Maleficent: Feminist Fairy Tale

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maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, c/o Walt Disney Company.

It shocks me that this movie was made by a major Hollywood studio. Not because it’s feminist, because we’ve already seen Frozen reject a number of popular tropes, but because this movie is about a woman’s recovery from something horrific.

Frozen is, at heart a sweet movie about the love between two sisters. Dark elements are hinted at, about men being untrustworthy and the difficulties in coming of age under special circumstances but it’s a very happy movie.

Maleficent has a happy ending but it delves into something far darker.

WARNING: COMPLETE AND UTTER SPOILERS BELOW

Maleficent couldn’t have come along at a more opportune time, as our society is in the midst of a long discussion about the way women are treated. It’s a discussion that erupted after the shootings in California in which a young man went on a rampage because he hated women for not having sex with him and hated the men who were lucky enough to have sex. See #yesallwomen.

Maleficent opens in a wonderful, eye-popping sequence with young Maleficent flying all over the land of the enchanted, an obvious metaphor for childhood innocence. She’s wide-eyed and happy, innocent, but never stupid. Into the land comes a young thief that she saves from punishment. They became friends, then lovers as they grow into adulthood.

But Stefan, the young man, isn’t content. He started as a thief and he’s intent on winning a kingdom. He leaves with the intent to make himself king of the land of humans. Though sad, Maleficent grows up strong, happy, and the protector of the enchanted land, beloved by all. Hers is a good life. This is not a scorned woman. This is a happy, mature person.

But Stefan re-enters the picture, apparently comes to apologize. What he’s really come to do is kill her, as he gets to marry the king’s daughter  and thus win the kingdom if he does.

Maleficent trusts Stefan, she has no reason not to trust him. Stefan can’t quite kill her. So he does something else that robs her of power. He drugs her and rapes her. Oh, not as we’d call it in the real world. What he does is a symbolic rape: he cuts off her wings. He cuts off her freedom. He wrecks her hope and faith in the world.

It’s a moment of such cruelty that it takes your breath away.

At this point, I wondered where the movie would go. Having established Maleficent had valid reasons to hate the new king, Stefan, and to curse his firstborn, Aurora, I expected a descent into villainy with a small redemptive moment at the end.

I expected a revenge fantasy or the tale of how one woman couldn’t be saved but the next generation could.

I expected Prince Phillip to play some sort of part in it.

None of that.

There are scenes of action, of course, as Stefan and his men try to find and kill her and the usual silliness with the fairies who raise Aurora. But the second half of the movie is taken up mostly with the growing bond between Maleficent and Aurora.

Instead of it being about her revenge and madness, the story becomes about Maleficent’s recovery.

And that’s where  it’s genius.

Jolie has to carry this part of the movie. Because becoming emotionally involved in the growing bond between Maleficent and Aurora entirely depends on Jolie’s ability to convey several emotions at once. Her facial expressions, sharpened to a point with make-up designed to feature her cheekbones, show off the smallest flicker of emotions.

And carry it she does.  While on the surface, Maleficent is all about her anger, underneath, it’s all about how she comes to love watching over the little girl she calls “beastie,” the little girl who’s not afraid of her, the little girl who calls her, unironically, her fairy godmother.

And, reminded of kindness, Maleficent tries to break her curse. She wants healing for herself and for the innocent she made her victim. At this point, I really expected Prince Phillip to have something to do with this, especially as the movie recreates his and Aurora’s first meeting from the original Sleeping Beauty.

Would Maleficent set it up so Phillip would fight her and then Aurora would fall in love with a stalwart hero? Would his true love’s kiss awaken her?

No, again.

It’s Maleficent’s own heart breaking at her failure to save Aurora that instead saves them both. After her heart is restored through compassion, Aurora helps Maleficent get her wings back, a moment that has symbolic resonance for all victims. She can fly once more.

After, Maleficent is even willing to let the feud with Stefan end. But he’s too lost in his anger and guilt to survive any longer. He’s the cautionary tale of who she could have become. Phillip does show up at the end, hinting at a possible romance in the future for him and Aurora but one that will be built over time on trust.

And so, in the end, Maleficent not only survives her ordeal but to regains love and compassion. It’s a very happy ending, not only of survival, but ultimate recovery.

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12 thoughts on “Maleficent: Feminist Fairy Tale

  1. I went into this movie expecting a dark tale of revenge. Expecting to be disappointed in the portrayal. Expecting tropes to be re-hashed. I could not have been more wrong. This movie was so incredibly moving. The scene in which Maleficent stumbles her way through the forest after her wings have been removed stunned me. The term “rape” gets thrown around too often in our culture with no real basis, but it is such an accurate way of describing what Stefan did to Maleficent. So many heartbreaking moments in this movie, the King attacking the forest, the wings, Maleficent’s inability to retract the curse, Aurora’s discovery of who she is, and yet such a happy ending for all would accept one. A true redemptive narrative.

