Maleficent: Disney’s Era of Feminist Apologetics **Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

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Disney’s recent re-mythologizing of their classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (1959), has much to commend it. It is beautiful to look at, the story is convincingly told, and, in my opinion, Angelina Jolie was just born to play this role.

Maleficent: What did I love about it? Mythically, that is…

Visuals: As I said, it was stunning. The costumes were lovely. It film’s aesthetic is a contemporary homage to the original Disney classic with its medieval look. I found the characters in the fairy land to be quite Jim Henson-y, which I love. It felt like a reunion of the cast of Labyrinth, and I totally want Aurora’s room in King Stefan’s castle.

Witch and Mother: I agree with the bloggers who have argued that this is a positive image of the witch and the mother. Maleficent is powerful, yet tender as a godmother to Aurora. I always love when they show the power of a mother’s love. In this version, Maleficent’s magical abilities are not the source of her evil, as is often the case in stories with witchy women. Her magic, until her violation that is, is shown as a gift that makes her protective, kind, connected, and strong.

Eco-Message: My first response to the film was: I get it…I get it…Mother Earth=good. Patriarchy=bad. Living in sustainability=good. Unchecked ambition and greed that leads to violence against the earth=bad. The eco-message is presented in connection to violation (some say rape) imagery. When King Stefan steals Maleficent’s wings, he violates her innocence. He drugs her while she is vulnerable in her love and protection of him. The trauma damages her ability to trust. It fills her with sadness and rage. I get that. As a metaphor for industry and ambition’s destructive relationship to the earth–perfect.

There are some things you just can’t take back: At one point during the story, Maleficent decides that she no longer wants Aurora to be cursed. When that happens she attempts to reverse the curse. But she can’t. There are some acts that cannot be redeemed…some choices that cannot be unmade. Good job Disney!

Love transforms/heals: I swear I’ve preached this so much that I’m blue in the face, but this is the central thrust of Disney’s cinematic myth. once again, they nail it.

Now about Disney and their contemporary Fairy Tales:

The archetypal nature of fairy tale is all over the screen. Really, it always has been with Disney. But this film in particular virtually screams von Franz, Campbell, and Jung, perhaps because it is, in fact, influenced by their work. In 2013, executive producer of Maleficent, Don Hahn, spoke about Jung’s concepts of the archetypes, of shadow and light at the D23 Expo. He talked about how archetypal energies move in the souls of people when they create and about how genuinely connecting with those energies and allowing them to transform your work is the path to true creativity.

I know. I was there. And I was floored. When asked, he admitted that although they are interested in Jungian theory, they are not experts in it. He also admitted that they do their best to explore it in their films.

During this meeting, it became clear that this newer crop of artists at Disney are deeply aware of the social, cultural, and psychological impact of their stories. They have read fairy tale theory. They are also concerned about their role in the production of their images. Furthermore, they are aware of the way they are criticized in the academy. They know that there are entire departments of feminist studies, fairy tale, sociology, and cultural anthropology scholars who are critical of their fairy tales. And, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they know that many find their older versions of Maleficent and Aurora mortally problematic. Personally, I don’t, because I understand that all characters are imperfect archetypal facets of their moment in time. I do, however, understand why people would, and I respect those perspectives.

Disney has been working to re-imagineer the embattled image of the Disney princess since their creation of Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989). And they have been successful in many ways. Furthermore, their villains have become more textured, more understandable, less “pure evil.” But lately, I’ve been feeling like Disney has moved from character development into the field of apologetics–a field of philosophical theory that literally means “in defense of.” Simply put, this means that as they create their stories, they do so with conscious attempt to defend their myth, as if the older versions somehow require defending.

Here’s where it gets murky for me:

In their effort to redeem Maleficent and re-vision female relationships, I feel that they made one misstep.

THEY MISUNDERSTOOD AND MISUSED CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM BY GIVING US NO REAL POSITIVE IMAGES OF GENDER INCLUSIVITY.

If, in fact as I am pretty much sure they are, Disney is telling a story about how a true connection with the light aspects of the soul’s feminine energy/the anima (the archetypal maiden, Aurora) through love can be healing, that is great. Another story about women and daughters is great. A story about the redemption of one’s innocence…one’s ability to love and trust again in the face of trauma…GREAT! In their quest for the redemption of their feminist imagery, however, they gave us negative or underdeveloped images of males, and that bugs me.

