Maleficent, directed by Robert Stromberg, 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