Why Maleficent fails as a feminist film

Maleficent, Disney’s reimagining of their beloved classic Sleeping Beauty focusing on it’s beloved antagonist, recently hit multiplexes across the globe to box office success but mixed reviews. What did I think of it?

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To quote the late Roger Ebert’s classic review of North: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it.”

But until I really thought about it, I couldn’t figure out exactly why. Sure, there were obvious things like the contrived and nonsensical plot, the bland and uninteresting characters, the terribly stilted dialogue combined with the flat direction of the actors, but there was something else deep within this film that just didn’t sit right with me. And when I finally figured it out, this film went from just another bad movie to quite possibly the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. And I saw Sabotage. But to do this, I’m going have to go into SPOILERS. So only proceed if you’ve seen the movie or you don’t plan on doing so. If it’s the latter, best keep it that way.

To give you an idea of what leads into this insanity, allow me to briefly recap the plot. The story opens with a young Maleficent, who’s now a fairy or something with massive wings and horns, flying around through the magical forest without a care in the world. She comes across a young boy with a horrifically overdone Scottish accent called Stefan, who tries to steal some glowing rock that never becomes important (my guess is it was some unobtainium). The two begin to bond through the briefest of montages, culminating in them sharing “true love’s kiss”. But Stefan’s lust for power, hinted at offhandedly when Stefan points at the castle and says, “I want to live there one day”, draws him away from Maleficent. Because all men are evil or some sh*t.

“You see that over there? That’s my poorly defined motivation sitting on that hill.”

So it’s years later and Maleficent has grown up into Angelina Jolie, causing her skin to become paler and bright red lipstick to be permanently stuck to her mouth. The king and his men come to her forest for its “treasures” (again, I’m pretty sure it’s unobtainium), but Maleficent and her not-Ents ward off the evil men and injure the king in the process. Now on his deathbed and without an heir, the king promises the crown to whoever can slay Maleficent. And who should happen to be in the room but Stefan, now played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley with an even more overdone Scottish accent, who I guess went from random farmboy to nurse to the king during…however long it’s been since he dumped Maleficent. With his “evil man” urges kicking in, Stefan sets off to the woods. And this is where it starts to get disturbingly bonkers.

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the wings, the horns, or those massive cheekbones.

Stefan reunites with Maleficent, who seems initially bitter about Stefan’s abandonment but then quickly forgives him for being such a power-hungry jerk. Actually, correction: the intrusive and unnecessary narrator tells us she quickly forgives him for being such a power-hungry jerk. After snuggling together by the lake, Stefan gives Maleficent a drink from his flask. But surprise! Stefan has pulled a Snow White on Maleficent and fed her a sleeping potion. Knocked out and I guess now numbed to any pain, Stefan initially plans to kill Maleficent in her sleep but can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he simply chops off her wings and brings those before the king as proof that he “killed” her. Maleficent wakes up the next morning to discover her wings gone. She cries out in grief, now believing that “true love” is a lie and her path to the dark side begins.

Here’s where the disturbing symbolism kicks in…

If the whole subtext wasn’t made clear in that last paragraph, I’ll spell it out for you. Stefan seduces, drugs and rapes Maleficent. Not literally, but he might as well have.

(Feel free to burst into an overly jovial and awkwardly out of place rendition of “Once Upon A Dream” here to offset the dirtiness of that last statement.)

Wow. Just…just…wow. I never thought I’d see the day where the main motivation of the character of a Disney film is revenge for their metaphorical defilement. Words can barely describe it, but I’m going to try anyway.

Firstly, the lead-up to this event. Maleficent forgives Stefan for ignoring her and lusting after power instead of staying with her. Since when did one of Disney’s most iconic villains become one of those abused girlfriends who refuse to leave their dick boyfriends because “he didn’t mean it. He’s sorry. He really does love me.”? Even before we get to the wing cutting, I could tell something was up from that. The way the narrator tells us that “Maleficent forgave him for his follies”; it came off with a very disturbing vibe. Then Stefan drugs her with a potion that might as well be labeled “Ye Olde Rohypnol”. That doesn’t help sway this metaphor either.

It’s a real accomplishment when the malformed half-alien man you played is less disgusting of a character than this.

But now the “rape” itself. Several times before this, we’ve seen Maleficent fly around her forest and the sky. Her wings represent her freedom, her individuality, her feminine prowess and, most prominently, her innocence. When she does this for the first time as an adult, we get the sense she’s doing it to distract her from the fact she’s felt lonely since Stefan lost interest in her. It’s clear that she’s now a woman, but she still wants that “true love” promised to her as a child. So when Stefan returns to her, she forgives him because she thinks she’s going to get that love. But when Stefan her wings, he takes away what defines her and leaves nothing but an empty shell. The young girl who believed in true love has been destroyed, and she weeps and screams in agony when she realises what has happened to her. Stefan effectively robs Maleficent of her innocence.

Enjoy those wings while you can, Maleficent. Because soon the evils of man will rob you of your ability to escape.

Now let me make this clear: I’m not saying that turning Maleficent into a rape revenge story is a bad idea. If done in a way that lets it go balls to the wall and rip the source material to shreds the way someone like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore might do, it has the potential to be an interesting deconstruction of the fairy tale. The problem is that it isn’t that at all. The filmmakers don’t have the balls to go through with it, and it just makes the film even more of a jumbled mess of ill-conceived ideas than it already is. If the story had been bright and whimsical but then after Maleficent loses her wings it becomes a darker story, I would have been more on board. But the film is still trying to appeal to the kids in the audience, throwing in bad comic relief such as the three fairies (who, by the way, have gone from the most competent characters in Sleeping Beauty to Three Stooges levels of buffoonish) and instead of an outright revenge flick we get a story about Maleficent learning to become good again through her sudden connection to Stefan’s daughter Aurora. Bull. F*cking. Sh*t.

