OK so first, a whole bunch of disclaimers:
-I know that Maleficent has been out for many many moons by now which is why I had given up on writing this post and then I talked to my Mommy (whose birthday it is today!) who wanted to see it written, so… this is for my Mom.
-This post will contain all sorts of spoilery stuff. If you happen to have missed Maleficent, and have not heard a single thing about it from online sources, congratulations, you must surely live in a void. But also, if you want to see it, and you don’t want me telling you everything about it in advance, don’t read any further.
-Finally, some of this discussion, as you must well know if you have seen the film or have read about it, centers on material that some people might find disturbing. More explicitly, this post will involve discussion of sexual violence. Do with that what you will.
… Actually, there’s one more thing. I totally, 100% ADORED this film! I am biased in every way and I will write about it with total glee and appreciation. If you’re looking for a ‘neutral’ analysis, you’ve come to the wrong place. I will hasten to add, however, that I do recognize that this film isn’t perfect. There are some strange leaps in the story, the pacing can be a bit awkward, the brutality directed at women is excessive and although it isn’t entirely white-washed, it’s pretty close (I think there are two black actors, neither named, only one of whom speaks). Nevertheless, I think it is super duper amazing for a bazillion reasons so I shall get on with exploring a few of those below.
I went to see Maleficent with the expectation that it would be a lot like a Gregory Maguire novel. That is, a creative interpretation of a minor character in a very famous story whose own story never really made it into view. Although we all know who Maleficent is (from the fairy tale or, more likely, from Disney), we can’t really claim to know anything about her outside of the fact that she’s got a bit of an attitude problem. We don’t know anything about her because her story had never been written; aside from being Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis, the fairy tale has nothing much else to say about Maleficent. The film Maleficent then, is Linda Woolverton’s creation. She takes a known character and creates a backstory previously unknown to us. I’m not only a big fan of this type of narrativizing, but I also think it’s a vitally important freedom for women whose stories are still relatively marginalized within popular culture. Yes, Sleeping Beauty has numerous female characters, but we were never allowed to hear them, or to see inside their heads. Therein lies the quality that truly sets Maleficent apart.
Despite mixed reviews and the stated reservations of some of my feminist friends, I came out of Maleficent feeling as though I had seen one of the most positive, woman-centric films Disney has ever made. Not only does Maleficent offer a compelling account of a woman’s journey, it also creates a layered narrative which offers female viewers the chance to relate to the film in unique ways.
Perhaps the most concerning critique I encountered prior to seeing the film centered on an interview given by Angelina Jolie in which she talks about the motivations of her character. The interviewer asked Jolie for her thoughts on the pivotal scene in which Stefan sears off, and steals Maleficent’s wings in order to serve his own ambition. Jolie revealed that the scene was a metaphor for rape and that she and Woolverton felt that this event was the key to explaining ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness’. Jolie went on to say that ‘the core of [“Maleficent”] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people’. The critique of these sentiments which concerned me most was not those focused on the fact that an act of rape was embedded within a ‘children’s film’. Although I am weary of the use of rape as the go-to trauma when affecting a female character, and I would have much preferred to see Woolverton find some other catalyst, I am also aware that for many, many women, rape is a part of the fabric of their existence. Moreover, as numerous writers have noted, the original fairy tale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was in fact centered on sustained rape of a woman. Perhaps it is fair to say that this narrative technique was disappointing, but not surprising.
No, what upset me more was the possibility that, as a friend of mine observed, the Maleficent character would represent a ‘failed survivor’ whose raped body becomes monstrous and ‘evil’ because it has been stripped of ‘maternity, womanhood, and softness’. My friend pointed out that these types of connections were really quite offensive, and that they denied raped women the possibility of being women. It was indeed hard to ignore the ways in which, once again, female sexuality seemed to be linked with evil and monstrosity. And further, how narrow the criteria seemed for ‘successful’ rape survivors. Thankfully, once in the cinema, I did not actually feel that way about the film’s intent.
The rape scene is incredibly unnerving and Jolie’s performance is so powerful and evocative that it was genuinely hard to sit through. But I don’t think, at any point, that it is really possible to see Maleficent as evil. The film does a beautiful job of justifying all of Maleficent’s fears, anger, pain and resentment. At no point was I confused about who the monster was and I would suggest that clarity comes not just as a result of wearing ‘feminist goggles’ but because Woolverton has made this a story, in part, about deep injustice. It was interesting for me to have Jolie’s interview in my mind as I watched Maleficent’s ‘recovery process’ unfold because I never had the impression that her character became unwomanly. She is shocked, hurt and angry; she develops resentment and resolve, and for a time, she is reserved. These reactions struck me as perfectly natural and for many survivors, these are all necessary phases of recovery. So too do these phases seem necessary for Maleficent for as the story progresses, she gradually approaches a way of being that resembles what we have been shown is her ‘self’.
I don’t think my friend’s critique was unjustified, Jolie’s comments were not unproblematic, but I think she was expressing genuine feelings about her own womanhood. It’s not at all surprising to me that for Jolie, one of the defining characteristics of womanhood is maternity. However misguided I feel some of her ‘save the children’ efforts may be, I do believe that she cares deeply about children, and especially girls. I think she is a very maternal woman and for her, the essence of being a woman rests in her ability to be a mother. For her, it must have seemed logical that an absence of ‘maternal feeling’ might represent a loss of womanliness. Do I think that’s true for all women? Absolutely not. And probably, Jolie doesn’t think that either but until she calls me, and invites me out for lunch, I’ll just have to assume that’s the case.
