Challenging Conventions, Subverting Stereotypes: Elucidating the Character of Elsa in Frozen

Frozen, directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, 2013

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Frozen is an American 3D computer-animated film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and released in 2013. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Snow Queen, Frozen seems to mark a departure from the typical fairytale storyline by focusing on the development of a loving relationship between two sisters, as opposed to the conventional “damsel in distress” plot. The story revolves around, not one, but two strong female protagonists, Princess Elsa and Princess Anna of Arandelle, whose emotional and physical odyssey make them realize the potential of true love.

The film opens with the two sisters, Elsa and Anna, as joyous playmates and inseparable friends. Elsa possesses cryokinetic powers which enable her to produce or manipulate ice, frost and snow at will. But when one night Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the former comes to realize the threatening aspect of her magic. Although Anna is healed, a perturbed and guilt-ridden Elsa retires to a life of seclusion in her castle room. Being shut out of Elsa’s life devastates young Anna who longs for a reunion with her sister. Although Elsa herself yearns to break away from her life of isolation, her apprehensions seem to paralyze her. Thus an inevitable rift develops between the siblings. But when the time for Elsa’s coronation arrives, the sisters experience an awkward reunion. While the perky, quirky Anna is a little nervous but also overjoyed to see her sister again, the reserved and reluctant Elsa is anxious lest she reveals her cryokinectic powers during the coronation.Tragedy strikes when, after the coronation, Anna introduces Prince Hans to Elsa, seeking her consent for their marriage, which leads to a squabble between the sisters that culminates in the exposure of Elsa’s magical abilities in a moment of emotional outburst. Instantly branded as a “monster” by the visiting Duke of Weselton, a flustered and fearful Elsa dashes away in a fit of self-imposed exile, while inadvertently unleashing an eternal winter on the sunny, idyllic kingdom of Arandelle.

Afterwards the story settles in Anna’s courageous efforts to retrieve her estranged sister and restore order to the kingdom with the assistance of an unemployed iceman, Kristoff and his pet reindeer, Sven. While the journey seems overly familiar, the destination retains surprises in store.

Although the story seems to have immense potential of developing into a tale of heteronormative romance, the focus is consciously shifted to the profound and complex bond of love that binds the two sisters. Even after staying isolated from her sister for years, Anna defends her sister when Duke of Weselton tags Elsa as a force of evil once he encounters her magical powers. The duke’s attitude not only betrays his intentions of inventing ploysto exploit Arandelle, but also hints at the age-old practice of denouncing magically-gifted women as “witches” in a patriarchal setup. Conventional patriarchal society tries to stereotype “virtuous women” as typical “damsel in distress” figures and their association with any sort of power, magical or otherwise, is bound to be decried by the patriarchs who want to keep women under their thumbs. But the way Frozen subverts this by portraying the magically-gifted Elsa in in a positive light, is refreshingly new. The movie upholds her as the most complicated and compelling character. Born, and not cursed, with her cryogenic powers (as clarified by her father to the troll king), Elsa’s magic has an aesthetic and procreative side to it. It is made evident by the magnificent snow castle that she architectures for herself, and her creation of the snowman, Olaf, whom she unknowingly brings to life. But in order to be “the good girl you always have to be”( “Let It Go”) in a conservative society where women have little choice but to abide by socially-imposed roles, even at the expense of repressing their individuality, Elsa has spent all her life being trapped in a four-walled room of royalty and desolation. Elsa is relatable— as a woman who claims her identity. Like many real women, she seems to have spent her life trying to keep her emotions locked away and being forced into denying her true self. But the moment she flees the kingdom of Arandelle, she seems to taste liberation for the first time. Her swelling emotions pour out as she belts out the power ballad “Let It Go”: she resolves to let go of the pretentious life of restraints she has lived so long and embrace a new future where she can literally be the monarch of her own destiny. Her soaring declaration of independence is accompanied by her flashy physical transformation from a prim princess to the overtly sexual Snow Queen.

