[Trigger warnings: rape.]
I was surprised by Maleficent. I was expecting to be sorely disappointed, given the predictability of mainstream media that leaves us low bars like, ‘a single strong female character’! After the joyfulness of the first few minutes I almost wanted to walk out of the cinema before, I thought, everything inevitably came crashing down into the usual mess of Disney fairytales.
I’ll start off with the news that will surprise no one. Maleficent is overwhelmingly white: the only notable role for a non-white character is a captain sent out to destroy Maleficent, played by John Macmillan. Beauty is not only glaringly white, but also thin and conventionally attractive (notwithstanding augmented cheekbones). Disney is obviously not brave enough to explore a world that includes people of colour and unconventionally beautiful people as protagonists, even if that world is populated by walking trees and fairies.
And now for the surprise: Maleficent felt like a credible anarchafeminist fairytale (especially if you consider the whiteness of the film to mirror, sadly, the frequent failures of anarchist and feminist communities to fully address the ongoing impacts of structural racism).
It’s gleeful spoilers ahoy from here on in, so read on at your own peril!
The most fundamental aspect of this reading is established in the opening scenes through the contrast made between the fairy land, the Moors, and the human kingdom next to it. Decisions in the Moors are made collectively, with Maleficent (a child at the time) having an equal say. Nobody suffers from poverty, there’s no capitalist accumulation and work, it seems, has come to play such a minor role in society that it’s not even visible (a disappointment for anarchasyndicalists, perhaps). The human kingdom is, instead, rife with poverty, and inequality, which is linked directly to the struggle for power and accumulation.
As humans attempt to occupy the Moors, Maleficent begins to explore the will to power. The action which ends the Moors’ anarchist political structure is Maleficent’s response to Stefan, the human she befriended as a child, cutting off her wings in order to become king. This scene is meant to make us understand Maleficent’s turn to evil, and Angela Jolie has said, “The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?’” However, despite these intentions I read the scene differently: not as a loss of femininity, but rather a loss of the trust necessary to cooperate non-hierarchically. Maleficent, feeling weak and betrayed, creates a throne and seats herself upon it in an attempt to protect herself and the Moors. As Stefan and Maleficent focus more on their competition with each other, their respective reigns become more autocratic. The will to power is contained within everyone, the film suggests, and is fed by fear.
Even more than Maleficent’s competition with Stefan, perhaps, the impact of her metaphorical rape is demonstrated through her relationship with Diaval. Shortly after Maleficent’s wings are cut off, she find a farmer attacking a crow, Diaval, in a field and turns him into a human, saving him from death. Diaval is unhappy with the change of form, but accedes to Maleficent’s claim that he owes her, and grudgingly becomes her servant. He serves her for long years, a form of servitude which fits uneasily with the autonomy which inhabitants of the Moors seemed to enjoy before Maleficent takes power. Diaval is only freed after Maleficent abandons her quest for revenge and seeks, instead, to save Aurora.
This shift in Maleficent towards recognising Aurora’s humanity rather than seeing her simply as the child of her enemy is, of course, one of the most important themes in the film. It’s easily read as a push back against competition between women, and against the patriarchal idea that Aurora’s identity should be determined by her relationship towards her father. Maleficent’s love for Aurora is the ‘true love’ that counts.
In some ways, this reinforces the message which both Jolie and writer Jane Woolverton set up through the metaphorical rape of Maleficent: that ‘natural’ femininity is loving and maternal, when unsullied by violence. Healing is, ultimately, learning to be maternal once more. Despite this, the fairies who bring up Aurora fray the edges of this picture of femininity. Maleficent’s process of coming to care for Aurora is facilitated by the complete incompetence of Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistlewit, who fail to feed Aurora, leave her to cry, and let her wander near cliff edges. A sense of ‘maternal softness’ might be core to Maleficent’s development, but it’s far from the only version of femininity presented (although the fairies are hardly set up as role models).
If Maleficent attempts to set up womanhood as linked to maternal feelings, it self-consciously eschews the idea of femininity as defined through heterosexual relationships. When Maleficent’s burgeoning romance with Stefan ends, she’s sad, but moves on with her life and becomes a guardian for the Moors. Aurora’s relationship with Prince Phillip is completely lacking in chemistry and fails to save the day, a more reasonably model of teenage ‘love’ than most we see on the screen.
The happily-ever-after comes not through a kiss or a wedding, but through Stefan’s defeat and Maleficent’s willingness to give up power and reopen the Moor’s borders. Even Aurora’s inheritance of the throne is related far from the power of the throne room as she sits under a tree with Maleficent, and it’s easy to imagine her love for the Moors shaping the future of the human kingdom.
There’s plenty to criticise in Maleficent, including its whiteness; the ableism suggested when Maleficent is healed only by the return of her wings; and the utter blandness of Aurora as an ideal of purity and goodness. But it also offers a rare space in pop culture to inhabit a different political vision, one which centres cooperation and women’s stories. It’s not often we’re given a mainstream film so open to being read as a critique of both power and sexism, and it was a welcome change.