This post is from a film reaction assignment for my ARH 220H class, Feminism and Visual Culture. The film reaction assignment is composed of the following tasks: watch the assigned film/documentary, analyze it from a feminist point of view (in regards to film elements such as plot, characters, design, purpose/message, cinematography, etc). Spoilers for the film Maleficent are included in this post.
Header image found through Google Images (link)
Update 25 Oct 2017 – added a synthesis conclusion
The film Maleficent (2014, dir. Robert Stromberg) retells the story of Sleeping Beauty, but instead from the viewpoint of the “antagonist” of the fairy tale, Maleficent. It starts with the titular character’s backstory – this in turn creates audience empathy and connection to the assumed antagonist. Having connection to a character, whom which we had previously been negatively biased against, creates an odd conflict, as we are no longer sure how to feel about a demonized character being humanized. She even grew to become the “strongest of the fairies” and “protector of the Moors”. She is a strong and independent character, confident in her abilities and her identity. She fights to protect her home and those who live beside her. Maleficent is an incredibly talented fighter, able to dispel the efforts of many men at once. She also was seldom sexualized in these early fight sequences, instead the shots focusing more on her actual capability rather than appearance and visual appearance.
I have previously watched this movie, and rewatching it has led me to notice some more minor details. For example, in the first 10 minutes as we are introduced to the young Maleficent, she is depicted with makeup.The most striking choice was the color of lipstick. Why would a fairy be wearing makeup, a human product (especially since one of the other fairies mentions worry about another war when a human is discovered at their borders)? And beyond this, even if there is a fairy-made makeup, why would Maleficent be wearing any at such a young age and in such bold tones, rather than more earthy, neutral tones like the rest of her aesthetic? Perhaps this could be learned from the other fairies, who are much smaller and brightly colored in comparison, also with noticeable makeup. This would be an analog to our human society in which young girls often believe they have to wear makeup, since almost every female figure in their life wears it whenever she goes out in public. Even later, when Maleficent is grown, she moves to a deeper red lipstick shade. It is a very nice look for a fierce, independent character such as Maleficent, however I don’t know if it was needed.
We also see how Maleficent and Stefan, fairy and man, grew to be friends and soon more so than this. Again, we see the typical heterosexual love portrayed in this movie between these two – he even comes to her warning her that King Henry wants her dead. Yet it turns out as in vain, with Stefan later metaphorically raping Maleficent by stripping her of her wings (potentially sexually/literally as well) in order to serve King Henry’s orders to “strike down” the “growing power in the Moors”. He was at first hesitant to do so, pondering how it would be morally wrong, yet, blinded by his ambition to be king, he still goes through with it. Stefan does this in a “middle route” between staying loyal to his relationship to Maleficent and his greedy, human ambition. Stefan likely chose to harm Maleficent in this way “to protect her from further harm,” as others likely would have pursued her in attempts to ascertain the throne.
After this, Maleficent saves Diaval, originally a crow, from death. In return, he serves Maleficent “as her wings”. This is how Maleficent discovers that Stefan had robbed her of her wings in order to gain the throne, rightfully infuriating her. In this rage, she walks, with many long distance shots showing her power and elegance disrupting cobblestone walls, back to her home and asserting her authority by creating a shield of barbs.
King Stefan and the Queen have a child, Aurora, and have a Royal Christening. Like the Disney version, the fairy trio (Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistlewit, as opposed to Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather) came to this Christening with invitation, as an attempt of peacemaking between faeries and humans. When Maleficent arrives, the King and Queen are fully aware that refusing to invite her was completely offensive, but made no attempt to remedy the situation. Maleficent’s use of “True Love’s Kiss” as the only remedy to Aurora’s curse is tragically ironic, as it was her younger belief in her “true love” with Stefan that led to the loss of her wings. She knows now that “true love” doesn’t actually exist, and is simply humoring the king’s begs for mercy.
Despite Maleficent’s stated “hatred” for Aurora, whom she nicknames “Beasty”, she continues to watch on Aurora from afar, and Diaval cares for Aurora while the fairy trio are asleep (as they prove to be rather incompetent at taking care of a child). This plays into the stereotype that as much as a woman claims to “hate children”, she still will have a maternal instinct to care for the child – after all, Maleficent even goes as far as to save Aurora from falling off of a cliff after she had intentionally distracted the fairies from watching her.
Eventually Aurora comes to meet Maleficent face to face, and Maleficent attempts to shoo her away, saying “I don’t like children”. However, she still grows fond of Aurora. This can also be seen as playing into the “all women are meant to be mothers” stereotype, or it could be more in reference to how the other fairies had given her the gifts of “beauty, grace, and beloved by all around her”. Even though Maleficent may still be true in her dislike of children, she would be unable to dislike Aurora due to these gifts. Maleficent even goes as far as to introduce herself in person to Aurora.