The sexual and aesthetic dimension of the transformation is noteworthy. The magically-gifted Elsa seems to display a femininity and sexual aura typically associated with the monster in traditional narratives, but significantly she is seen as a complex but positive character devoid of any evil intentions. This renders the hackneyed angel/monster dichotomy dysfunctional. Discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Mad Woman in the Attic, and described as “eternal types” that male authors have invented for women, the “angel”/ “monster” binary corresponds to the distinction in the representation of pure, innocent women and the rebellious, thus, monstrous, women. Elsa’s layered character seems to possess the potential to upset this angel/monster dichotomy which Disney movies till now have seemed to propagate while catering to the demands of mainstream audience. Also, Elsa turns out to be the first Disney princess to become a monarch and rule, that too without needing a consort. As Elsa retains her transformed avatar even when she returns to Arandelle and takes up her position as the queen, it seems to  challenge the sexist  notion that the domain of the public and political is exclusively reserved for the male, and any woman who dares to venture into it needs to de-sexualize herself and make herself mannish (Hillary-ous, isn’t it?). Elsa’s overt sexuality – hinted at by her sheer dress and her graceful gait— however, does not diminish her into a mere sexual object (RGV, take note), but rather becomes a means of her self-expression. From being a girl who has spent her years enduring the worst form of isolation, the pain of being divorced from her true self, Elsa transmutes into a strong, independent woman who does not hesitate to claim her individuality. She also realizes that embracing “love” – which perhaps hints at the concept of self-love – is the key to having a steady control over her cryokinetic powers. Accepting herself the way she is, and firmly establishing her individuality,  helps Elsa to mend her bonds with Anna, whose sincere love for Elsa predisposes her to accept her sister in her singularity.

In terms of the sorts of messages that Disney animated classics have sent out for decades, mainly catering to the demands of mainstream Western society, Frozen (2013) emerges as a game-changer. Contradicting critical claims that Disney movies, in spite of involving lots of female characters, are seldom women-centric, Frozen breaks new ground with the depiction of strong, independent-minded female characters. It plunges into the psyche of Elsa and Anna, explicating the pains each undergoes, the potential each possesses, and the profound bond of love and solidarity that the sisters share. But most significantly the movie challenges conventions, blasts stereotypes and emerges as a filmic paean to the ideas of individuality and self-acceptance, which involves a realistic albeit subjective understanding of one’s strengths and drawbacks.

-Semanti Nandi

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”— Remembering Kunan Poshpora

Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? by Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid, Natasha Rather, and Samreena Mushtaq, published by Zubaan, 2016

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As the wounds of Kashmir continue to bleed, even though both the administration and the Army remain callously oblivious to the ever-burning indignation of a people subjected to relentless persecution, torture and trauma, a book like Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora serves to highlight the entrenched reasons of ceaseless resentment against the Indian state in the valley of Kashmir and the criminal complicity of the state in the generational injustice which has been systematically inflicted on the people of Kashmir.

The book, written by five fiercely courageous and forthright women, Essar Batool, Ifrah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid and Natasha Rather, records the ongoing trauma of the inhabitants of two Kashmiri villages, Kunan and Poshpora, in the district of Kupwara, bordering Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, where 31 women were raped by the members of the 4th Rajputana Rifles Regiment of the Indian Army on 23rd February, 1991. Till date, no one has been either convicted or punished for these crimes. The book is a product of the research carried out by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, including the authors, which was instrumental in the filing of a Public Interest Litigation at Srinagar High Court in 2013, in order to secure justice for the survivors of that horrible night and the endless trauma it caused.

For most Indians, outside places like Kashmir, Nagaland or Manipur, the book comes across as a shocking revelation that churns your insides and leaves a sense of nauseating disgust in your mouth as you try to process the villagers’ 24 year struggle for justice which has been repeatedly thwarted by administrative and bureaucratic inhumanity which has either sought to deny the perpetration of the crimes or has deliberately maligned the victims or has systematically concealed all traces of truth.