  2. Spoilers don’t bother me, Corinna–they (usually) just make me want to see it played out on the screen even more!

    And your spoiler did just that for MALEFICENT.

    I’m already a huge fan of Ms. Jolie, not just for her work in the movies (who can forget GIRL, INTERRUPTED?) but for her humanitarian efforts (along with her husband, Mr. Pitt) around the world.

  3. I totally agree on this. I was also glad to see that the movie showed King Stephan *not* redeeming himself. Too often we see last minute, deathbed type repentance in films. It makes us feel good to know that even evil-doers can repent of the harm they’ve caused, when it’s portrayed as *genuine* repentance. I understand that, and I agree (even if part of me says, “But it would have been much better if they’d repented *earlier* and actually taken part of their life to try to heal the harm… or better yet, not have harmed in the first place”). Yes, humans make mistakes; yes, sometimes humans make a series of bad choices that in turn warp their characters—as was what happened with Stephan.

    But real life isn’t movies… and sometimes those who’ve spent their lives doing wrong just keep doing it until their last breath. Sometimes people do this as one last blow, one final harm they can do. We can ascribe it to a descent into a form of mental illness; we can describe it as the person having become too wedded and addicted to their harming personality, identity, and/or negative emotions like rage, vengeance, cruelty.

    Regardless, the fact that the film *didn’t* have Stephan repent, gave us an opportunity to think about “What do we do when they don’t? How do we deal with it?” Maleficent did so by giving him a long look… then flying back to what truly mattered in her life: love, and Aurora, and her raven friend.

    I understand that pain has to be lived and expressed before it can be released… and at times it still can be a wound that never fully heals (especially when circumstances trigger it). I think the point of Maleficent’s turn toward love and away from contemplating the now-dead source of her pain (Stephan) is a powerful metaphor for taking greater control of one’s life by choosing where one will focus one’s time, attention, and direction, and choosing for life and love and positives (because after all, those are the things that fuel our existence).

    I also saw some comparisons in there of “natural wonders place filled with peaceful beings becomes coveted by human neighbors who want to exploit it and take it from the inhabitants” with some historical and also modern issues: how groups have taken over/assaulted other groups for gain; how native populations have been destroyed for the same cause; how industries plunder and pollute the environment despite who it harms; dehumanizing of the victims… all for greed. We can see that in protests against the Keystone pipeline, protests against fracking pollution, protests over water rights, etc. It’s a long-term theme we keep repeating. This wasn’t the main focus of the film, but I like that it’s a corollary theme.

  4. First of there was no growing bond, Aurora plays in the mud and in a lol jump the shark moment maleficent immediately loses the drip of hatred she had for the remainder of the movie. Secondly early in the film we see Stefan talking to maleficent’s wings in his room thinking he’s tots lost it but near the end Aurora goes in and we see the wings’re actually alive and flapping in the chains so aurora un chains them and they just fly by themselves right back to maleficent. I really fail to see the symbolic brew ho ha and I think this rape comparison is uncalled for. When aurora asks all the other fairys had wings why don’t you and she says she had wings once where’s the rape conoctation in that? Rape victims lose something that they heal from. Maleficent gets a wooden Cain and a talking bird and really does not lose anything. I enjoyed this movie but found it barebones and not once did maleficent strike me as a villion so I understand why people feel cheated when Disney was advertising it as ‘Disney’s greatest villion comes to life’ and all we get is a love story between mum and girl

  5. How perfect that you would fall into the trap of believing this is a feminist tale. The lesson here is: When someone does you wrong, plot revenge for years, then carry it out and vanquish your foe through violence. Ideally, kill him.

    If the tables were turned, and the hero were a man and the “villain” were a woman, gosh, we wouldn’t hear the end of how this is a story that promotes violence against women. But apparently violence against men is acceptable. Maleficent turns dark and evil and plots her revenge over the admittedly horrific act — all because, let’s not forget, she decided that “her own kind” weren’t good enough, and she had to sulk and brood over losing the love of a man who she KNEW represented everything that she was supposed to reject.

    Her forest friends all tell her to leave him alone, but she can’t help herself because, gosh, she’s in flittery-fluttery love. She risks her entire WORLD because she can’t resist this human, and then when he proves that he is made of EXACTLY what everyone warned her was the case, she plots revenge. Worse, the whole movie is sold on the very notion that Maleficent is somehow deliciously evil, that we should revel in wanting to see a tale of a (forgive my word) B*TCH.

    This isn’t a story like “Beauty and the Beast,” where the hero acts herself to save the object of her love through mercy and compassion. This is a story where the female protagonist needs to enlist the help of a man to defeat another man through the same violence she theoretically is supposed to reject.

