Mar 4, 2020
Maleficent: Feminist revisionism, with a dragon
I was intrigued when I saw the trailers for Maleficent. The character has always been beloved by Disney fans. Mostly for taking a boring movie and making it memorable by being one of the most epic villains in fairy tale history. Still, I was eager to see it, thinking Angelina Jolie was a good casting choice and the film might add an interesting level of complexity to a two-dimensional villain.
Then I saw the reviews…
I admit, I allowed the critics to worm their way into my head before I saw the film. Their most damning criticism was that the movie degrades Maleficent to little more than a spurned lover. Which was exactly what I was afraid of.
See, there’s this trope known as the Woman Scorned. It’s the tendency in movies for female villains to have origin stories that rest solely on being rejected by a man. Not childhood trauma, not war, not political differences; just dude problems. Why don’t men love me? I kill errbody. It’s a lazy trope that relies heavily on the antiquated notion that women are inherently emotionally unstable. Because hormones or something.
For those critics saying that’s what Maleficent is in this version… I don’t know what movie you saw.
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So here’s what Maleficent is really about. I’ll try to keep the feminist interpretation to a minimum, but this movie is straight up feminist revisionism.
Maleficent is the tale of two kingdoms constantly at odds. One is the peaceful utopia of fairy folk called the Moors. The other is a wang-centric phallocracy populated almost entirely by men. No, seriously; the queen is literally the only woman seen from this kingdom, and she dies unceremoniously off screen.
Maleficent is the mightiest fairy of the Moors, and defends her homeland from the other kingdom trying to invade their lands. In her youth, she falls in love with a boy named Stefan who eventually becomes king. But before he can become king, he must prove his allegiance to the patriarchy—I mean, the king. I mean, the dying king. To do this, he has to betray Maleficent in the most horrific way possible.
I went into this movie having seen some feminist bloggers describe this scene as a metaphor for rape. While I didn’t believe that was outside the realm of possibility, I also knew that sometimes people can get lost down a social justice rabbit hole and start to see rape where no rape was intended.
After seeing it, I can safely say this is as close to date rape as Disney is going to get. It seems it was only put forth as a veiled allegory because the movie is for kids. Had it been for adults, it would have just been rape.
Make no mistake: this point was intentional, and is the key motivation for Maleficent’s character arc. They’re together, and Stefan drugs her in the hopes of killing her and bringing her corpse to the King. Finding he doesn’t have the courage, he cuts off her wings instead and flees. Leaving her shocked, violated, and permanently scarred by someone she trusted. That’s Disney date rape, as plain as the nose on my face.
You can go into an even deeper analysis. Although she’s a fairy, Maleficent has bird wings, like an angel. Angels are a universal symbol of purity. So her purity is taken from her… by the man she loves…while she’s drugged. Get it? That’s not even subtext, that’s just text.
The rest of the film involves her struggle with her grief and the searing fury that she feels for the now King Stefan. This is the turning point that made some critics call her a “woman scorned”. She’s withdrawn, numb, and has an unending wrath for anything and anyone associated with her attacker. She lashes out at those around her, and caught in the crossfire is Stefan’s poor daughter Aurora.
Angelina Jolie was born to play Maleficent. Her performance is simply amazing. But every film has flaws, and this one definitely has its fair share. I’ve heard it compared to Frozen for having a not-quite-a-villain villain. And it does, but of course it has a real villain as well, in King Stefan. But the difference is that in Frozen, I loved all the characters. In Maleficent, I love the title character, and that’s about it. Everyone else is pretty forgettable.
It also suffers from abrupt shifts in tone. The Disney date rape takes place in a forest full of cartoony animated trolls. And Aurora frolicking among colorful fairies is set next to King Stefan slowly losing his mind in a dark room. The whole thing feels a bit scattered and stitched together. Not to mention, there’s an abnormal amount of CGI in this movie; in particular, the Bobblehead fairy godmothers are pretty obnoxious.
The film manages to work in every detail about a two-dimensional villain and make it believable. From her staff to her raven to the badass dragon, it’s all there and it all works. But sadly, if it wasn’t for Maleficent as the main focus and Jolie’s performance, this movie would have been awful. As it is, it’s a beautiful tale that adds a complex and heartfelt back story to a character who frankly didn’t need one. But I like the one we got. I highly recommend Maleficent.