It is a fact of history that war zones bring out the worst in men, especially soldiers who often exhibit their power or enforce their dominance by subjecting women to rape, molestation and mutilation. Since Kashmir has been suffering as an interminable war zone for so many decades, it is inevitable there would be such horrible incidents. But it is the duty of the state to acknowledge the crimes committed by itself against its own people and to ensure that justice is served, no matter how aggravating circumstances. Not only does the continuation of the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) resist any such pursuit of justice, the administration instead concocts a series of contrivances to obfuscate the truth and protect the accused. As one reads the accounts of the survivors and learns how women of all ages were subjected to brutal sexual assaults by several men at once, including women who were deaf and dumb or pregnant, grandmothers and teenagers, even as the men folk of their families were being beaten, electrocuted or maimed, all of one’s preconceptions about nation, democracy and one’s cherished institutions begin to be smeared in black and red, as one sinks into scenes of an unending nightmare. No talk of Althusser’s Repressive State Apparatuses or Foucauldian bio-politics can possibly convey the ruthless bestiality of the accounts which either reminds you of the horrors of Partition or those, at times, perpetrated by British soldier during colonial rule.

Of course the physical and psychological trauma of rape and the persistent denial of justice constitute only one part of this nightmare. The other part includes the relentless humiliation faced by the survivors and their family members who were stigmatized and ostracised by members of other villages to such an extent that they had to drop out of schools, found their marital lives destroyed by whiffs of suspicion, shame and scorn and became pariahs to their own communities. It is terribly unfortunate that even in a place of pervasive suffering, as the valley of Kashmir seems to be, it is the victims who must bear the brunt of social stigma and ostracisation, as opposed to a heightened sense of sympathy and solidarity, from other Kashmiris, who too have suffered in other ways. This further emphasises the patriarchal construct of ‘rape’ which has interpellated men and women to such an extent that the villagers of Kunan Poshpora continue to be jeered by other Kashmiris, irrespective of their gender and age and profession.

But the book itself is not just about the inhuman crimes committed by certain members of the Indian Army and the terrible victimisation faced by the villagers of Kunan Poshpora. It is also about the remarkable courage and resilience shown by such villagers, especially the women, who not only spoke up after the event and got FIR and statements registered and then continued their uncompromising struggles for 24 years even as the state did all in its power to crush their quest for justice. The book is a testimony to the unyielding resolve of the human spirit even at the face of harshest oppression.

The same resolve is also shown by the authors and their industrious and determined colleagues who took up the cause of the victims and despite their own relatively privileged and protected lives, sought to challenge the state and all its institutions, with dauntless defiance – a defiance that was as much motivated by the experiences of terrors, loss and humiliation they each suffered in different degrees as by a sense of affective solidarity with the people of Kunan Poshpora.

Naturally enough, the book is an impassioned document and one should not expect to read it as an unbiased and objective account. It is a scathing indictment of the Indian state and the Indian Army with an unabashed desire for Kashmiri freedom – a most unrealistic concept in the given geo-political condition. And when you read that despite wearing an Indian skin, “one scratch and you bleed Pakistan”, it is not unusual to feel conflicted about the nature of the rest of the text.

But then again, true patriotism is about acknowledging the greatest crimes that your state has committed, under whatever justification, even if it involves adjusting your convictions about a national institution as revered and loved as the Indian Army. For most Indians, the Indian Army is a supreme embodiment of courage, integrity and sacrifice. Their experiences have taught them exactly that. For anyone from Kolkata to Coimbatore, the men who must brave the sub-zero climate of Siachen, the men who fought the Pakistani infiltrators in Kargil, the men who eventually neutralised mass murderers like Kasav and his cohort of terrorists are unquestionably heroes and martyrs who deserve our respect and gratitude. I have been one of them. But I cannot help but think that the image of the army would only have been strengthened if it had acted righteously against perpetrators of inhuman crimes, whatever the circumstances, and cooperated with the victims in their search for justice. In fact, judicial verdicts are rarely enough in such cases. What needs to supplement adequate judicial remedy is a willingness to embrace responsibility for crimes, collateral damages and individual aberrations so that a process of healing and forgiveness may begin. Mere words will never achieve that and stubborn refusal and further repression will accentuate mutual hatred and raging conflicts. Neither the Army nor the Indian Government seem willing to accept this, even as more innocents die at the hands of soldiers or agonise in hospitals.