Maleficent: mistress of all evil and reluctant nanny.

So you’re going to go as far as to have pretty obvious symbolism for rape in your kids’ movie, but then you’re going to sugarcoat it and turn it into a weak attempt at girl power? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. If you want me to take that subtext seriously, you’re going to have to back it up and make this go in a far more destructive direction. For f*ck’s sake, Maleficent’s name is derived from the word ‘malefic’, which means ‘causing or capable of causing harm or destruction, especially by supernatural means’. Why isn’t she going all out crazy on Stefan and the humans, Magneto style? Why is her joy in causing Stefan pain so short-lived before she starts playing Fairy Godmother to Aurora for no adequately explained reason (I like to think Maleficent sees Aurora as the child she and Stefan never had, which is just another whole shade of wrong.)? It almost feels like the film was initially pitched as more aimed towards an older audience, but then Disney made them tone it down to have broader appeal. If the movie ever had an edge to it, it’s been lost and, much like Maleficent’s wings, any potential power the subtext could have had has been chopped off at the roots. If after all of that bad sh*t happened to her she became the exact character she was in Sleeping Beauty and stayed that way, making her outright villainous but still retaining that sympathy because we can get behind her motivations, this could have maybe worked. Say what you will about Oz The Great and Powerful, but when The Wicked Witch of the West turns evil in that movie she becomes fully evil. Here, Maleficent almost immediately regrets cursing Aurora and tries to reverse it but can’t, and the only way to break the spell is “true love’s kiss” which, because of her scorning, she made the breaker of the curse because she doesn’t believe it exists.

Oh yeah, the prince is in the movie. Basically he’s here as a plot device and as a way to rip off the end of Frozen.

But the main reason I take umbrage with this whole concept is because it shockingly comes across as both misandristic and misogynistic at the same time. Now there’s an oxymoron for you! The story paints all of the humans, but especially the men, as complete douches who want nothing more than to rule over everything, and it just comes across as shallow and lazy feminism. I know you can say it’s a fairy tale where everything is morally black or white, but if you’re going to try and give Maleficent all of these shades of grey, why not portray Stefan that way too? Why not make his motivations and character more complex and interesting, or give him a character arc beyond becoming MORE crazy and power hungry as the film goes on? Instead, Stefan becomes a cardboard cutout of a misogynist with nothing up for interpretation.

“Why am I evil? I don’t know. Testosterone or something, I guess.”

But by doing this, it all backfires in the message of the film’s face. The story makes Maleficent a woman scorned in order to give her motivation. But my question is: why, of all the things in the world, did they choose love? Oh right: because she’s a woman, and apparently that’s all they care about. By making her motivation so insultingly simple and belittlingly broad (in both senses of the word), it completely undermines the point it’s trying to get across. Maleficent is, essentially, trying to be a power fantasy for women who feel they’ve been wronged by men and wish they could take revenge; basically Sucker Punch but without the fetishistic tendencies.

I know what you’re about to say: “What about all the male power fantasy movies we always see? Why isn’t it OK for it to be flipped around on men for once?” I’m not saying that at all. I’m all for strong female characters. You don’t see enough of them and even when they try they usually get it wrong. Maleficent is one of the ones that gets it wrong. Instead of trying to subvert, it simply reverses the target. Instead of trying to take a more interesting view on the subject of an abusive relationship, it panders to the female audience for lazy empowerment. And that’s what I meant by that aforementioned oxymoron: it’s misandristic because it paints the male characters in such a despicable light, but it’s misogynistic because the film basically says, “If you wrong a woman, she will turn evil and become hell-bent on taking revenge on you”. Because all women who have an abusive boyfriend apparently become obsessed with causing them misery.

So Maleficent’s motivation went from being “angry because she’s not invited to a party” to “angry because her childhood sweetheart turned out to be a dick”. Not sure that’s an improvement.

What I’m trying to say is: after years of women being portrayed in films and other media as curvy objects meant to fulfil men’s sexual desires, wouldn’t you rather see the women try to take the high ground? Wouldn’t you rather see them be the better people instead of just throwing the hate back in the other direction? Because have both sides throwing venom at each other doesn’t solve the problem. Yes, men more than deserve some sh*t for how women are often treated, but not like this. Can’t we all just act like modern and civilised adults, put aside our grievances, and make something a bit more mature? And by mature, I don’t mean adult or dark. By mature, I mean balanced, thought-out, and provoking in the right way. Maleficent fails as a piece of feminist media because it doesn’t do anything to make itself better than chauvinists it’s fighting against, and by making its protagonist an allegorical representation of a rape victim it highlights this problem with flashing lights and diminishes any respect I could have had for the film. That’s why I find it more than just another poorly made Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why I find it far more egregious than boring trash like Pompeii or I, Frankenstein. Because it horrifically and shockingly fails to do what it’s trying to do. Because of this movie, I will never be able to watch Sleeping Beauty the same way again (for all the wrong reasons), and I’m dreading to think what warped subversion Disney and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella film will make when it is unleashed next year.

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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