breasts. For me, Jolie’s body, on screen and off, has become emblematic of her courageous response to discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene and her subsequent decision to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy in 2013—and then make it public.
Perhaps I’m biased. I was diagnosed with Stage One breast cancer in May 2012, and because of my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and family history (including my mother’s breast cancer), I underwent genetic testing for the BRCA gene. Unlike Jolie, I was negative for the gene, but when she went public with her decision, I admit I felt that membership in the cancer club—the one no one wishes to join—had gained important star power.
A year later, researchers cite “the Angelina effect” on cancer awareness: Jolie’s announcement “initiated national—and worldwide—dialogue about the inherited risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and it also helped reduce the stigma in women who undergo mastectomy.” A friend of mine explained her own breast cancer diagnosis to friends by saying she had what Angelina Jolie had. Jolie put a beautiful face on a terrifying reality.
In character as Maleficent, Jolie describes her wings as having an existence discrete from her own—even before they are stolen and locked in a glass case that casts its shadow over the thief, King Stefan, as he deteriorates into madness and paranoia, fearing her revenge. She tells the inquisitive Princess Aurora, “I had wings once. They were stolen from me … They were strong … and they never faulted … I could trust them.”
Like the fairy’s wings, women’s breasts have been given a separate identity, fetishized and objectified in fashion, advertising and pornography. They are given pet names that range from cute to condescending—“the girls,” “melons,” “hooters.” They have become signifiers of female identity, whether maternal or sexual, Madonna or Eve, Marilyn Monroe or Dolly Parton. What Maleficent reminds us is not just that her wings (breasts) were strong, but that women/girls need not be determined by their bodies but by their choices and actions.
Just over a year ago, in The New York Times‘ op-ed piece in which she discussed her decision to have the surgery, Jolie wrote,
Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. … On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity. … Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.
Perhaps instead of the creepy Lana Del Rey reworking of the 1959 Disney Sleeping Beauty theme song (“Once Upon a Dream”), Maleficent might have chosen the song that helped me get through my cancer treatment: Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”:
You think you got the best of me
Think you had the last laugh
Bet you think that everything good is gone
Think you left me broken down …
Maybe you don’t know me, cause you’re dead wrong
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Photo of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, courtesy of movies.yahoo.com.
Melissa Kort teaches literature and composition at Santa Rosa (CA) Junior College. She writes on topics ranging from Charles Dickens and photography to women’s history.