For anyone willing to understand better the problem of Kashmir and its people and the nature of the existing Indian state, the book is a must-read. It is a necessary step in a process of introspection, repentance and atonement which must condition both the response of the Indian state as well as every conscientious Indian who believes Kashmir to be an integral part of India.

– Abin Chakraborty

Song of Sparrows in the World of Dreams

 

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“It was really only a little linnet singing outside his window, but it was so long since the giant had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.” (The Selfish Giant)

One of the finest productions of the Iranian neorealism, The Song of Sparrows (2008), directed by Majid Majidi, presents a complex web of modernization from where there is hardly any scope of escape. In fact, as Majidi too felt, the progress of human civilization should be at the service of humanity and yet we often find ourselves conquered by it. The result is that with each passing day, we are slowly drifting away from our ethics and human values. Majidi himself states regarding the film:

“My aim was to say that we must return to our human essence or else face a major disaster in the future.”

For Majidi, as we have often witnessed in Children of Heaven or Baran, the human soul is the ultimate frontier: all of us are engaged in a continuous struggle for survival while dreaming a “more comfortable” future. In our continuous struggle in the materialistic world, we often tend to ignore the the essence of love, kindness and human bonding.

The film opens with Karim, played by Reza-Naji, working in an ostrich farm, when he hears that his daughter, Haniyeh, has lost her hearing aid. Later, though the hearing aid is found, Karim learns that it is broken and a new one would cost around 400$. Incidentally, one day an ostrich escapes from the farm and Karim loses his job. In an effort to replace the hearing aid, Karim comes to Tehran and a businessman mistakenly considers him to be a private taxi operator. Such private taxi operations, in a bike, are technically illegal in Tehran but it is still one of the most important means of transportation to navigate the crowded streets of the city. Karim soon discovers that he can earn more if he sticks to the profession of a private taxi operator than working as an unskilled labourer in the ostrich farm. Karim learns that what is considered as a junk in Tehran would be very valuable in his village. On the very first day, Karim picks up a tossed out TV aerial and fixes it in his own house for a better TV reception. Gradually, Karim starts bringing back various items, from a framed blue door to window panes, and soon gets entangled in the cobwebs of capitalism. On the other hand, Karim’s son, Hussein, and his friends, clear a village water reservoir, in an effort to become millionaires by breeding and selling thousands of gold fishes. Although Karim considers Hussein’s plan of breeding gold fishes as absurd and a waste of time, he fails to analyse his own growing interests of collecting junks from Tehran which has completely blocked a section of his house. In a particular scene, shot from an aerial view, Karim is shown carrying a blue door on his back and walking alone in an arid plain. Majidi probably hints at Karim’s complete alienation from his family, almost a prisoner behind the closed blue door, in search of materialistic pleasures. Soon after, the wall of junk collapses and Karim has a serious injury. While lying in bed for months, Karim starts observing the same familial incidents from a different perspective. Later, when the container carrying the gold fishes is broken, the boys decide to push the gold fishes in a nearby stream rather than watching them die. Fortunately, Hussein and his friends carry a goldfish in a plastic packet and drop it in the reservoir, in hope of a new beginning. This entire episode strings a chord in Karim’s heart as he starts looking beyond the wall of material possession, a wall that often alienates us from the wider world of humanity. Karim sings one of the most important yet ignored truths of the world:

“Our eyes are crying,
Our flowers have withered.
I remember the past days,
The good old days;
The world is a lie…the world is a dream.”

In an effort to prosecute the trespassers trying to intervene in his world of material possession, Karim fails to realize that he has unwittingly ended up as a prisoner within the four walls of capitalism. Karim’s growing obsession with various material possessions create a further process of alienation, both from his family members and from the product of his labour, as Karl Marx writes in “Estranged Labour”:

“An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man.”

In fact, the junk collected from Tehran are signifiers of Karim’s commodity fetishism that tricks him into believing that the inanimate objects will yield their natural character to satisfy his (never ending) desires. This claustrophobic surrounding almost sustains his being to a certain extent but eventually, the walls fail to exert their captivating influence on him when he hears the song of a sparrow. It has been so long since Karim had heard a bird sing in his room that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.

