Maleficent is a Bad Ass Feminist Fairy Tale.

This blog was co-written by my colleague, friend and partner in feminist crime, Patricia Leavy.  The team of Trier-Bieniek and Leavy has co-edited the book Gender and Pop Culture: A Text Reader which you can check out here.  Bio’s and our websites are below.

SPOILER ALERT!  If you haven’t seen Disney’s Maleficent, and are planning on it, do not read any further.  We give lots and lots of spoilers for this magnificent movie.

There is a reason why Maleficent beat out Seth “We saw your boobs” MacFarlane this weekend at the box office.  She is a bad-ass feminist fairy.

Maleficent has been billed as a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty. In the same spirit as the mega-hit play, Wicked, Maleficent is the untold story of how a female character branded “evil” evolved, and came to be misunderstood. Looking closer, however, we can see that the story is a combination of a literal fight between matriarchy and patriarchy. Sleeping Beauty represents the patriarchal tale and Maleficent, the character and the movie, turns that narrative upon itself, by showing a matriarchal viewpoint and ushering in new attitudes toward women in Disney movies.

It could be said that both King Stefan and Maleficent’s acts of vengeance fall in line with typical patriarchal attitudes. The King can only see retribution for the crimes committed against him (without any thought to his involvement in these crimes) and, in the beginning, Maleficent could have easily been written off as the typical disgraced and angry ex-girlfriend when, after one-night together the guy took her wings. This scene is a pivotal experience in this character’s life and in the movie and can be viewed in many ways. One approach is  the wings symbolized her virginity and she lost them in a one-night stand.  The idea of “clipping her wings” is not an obtuse metaphor, it is all about using her romantic feelings to make her less than, to cut her down to size. The scene is so powerful that one can look at it as a form of mutilation or even a rape. The fact that the guy drugged her adds to the metaphor. There is a gruesomeness to it in the way one might feel watching Ludovic’s hair being forcibly cut in the film Mon Vie en Rose (about a child who crosses gender normative lines). It begs the question: What’s worse than rape? Betrayal? All of this can be read into what is arguably the most violent scene in the film, but yet is shot without violence, only Maleficent’s blood curdling screams when she finds out how she has been maimed.

However, Maleficent is not merely an angry or jilted ex-girlfriend. What makes her different are the choices she makes.  Rather than spend the rest of the film plotting her revenge, she re-frames the situation and begins to get to know the child she has cursed.  And, when she realizes the curse was a mistake, she owns it and attempts to undo what she has done.  This is what makes the film and the character of Maleficent, feminist.  By portraying  a heroine who is also a villain Maleficent brings forth a fantasy character who is complicated, multi-dimensional and whose vulnerability doesn’t need to be masked by her ability to fight.  Yes, Maleficent will be combatant, (and she certainly starts conflict with the “I’m going to curse your baby” scene), but the parts of the film where she fights are less about violence and more about self-defense. The core of the film is the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora.  As Angelina Jolie told Buzzfeed, “We wanted to tell a story about the strength of women and the things they feel between one another.”

Furthermore, Maleficent could have been a disaster if Disney had stuck with the typical “strong female character,” a pop culture concept that feminists have been critiquing because, generally, these character’s serve only to be hot and kick ass.  Think of The Bride in Kill Bill or The Black Widow in The Avengers.  Yet, the trend of what constitutes a “strong female character” is changing to present a more defined and multi-dimensional woman. In Maleficent we get this.  Yes, she does kick some ass and yes she travels with her own dragon and fighting tree-like creatures. But the core of Maleficent is her vulnerability. In these ways the character embodies a direct challenge to the “fighting fuck toy” way of thinking feminists have long  exposed as a product of patriarchy’s male gaze. 

The film also represents a changing tide with Disney.  Beginning with Brave and the character of Merida and leading into the phenomenon that is Frozen with Anna and Elsa, Disney is starting to understand the current generation’s desire to see women whose journey is more about finding out who they are than finding true love. This has even become more evident with the staggering popularity of the ABC/Disney television show Once Upon a Time,where the typical “princess” story is turned on its head and the women in the show represent diverse feminine archetypes.  As Emma says in the Once” season three finale, “The only one who rescues me is me.”  Yes, the female leads still tend to be exceptionally beautiful and, with the exception of Merida, typical of what we expect from a princess/female lead and they still represent the heteronormativity expected of fantasy stories.  (Although there is the argument that the character of Elsa in Frozen is a metaphor for coming out of the closet-many people have argued that “Let it Go” is the new “I Will Survive.”)  Sure, Disney has a long way to go.  However, the way that children are being raised in 2014 is different than sixty years ago when Sleeping Beauty was released or even twenty-five years ago with The Little Mermaid .  Those of us who have grown up in the 80s and 90s were raised in the cradle of the second and third waves of feminism.  We read Sassy Magazine, Beverly Cleary books, studied bell hooks and Simone de Beauvior in college and had the music of Tori Amos, Queen Latifah, Riot Grrrl’s and Nirvana as our soundtracks.  Our Barbie, while still the super-thin waif Barbie, was marketed under the motto “We Girls can do Anything!”  And we are raising our kids with all of this in mind.

Perhaps what this film shows more than anything is an attempt to reclaim the tired old fairy tales that so many of us were inculcated in. As NPR writer Ann Powers wrote, in a gut reaction to the film, “Maleficent: what a shot of good old fashioned rad-feminist matriarchal fantasy. Two major movies for girls now whose plots hinge on a female-to-female true love kiss!” In Maleficent, we see the story is literally being taken back, reinterpreted from a feminist lens, in order to expose the deep-rooted patriarchy in the original. In this way it both offers children a new kind of heroine, but is also resistance to the old, limited narratives. With characters like Maleficent and a re-imagined Princess Aurora who is now far more than arm candy, we have women who learn to develop their own identities, good relationships with themselves and strong bonds with other women. It is indeed the decidedly new Disney narrative. And at the end, the lesson about “true love” finally in fact rings true.

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Patricia Leavy, PhD is an independent scholar, novelist and public speaker (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published 16 books including the feminist novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance, edits 5 book series, writes for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post, and was recently announced as the American Creativity Association 2014 Special Achievement Award recipient. For more info please visit www.patricialeavy.com

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD runs the Pop Culture Feminism blog and Facebook page.  She is the author of Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos and is the editor of the forthcoming books Fan Girls and Media: Consuming Culture (Rowman and Littlefield) and Feminist Theory and Pop Culture (Sense). Adrienne has written for xoJane, Feministing, The Gender and Society Blog and Girl w/Penwww.adriennetrier-bieniek.com