The other critique that rattled my cage is also related to maternity and had I seen it any sooner, I might have been sorely tempted to pen a sharp response. This blog-ologue will have to do. On the popular feminist website Jezebel, many readers complained that, in the end, a totally badass, kickass, strong female character winds up being ‘reduced’ to an over-active pair of ovaries. For the purposes of full disclosure, let me just state that I stopped reading Jezebel with any regularity some time ago. The way their readers cloak themselves in sanctimonious ‘fourth wave feminist’ self-righteousness drives me to distraction. Look, I get how these young women are keen to avoid being pigeon-holed because of long-held and narrow associations of women with procreation. And yeah, it is totally right to be annoyed that certain female tropes continue to be used to the exclusion of the real diversity lived by women. Again, I will admit that in this way, Maleficent is not the perfect feminist film. But the total refusal of the Jezebel readers to 1) acknowledge that for a blue-zillion women, maternity or maternal feelings are meaningful and empowering, and 2) that there is the possibility of reading this narrative more broadly, even if it is slightly against the grain makes me want to do a Maleficent finger-snap *into lemmings*
The brunt of the Jezebelian complaints was that Maleficent goes from being a bit of a hard-ass to fawning over Aurora ‘because of ovaries’. As mentioned before, I’m not really all that upset about this because I have watched a number of girlfriends, who were ‘NEVER having kids’, become mothers of two or three and so they too should be able to see themselves reflected in meaningful feminist narratives. But let’s say you’re not that type, does the Maleficent story line exclude you? Only if you’ve got no imagination.
Let me suggest that the Aurora-Maleficent thing can also be about Maleficent’s role as a healer, and about the power of female relationships. Again, we see from early on that Maleficent is connected to, and concerned with nature. (Another fine line, I know. Many a woman has been silenced because of her perceived connection to the Earth). On a number of occasions throughout the film, we see her healing plants and encouraging the earth to grow. If a character is invested in growth and life, is it really all that shocking that she might also develop a concern for a growing young woman? And about Maleficent’s connection to that young woman, I kinda loved it. In some ways it’s maternal, sure, but in many ways it isn’t at all. Maleficent sees herself in Aurora and begins to relocate her joie de vivre through Aurora’s own intimate interactions with nature. They connect. I’m not saying it’s purely erotic, but I’m not saying it isn’t at all. Women’s relationships are so underrepresented in popular culture and the intimacy and depth they can have often defy established heteronormative categories. Yes, the end is very much a repeat of Frozen but that’s awesome! So it happened once, once in all the history of Disney, and now y’all want to complain that ‘love between women proves the most powerful kind’ appears again?! Seriously, sit down.
If you’re still not jazzed with these interpretations, let me try to sell you one more. Let me start by quoting some key passages from feminist poet Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’ in her influential book Sister Outsider.
A) Lorde states that ‘the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane…In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives’ (53).
B) The erotic, Lorde writes, ‘offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough. The erotic has been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation’ (54).
C) Lorde argues that ‘women so empowered [with the erotic] are dangerous’ (55).
D) In opposition to the power of the erotic are oppressive systems. Lorde writes that ‘the principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need–the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, it’s erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment’ (55).
E) For Lorde, the erotic functions ‘in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference’ (56).
F) ‘To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a kleenex’ (58).
G) In describing her own experiences, Lorde suggests, ‘in touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial’ (58).
H) ‘Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world…For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society’ (59).
Thank your Goddess Lorde, now let me tell you a story…
Let’s pretend that Maleficent is one giant metaphor for women’s experiences in western culture. Maleficent’s wings represent the erotic, and Maleficent herself is women (A). Maleficent and her wings are viewed as a threat by the old King (who represents Patriarchy) and so he tries to attack (A). Maleficent’s wings make her strong, confident, she uses them to protect her community. She is powerful but joyous (B). Because of these things, the King orders her killed (A, C).
The King’s successor, Stefan (who represents Capitalism) exploits his relationship with Maleficent to rob her of her erotic power (A). With his new-found victory, paired with the old Patriarchal tricks, Stefan becomes Kyriarchy (D). In response, Maleficent becomes vengeful, her time spent in her community focuses on defense, on sabotage, on her pain (D).
But Maleficent finds herself establishing relationships, even surprising ones. Maleficent finds allies in Diaval and the Tree guards. The important thing is that they cannot save her (Prince Phillip) but they struggle alongside her, fight with her (F). Even more powerful still is Maleficent’s growing relationship with Aurora (other women) with whom, sometimes even in spite of herself, she experiences joy again (E).
Maleficent’s relationship with Aurora is so powerful in fact that she finds the courage to face her oppressor, Stefan. She is brutally fought against and her own reactions become desperate and sometimes manipulative (D).
But because of her powerful connection with Aurora, Maleficent is connected again with her wings. She becomes almost unstoppable (G).
Maleficent, with her allies (F), because of her relationship with Aurora (E), and with the return of her wings is able to defeat Stefan (G). Maleficent and Aurora unite their kingdoms, return peace to the land, and pursue joy in their own unique ways (H).
Are there limits to this extended metaphor? You betcha. It’s pretty broad and it ignores the ways in which some women (women of color, working-class women, disabled women) are distanced even further from the power of the erotic, how their oppression is even more violent. But that’s why models are such handy tools, they can be adjusted, remade, made better, or even discarded. I’m not saying this is the perfect feminist narrative, and I’m not saying Maleficent is the perfect feminist film, but I do think there are myriad possibilities for finding something meaningful in its ‘pages’.
If you’re not down with my Maleficent adventure, I hope you’ll still watch the film and choose your own. Yours will be awesome, too.
Happy Birthday, Mom.