An important binary that Majidi deals with is the presence of the ostrich and the sparrow, two birds which are distinctively opposite in a number of ways. The huge ostrich eggs and the bird itself connote the notion of renewal and rebirth at springtime and have their own iconic significance. Throughout the film, whenever Karim notices ostriches or their eggs, he is reminded of something transcendent beyond his own immediate surroundings; notably when he decided to return the refrigerator to the warehouse. On the other hand, by contrast, the sparrows are smaller in size and live in a community. If ostriches are an emblem of majesty, the sparrows represent youth and vitality. In other words, by the end of the film, the majesty of the ostrich and the song of the sparrow are harmoniously juxtaposed in Karim’s world, almost in an effort to revive his daily rhythms of life.

The Song of Sparrows presents a collage of impressions that hint at the larger picture of a spiritual and economic crisis around us. While fixing the antenna, brought from Tehran, Karim reminds his wife of the days when they lay on the roof to gaze at the night sky. In other words, Majidi probably suggests that it is very difficult to find our way out if the patterns of stars are lost. At the end of the film, the return of the ostrich is probably a signifier of Karim’s return to the roots of humanity. Although the non-intrusive background music of Hossein Alizadeh often presents a melancholic feeling to the narrative, the film is not only about suffering and passivity. Instead, the film recommends that Karim’s indomitable energy can only be appreciated if he achieves a cooperative harmony between nature and humanity. In a world governed by the norms of capitalism, it is important to listen and appreciate the song of sparrows or of a linnet because they indicate the arrival of spring after a long and cold winter.

-Sagnik Chakraborty

Stoner

Stoner, by John Williams, re-issued by New York Review Books Classics, 2006.

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John Williams’ ‘academic’ novel Stoner John William’s novel Stoner, first published in 1965 and adjudged as Waterstones’ Book of the Year in Britain in 2012, follows the uneventful and unglamorous life events of an academic in Missouri in what could be termed as a rather prosaic narrative. The matter-of-fact demeanour is completely unglamorous, lacking the experimental pyrotechnics of postmodernist masters like Calvino, Dellilo, or Pynchon. The narrative settles instead, upon a rhetoric of forceful simplicity which seems rooted in the humble origins of the protagonist William Stoner. His parents are agriculturalists, dedicated to the  soil that provided them with a livelihood, abstentious and mute through the entire course of the narrative. It is possible to picture them as the stock characters in Van Gogh’s paintings of rural landscapes – figures affirming a certain way of life while adding little to life itself. Stoner, too, is an ungainly, unremarkable character portrayed as a lad with stooping shoulders by the age of seventeen and bound to his household by the “necessity of toil” required on his parents’ small farm in Booneville.  How these luck luster characters might possibly retain a reader’s interest is open to question.

The earliest unsettling of experiences occurs when Stoner switches his career from the course on agriculture, taken up at the advise of his parents, to one in literature influenced by his mentor Arthur Sloane. Where he replicated the systematic approach of a toiling farm hand in his agriculture course, Stoner found that Sloane’s class called for a symbolic engagement with words whose meaning eluded him in literal, unimaginative exercise. The transformative potential of literature which prompts Stoner’s decision to pursue teaching as a career is largely autobiographical. It is also, as Sloane cheerfully contends in the novel, an outcome of ‘love…simple as that.’    As the characters go on to elucidate the novelist’s ideas regarding the university and the discipline of literature, the novel becomes  a crucial read for any scholar/lover of literature and the humanities.

One of the characters whose masterly insights build up to the notable definition of the university is Dave Masters, Stoner’s friend since his student days. Locating Stoner, Gordon Finch and himself within the academia, Masters contributes towards the identification of the university as a hovel for the “dispossessed of the world” who maintain their pretence to protect its institutionalization as a site of selfless pursuit of knowledge, akin to that of the Church in the Middle Ages. Dave later dies in the War but his predictions hold true for the most part of Stoner’s life. Stoner’s dispossession is double-fold within the institutions of the university and marriage – his colleague, Hollis Lomax employed after Sloane’s death  curtails his freedom in the professional arena while his wife, Edith embittered by  a non-rapport with her husband practices the same within the domestic sphere. Attempting to assert their supremacy over Stoner, Edith and Lomax both use well-loved subjects – Grace, her daughter with Stoner and Walker, an arrogant and inept student – as pawns.   Lomax’s professional rivalry with Stoner ultimately benefits Walker, as Lomax, in his capacity as the Chairman overlooks Walker’s incompetence to overrule Stoner’s staunch opposition to his admission in the graduate programme.   Edith’s exploitative tactics however are more harmful—the conflict between her parents necessitates the sacrifice of Grace’s scholarly aptitude in favour of the life of a socialite. Unsuited as she is to such a lifestyle, she is in turn lead astray.

