Although last weekend was my brother’s wedding (which was really wonderful), I managed to get out to the theater before the rehearsal and other festivities to see Maleficent (I was on a deadline). While I was moved by the movie and really enjoyed watching it, I also think it was technically clumsy in some of its storytelling, so I understand why it’s getting mixed-to-negative reviews. Still, there are several points about the film that I was excited about and wanted to expound on. Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about plot details so be warned. But, also, this is Sleeping Beauty. Trigger Warning: In the first section, I’m discussing violence against women.
Is this a rape revenge narrative?
Maleficent starts out pretty mildly with Maleficent as a really loveable fairy. While I adored that she was not a girlie fairy, I also wondered if Disney just expected us to believe that the name Maleficent was an unfortunate accident. How does someone that sweet and beloved have a name that means “doing evil or harm.” You knuckleheads couldn’t have written in a name change? Anyway, it looks like Maleficent’s change of heart is going to come about because of lost love, but then something truly terrible happens. The dying king wants her dead and offers his throne to whoever kills her. Stefan, the man she loves comes to “warn her.” They talk all night. It’s lovely and then he drugs her. He can’t bring himself to kill her so instead he cuts off her giant wings, which are very, very obviously a symbol of her power. And she loves her wings. She tells Aurora, “I had wings once, and they were strong. They could carry me above the clouds and into the headwinds, and they never faltered. Not even once.” When Maleficent wakes up and discovers her wings gone her reaction is breathtakingly heartbreaking. And then she gets mad. And she gets even for a while.
So, we know there’s this whole misogynistic ideology in our culture that powerful women need to be put in their place. Or that women’s bodies become sites of violence in war. The king wants Maleficent dead because she beat him in battle and he wants her land and basically he’s threatened by her. She is magnificently powerful and therefore she has to be destroyed. If Maleficent were a man (or male fairy, whatever) I suspect the narrative would play out differently. But she’s a woman, so the scenario involves romance and physical violation. The whole scene in which her wings are stolen reads very much like date rape.
I have mixed feelings about using that scene as Maleficent’s motivation for everything that follows. On one hand, I loved that Maleficent wasn’t just pissed because her true love turned bitter. She has a legit reason to want revenge. I also appreciated that she was not portrayed as a victim. She immediately finds new ways to exercise her power. Her heart is broken, not her authority. (Did she alwyas have magic powers or did those just appear?) And, although the hero-to villain-to hero plot isn’t super original, I think it served nicely to explore a healing process. At film’s end, Maleficent isn’t a reformed villain, she’s a person who has healed from trauma. On the other hand, I don’t like at all that she gets back at a man by threatening violence on a girl. Also, something doesn’t sit well with the idea that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” that is implied by the film. Stefan becomes such a caricature by the end of the movie and his mental disintegration is caused by fretting over the curse put on Aurora, not by the terrible thing he did to Maleficent. He doesn’t seem to internalize even a little that he violated her trust and her body. Further, it isn’t until violence is threatened on his daughter that he seems to have any anxiety over how he rose to power. I think the narrative would have been a lot stronger if Stefan’s character had had more shades of grey. The film was very short; there was time for it. I know it’s a PG kids movie, but given the graphic nature of what happens to Maleficent (no matter how you read it), I think Stefan showing some remorse for what he did not just the consequences would go a long way. Without that remorse it makes Maleficent look vindictive by not fully engaging what happened to her.
Secondarily, I thought it was an interesting moment in the film for Jolie, who has very publicly discussed surgeries removing other symbols of female power–her breasts and ovaries–especially given the role of mothering in the rest of the film.
Love doesn’t have to be warm and fuzzy.
Throughout the whole movie, Maleficent calls Aurora “beast” or “beastie.” I loved it, and not only because I call people I love “monster.” If you remember Sleeping Beauty, you know that the king and queen send Aurora to be raised by three fairies deep in the woods. In Maleficent, those fairies are incompetent and Maleficent becomes the true fairy godmother as she secretly keeps Aurora from premature death, starting basically right after she cursed her. Why would she do this? It’s not clear. I suspect that part of the reason is that the fairy-gifts that Aurora would grow in grace and beauty and be loved by all work on Maleficent herself. Nevertheless, Maleficent seems fascinated by the baby long before her attention turns to love. I think it’s an interesting move for a couple of reasons. First, that the pretty, feminine fairies are terrible, selfish “mothers” and Maleficent, the cold, distant villain turns out to be a very good “mother” complicates the portrayal of motherhood and womanhood in the film. Second, the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora grows so slowly and subtly that I think it works really well to show how over time Maleficent healed and grew to regret her decision to curse Aurora. Instead of a sudden epiphany or a contrived narrative about love, the film gives a more realistic portrayal of how time heals and sheds new light on old hurts and choices. It also allows space for Maleficent to heal on her own so that the impetus for her change of heart doesn’t rest solely on any one relationship or event, much like in real life.
I also want to note the beautiful, platonic friendship between Maleficent and Diaval, the crow whose life she saves and enlists to “be her wings.” While Maleficent turns him into a man, a wolf, a dragon, as it suits her, and Diaval serves her out of duty, a friendship grows between them so that Diaval sort of stands in for the audience, observing and commenting on Maleficent’s evolution as a character in both funny and touching ways. I appreciate that the film included a male-female relationship to counterbalance the awfulness of Stefan without using Diaval to reform or soften Maleficent’s heart.
This is not Frozen.
A lot of online commenters have been comparing Maleficent to Frozen. I get the comparisons because of the female-familial bonds replacing and trumping romantic love. I kind of suspect that Frozen stole some of Maleficent’s thunder, as this movie was in the works for a long time. But, also, who cares? Having two movies that make a move to celebrate different kinds of love and women’s power in one year is GREAT! What a wonderful thing! Let’s not act like we’re bored by it. Also, given the different plots and the different relationships in the two films, there are nuanced ways that they send different messages about femininity, power, romance, love. Woohoo!
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely-ish
My points about Stefan in the first section apply here too. I think the weakest part of the film is its message about power. Everything gets kind of slapped back together at the end with Aurora as the queen (Queen!) making eyes at Philip and the two kingdoms unified. Yawn. With Stefan, we saw that the love of power and the fear of losing it corrupted. With Maleficent, we saw power yielded from a place of anger make those who once adored her fear her. That’s not a great message about monarchy, right? So why end with a queen? Couldn’t they have done away with that type of power since it was obviously a problem? Maleficent takes off her crown, yes, but just to give it to Aurora, who is so pure of heart. Like Maleficent once was. Thinking outside the princess trope would have led to a much more consistent and liberatory ending.