However, Aurora misinterprets this meeting. She assumes Maleficent to be her “fairy godmother”. Which, in a sense, is not entirely wrong. Maleficent slowly introduces Aurora to her home with the other fairies, blocked away from the rest of the land by the barbed walls. The others living in Maleficent’s homes grow fond of Aurora – even Maleficent’s own stern persona seems to be softening. When Aurora asks about Maleficent’s wings, she attempts to avoid the subject, but gives in and describes them to her. She also attempts to revoke her curse on Aurora, however, she is unsuccessful as her original wording was that “no power on Earth can stop it”. After this unsuccessful attempt, Maleficent tells Aurora that “there is an evil in this world, and I cannot keep you from it”. This statement can be taken in multiple ways: in reference to the curse placed upon Aurora (and therefore Maleficent herself), men (speaking from her own experience of abuse and rape), or greed/hatred/jealousy (as this was what caused Stefan to rob Maleficent of her wings, and for Maleficent to curse Aurora as revenge on Stefan). And when Aurora mentions wishing to live with Maleficent in the Moors, she responds that “You don’t have to wait until you’re older – you could live here now”. Maleficent wishes so badly for the curse to be revoked and for Aurora to be able to live happily, rather than under a curse eternally.
Aurora soon meets Phillip, as she is rehearsing to tell “her aunties” that she wishes to live in the Moor now that she will soon be 16. They seem to be immediately smitten with each other, resemblant of the relationship that had occurred between Maleficent and Stefan. Diaval seemed happy with the possibility of Phillip being the answer to the curse, while Maleficent finally reveals to the audience her opinion that true love doesn’t exist.
Upon realizing that the fairies had lied to her, Aurora runs off to Maleficent, asking if it was true that she had been cursed. Aurora realizes that her “fairy godmother” is the one who had cursed her, and runs off to the castle. As she arrives on the day of her birthday, she is drawn to the room in which the spinning wheels had been burned, and one reforms for her. She, as fate foretold, pricks her finger on the wheel, setting her into the cursed slumber. Maleficent knows right away when the curse had been fulfilled. She sets out to find Phillip and bring him to Aurora, in hopes that he is the solution to the curse. The fairy trio bring him in, finding out that he is a prince. This idea of “true love’s kiss” being given by Phillip plays into the stereotypical heterosexual romance ideal- that it has to be a prince to kiss the cursed princess to break the spell. However, it doesn’t work out as expected – his kiss was not one of true love. This breaks the expectation of a heteronormative fairytale ending. Maleficent then goes to apologize to Aurora, saying that this action was done in anger and irrationality, as she hadn’t expected to come to love her. She swears to her, “no harm will come to her as long as she lives, and not a day will pass where she does not miss her smile.” She concludes this apology by kissing Aurora on the forehead, and turns to walk away. This kiss woke Aurora from the curse, via “true love” of unexpected form. This also goes to further deviate from the heteronormative standard fairytale, demonstrating that maternal love is stronger and truer than any “love at first sight” or heterosexual love.
Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings, locked up in a display case in the castle. She releases them, allowing them to return to Maleficent and saves her from death by King Stefan. The same love that saved Aurora from the curse in turn saved Maleficent from death. Maleficent is restored to her original strength and is capable of fending off the soldiers and King Stefan. Despite her anger, she chooses to show mercy and refuse to kill King Stefan, until he abuses that mercy, ultimately resulting in his death from falling off of the castle tower.
Maleficent then took down her barbed walls around the Moors, restoring it to the original grace and glory. Aurora then is crowned Queen, not only through lineage, but also in unification between the kingdoms of man and fairy. Legend had predicted that the kingdom could only be unified by a hero or villain, but instead had been unified by one who was “both hero and villain”.
All in all, I enjoyed this movie. While there are certain aspects that play into hetero-normative sexist societal standards, the movie does make efforts to deviate from the expected. Instead of simply casting the female characters as one-dimensional extremes, it gives each major female character more depth. Maleficent’s curse was out of anger and revenge, yet she shows regret and repentance later on as she grows to care for Aurora. The fairy trio are maternal and wish the best for Aurora, yet are also ill-informed on caring for a human child and are desperate to be free of the chore. Aurora herself is dimensional, wishing to be free of her standard life and choose who she wants to be with, rather than just being a pretty face to look after. While not a perfect movie, there are definite signs of progression and feminist thinking.