Stoner in turn sacrifices what could have been an enduring bond with his daughter in face of his wife’s maneuverings and reconciles with the compromising teaching schedule assigned to him by Lomax. His character is marked by  resilience without  retaliation- while the readers are left exasperated with his unwilling compliance to what proves detrimental for himself and his daughter- his love for literature proves by far the most enduring. His “sense of a job”, emphasized upon by Williams, sustains and renews his scholarly vigor  in the midst of what he views as distractions, rather than challenges, that fall like a shadow between his love for the subject and the perfection of his articulation of it in his lectures.

Amidst the political turmoil of civilizational crises that stormed outside the University and resonated in Stoner’s life, he is informed by his “cautious faith” in the institution of the university and armed with a scholarly defense of impassivity like the Latin translation he hurled at his colleagues approaching for a meeting: “Begone, begone you bloody whore son Gauls.” Williams asserts that what appears to be an unsuccessful life for Stoner, both professionally and personally, is barely a ‘bad’ life since he retains the tradition of faith- a tradition, which according to Williams, sustains civilization. While these idealistic notions would prove incompatible with the current scenario of corporatization of education where Stoner’s retirement as an Assistant professor after all the years he devoted at the institution would be judged as largely unproductive, Williams’ perception of literature would be considered equally naive. In the Introduction to Stoner, Williams mentions his dissatisfaction with the changes in the method of  teaching literature in the Universities  where the text is approached as something to be “studied and understood rather than experienced“. His relegation of “reading without joy” to stupidity—one  from which Stoner is exempt– while ill-suited within the paradigms of post-humanism, is hardly to be disavowed in the revival of the richness of intellectual life which is losing to the rush of curricula discipline within the university.  One is left pondering whether the revived interest in the novel owes much to the designing of time-constrained courses at universities globally with little regard for the differences of infrastructure, which neither allow lengthy meditations on a text nor for it to be discussed at length, encouraging and inviting the kind of imaginative response which comes with greater reflection. Lacking inspiration and failing the transformative potential of literature, such courses merely culminate in undue stress for instructors and students alike who fail to do justice to teaching, learning and/or researching.

– Barnamala Roy

Barnamala

 

 

“Telling an Old Story Anew”: The Reimagining of the ‘Evil’ Witch in Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent

Maleficent, directed by Robert Stromberg, 2014

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Disney’s “MALEFICENT”..Maleficent (Angelina Jolie)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..?Disney 2014

The characters of magical female figures have, in fairy tales and children’s films, often been hijacked, distorted, or hidden away in the recesses of male-centric narratives. The primordial qualities of the original folk tales of the Grimm Brothers have been corrupted by film corporations like Disney that has played on populist sentiments and vilified female magicians.    Feminist readings of early Disney films would see, in the vilifying of the female magical figures, a patriarchal design to associate the male figures of power with everything good and human, while the female magician becomes a ‘witch’, a literal and metaphorical object of evil. The rewriting of the narrative of Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent is therefore a significant departure for Disney. Maleficent rights (rewrites) the patriarchal narrative of Disney’s prior production of Sleeping Beauty of 1959.

Maleficent is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the ‘evil’ witch, Maleficent. The cinematic universe of Stromberg is spectacularly grand, but is interesting in its depiction of alternative kingdoms: the materialistic patriarchal kingdom of the humans and the Moor kingdom of the fairies where all “trusted one another”. We meet the protagonist, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), as a young girl fairy who befriends a farm boy, Stephan, intruding into her forest. Eventually their friendship progresses to love, but the human boy abandons the fairy girl. Years later the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) overhears the dying King Henry promising his realm to the one who will kill Maleficent.