    On top of THAT, Maleficent doesn’t even get to have a LIFE. The good fairies at least live a life of happiness and in service to another human being for 16 years, all Maleficent does is brood and plot revenge.

    Her act of “love,” which is indeed touching, is an act of regret — but she doesn’t take it all the way. She still uses violence and hatred as her motivators against the King. Yes, she loves Aurora, but the movie seems to indicate that Stefan does not. Is his love any less real? The movie’s ultimate message is, You can have love OR you can have success, but you can’t have BOTH (working moms take note), and that ultimately the only way to find peace is through extreme violence against men.

    Not a nice message. Not a nice movie.

  6. Great! You think you got the feminist take on a fairytale? Yeah, sure you did. And, in the process, THEY DESTROYED A GREAT VILLAIN!

    Why can’t Maleficent just be evil? We certainly have no problem with all the male movie villains – Freddy, Michael Myers, Jason, Hannibal Lector, etc. – with no questions asked. Why do we need to know the reasons for her behavior? Why did they feel compelled to soften her? Why must they cut off her… what’s the female equivalent to a man’s balls?… Ovaries? Why must they cut out her ovaries (uh, that just doesn’t seem to work…anyway) as they did with the Wicked Witch of the West in “Wicked?”

    You know what would be a real “feminist” move? Give us a badass female villain who answers to no one, gives us no reasons for why she does the evil things she does and instills fear in her victims and movie goers.

  7. Edward, we seem to have been watching two entirely different movies.
    “The lesson here is: When someone does you wrong, plot revenge for years, then carry it out and vanquish your foe through violence. Ideally, kill him.”

    Not a very accurate summary of what happens. When something bad happened to her, Maleficent went through grief, found what she thought was a way to strike back, and nearly instantly regretted her actions. In fact, she had more care and concern for Aurora than Stefan ever did. This despite the fact that both the new and the old kings were trying to invade and destroy the land she was protecting.

    She almost immediately gave up revenge. Through the years of Aurora’s growing up, it’s Stefan who keep waging war on her and her land. Her only move is to keep away his army’s incursions. She doesn’t even bring her tree army into Stefan’s castle at the end, when she’s trying to save Aurora. In contrast, Stefan hardly says “boo” to his daughter when she shows up. This is about getting Maleficent to him, not saving his daughter.

    And Maleficent doesn’t even ATTACK Stefan when she gets in the castle. She’s just trying to save Aurora and then leave. He attacks and traps her, she finally escapes, she has a moment in which she could kill him and doesn’t, clearly giving up the fight. The only reason he died was that he couldn’t give it up on his end.

    At the end, she joins the two lands together in pieces, brings in Phillip as a possible love for Aurora, and has her wings to soar again. I’d say she got it all.

    As I said, it’s like we were watching two separate movies.

    As for Beauty & the Beast, he kidnaps her father, he treats her cruelly, and imprisons her. There are a lot of problematic elements to that story (though I do love the movie), and that’s best exemplified by the fact Anne Rice was able to use that fairy tale as the basis for a BDSM series.

    Chris, I guess you wanted a story of an evil woman to watch? No, that’s not this movie. But there are plenty of female villains all over the place. Find something by Michelle Forbes. She’s practically made a career of it. There’s also Ursula from Little Mermaid, Cruella De Vil, the evil Queen from Snow White…

  8. Apparently the problem with those other female villains – as I’ve heard it told elsewhere – is that they have good reasons, like e.g. jealousy and greed, for that they do.

    Maleficent on the other hand is^^was evil simply for sake of being evil, which is apparently very compelling for some reason.

  9. As a film, I don’t think that this was a very good movie. I can’t quite put my finger on it and maybe I need to see it again. But I did feel that the characters, outside of Maleficent, were not fully developed. I would have liked to have seen more of Maleficent and Aurora together. Maybe the film’s need to stay relatively short, given that it is meant as a “family” movie meant that not enough time was allotted to character development.

    On the positive side, Maleficent herself, and her portrayal by Angelina Jolie, was magnificent. The scene when Maleficent saves Aurora was deeply touching and beautifully done. I just don’t feel that the rest of the movie quite lived up to the beauty of that scene or the power of Jolie’s performance.

    One final point: I disagree with your assertion that “Frozen” is a happy movie. I think that what gives “Frozen” its resonance is that it is a profoundly sad movie. Two sisters who love each other deeply are kept apart for years because of fear and misunderstanding. When the truth is revealed, one sister yearns for a reconciliation and a restoration of their love; the other sister almost accidentally kills her. For a time, the older sister even believes that her worst nightmare has come true and that she has killed her younger sister. The movie has a happy ending, to be sure – the sense that the love that the sisters have for each other will finally be free to be expressed and grow is palpable. But getting there has been through the wreckage of sad, wasted years of alienation and fear.

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