Stephan tricks Maleficent into drinking a sleeping potion, contriving to murder her after she falls asleep. However, he is restrained by his fleeting conscience. Instead he slices off her wings and brings them to the king as ‘proof’ that he has ‘killed’ Maleficent. This is one of the many points of disturbing reality in the film, with a symbolic sexual assault done on a defenseless girl. The film, like the original Grimm Brothers’ story, refuses to gloss over the cruelty of male dominance over the female body. The disfigurement of Maleficent traverses a continuum of motifs, encompassing the hacking off of a woman’s resisting power to forceful silencing of a woman’s voice. When Maleficent wakes up on the hilltop, she is stripped of her wings, with psychological and physical scars that will have a lasting effect on her character. The scene is one of the most poignant and traumatic to be projected in a children’s film. Again Stromberg refuses to sugarcoat, portraying the ravaging brutalities on Maleficent’s mind and body with cruel forcefulness.

In the film iron burns fairies. Symbolically iron can be taken to represent the cruelty of masculinity. Throughout the film male acts of cruelty are inevitably linked with iron (Stephan uses an iron chain to cut off Maleficent’s wings as well as an iron net to entrap Maleficent in the final battle scene). Stromberg questions the ideals of masculinity by depicting the cruelty associated with ‘manliness’. It is significant that Maleficent refuses to remain a victim. She vows revenge and is transformed from a coy and beautiful fairy into a powerful sorceress. In a very strong performance, Jolie recreates the figure of the sorceress through her magnificent ‘wings’ and ‘horns’. Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), Stephan’s daughter, calls Maleficent ‘beastie’. Stromberg appropriates the word with positive connotations of untamed force and power. Unwilling to accept her humiliation at Stephan’s hands, Maleficent curses Aurora to fall into a deep sleep after pricking her finger on a spinning-wheel needle.

Maleficent’s character is complex and manifold. Even as she curses Aurora, she develops fondness for the squalling infant. She lets her raven feed the hungry child. In an interesting departure from traditional depictions of polarizing women figures, Stromberg creates a maternal bond between Aurora and Maleficent, which serves as a challenge and a counter to patriarchal alliances. Maleficent, as Aurora’s surrogate mother, also subverts the traditional figure of the fairy god-mother. She is not an arbitrary architect of Aurora’s fate. Rather she emerges as a pragmatic protector of Aurora. Both women rediscover their identities through each other. By communicating her trauma to Aurora, Maleficent heals her wounds. Stromberg projects a rare display, in a Disney film, of women’s acts of sharing as a form of healing power.

One expects at the end of a Disney film that that the ‘witch’ will be punished. In a significantly different ending from the Sleeping Beauty of 1959, Stromberg shows Maleficent seizing power from the clutches of the Patriarchal Stephan. At the end of Maleficent, we see Stephan plummeting to his death, and Aurora being crowned as Queen by Maleficent. The human and the Moor kingdoms are united under a woman’s reign. Maleficent portrays most female characters, from Maleficent to Aurora to the fairies, as strong and complex figures. The male characters, in contrast, are one-dimensional, from the repugnant Stephan to the odious King Henry. Stromberg thus deconstructs the trope of the handsome savior Prince through the character of Stephan.

Fairy tales and folk stories have often been used as a weapon to suppress women and to reinstate gender stereotypes. Literary texts and films are a significant means of sanctioning unequal power relations in society. The corruption of the original Grimm Brothers’ stories of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White, ensure an entrenching of the stereotypes of the ‘virtuous woman’, the ‘evil witch’, the ‘wicked step-mother’, and the ‘fairy god-mother’. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty of 1959 had the implicit agenda of socializing girls into occupying their secondary status in society. Films and texts thus become ideological. Stromberg’s Maleficent challenges and overturns the patriarchal ideology through the narrative of a woman. Maleficent’s character is not demonized and reduced to suit a man’s needs. Maleficent “reclaims” the ‘evil’ witch’s story out of the buried pages of the Grimm Brothers and corrects the skewed perceptions of gender roles that Disney has always propagated.

– Somrita Misra