The first romantic relationship–Maleficent and Stefan–ends in violence and betrayal. The second romantic relationship–Aurora and Phillip–has no true power. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with the way Stefan was portrayed. The destructive nature of male violence (especially in light of the recent tragic events near my home here at UCSB) bears repeating.

Where I feel they fell short, however, is bringing Phillip into the picture. Because Phillip’s role in the earlier tale is SO central, his short changed presence in the film makes it feel like the take-away message of this film is “forget true love in a romantic relationship with a man. He’ll only betray you, violate you, or stand there like an ineffectual doofus while you languish in eternal slumber.”  That is wrong. Romantic relationships can be a source of deep connection between people. They can be beautiful. In my opinion, this film’s treatment of sexual love is just as damaging as the original, because it swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. It is not helpful to make the archetypal charming prince into a clown. He too has important archetypal energy that should be respected and explored. What we need is true connection between characters, not cardboard cut-outs used as place holders.

The one positive image of a male character is Maleficent’s crow slave Diaval. He is the conscience of the piece, but he is shown as subserviant…not at all the kind of gender equality and inclusivity that the current feminist milieu would like to cultivate.

Disney: if you want to do apologetics, that is fine. Give us your stories about women in relationship. Make those female characters powerful, tough, and smart as well as beautiful. Show us how beauty and love heal. Remind us that greed breeds violence. Those are all great things to tell us. But don’t give us shallow images of male characters like this new Prince Phillip. Because he isn’t what this story is about. And that is ok. Just leave him out completely. Cause if you DO decide to put him in, I’m going to demand that you develop him as more than a simple trope.

Lastly, in spite of all this, I still really enjoyed it. I give it a A for effort and a B+ for success.

EPILOGUE: My dear friend (and Disney scholar guru) Amy Davis made a point that is salient to the above. I wanted to share it. She read Phillip’s relationship with Aurora as too young to be considered “true love.” How could it be true love if they only just met. However, she said, his presence on stage at the end suggested that the relationship was yet to develop. I agree with that. And I’ll admit that I considered that possibility. Good point Dr. Davis! I guess I just wanted a bit more development in him to be able to truly call him a positive male image.

And one more last thing: Several people have written reviews about the film from a feminst perspective. As gender studies is an interest but not an obsession of mine, I will leave it to them to say these things. Check these out.

http://www.avclub.com/review/maleficent-only-half-commits-subverting-disney-fai-205174

http://theweek.com/article/index/262679/girls-on-film-maleficent-is-less-progressive-than-1959s-sleeping-beauty#axzz33zRe3w2C

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5 Comments

Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Joseph Campbell

5 responses to “Maleficent: Disney’s Era of Feminist Apologetics **Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

  1. Really enjoyed this review (although I’m not surprised, considering the source), however, I did want to add one thing re Diaval.

    While he offered servitude to Maleficent at the time of his rescue (and she took it), the rest of the relationship was fascinating to note. There’s no way a Master (especially in that faux-past era) would ever let a slave talk to them that way. There would be no discussion, no tolerance of the looks, glances, huffs, jibes and outright complaints that Diaval threw at Maleficent. This banter develops as the film goes on too. At first she just turns him back into a bird when he annoys her but realizes (especially when he complains) that she’s been dismissive of him and using him, similar to how she’d been used. The next time she turns him into a raven to stop talking, it’s with a playful smirk on her part but she gets even more gentle with him from then on. He’s more her partner than a slave. (Earlier she acknowledges his interest in Aurora and lets him help more and more. There’s one point where she realizes she’s a little jealous of the attention he’s putting elsewhere and catches herself before acting on it and toward the end, when she’s about to face Stefan, the exchange, rathe than dismissive, is her taking responsibility and his huff of frustration which essentially says “Don’t you get it, yet, that you’re not alone anymore?”. When she turns Diaval into a dragon it’s less about helping her and more about protecting him (watch the nuances and it’s clear)and then at the end, when she has her wings back, they fly together through the sky finally acknowledging that two-way friendship. (I’m surprised people haven’t gone bananas ‘shipping those two after that scene actually.) What you have in Diaval is a most-definitely-male character, whom Maleficent ends up trusting and being friends with, without there being any sexual tension involved at all. It was a subtle counterpoint to the relationship with Stefan too and worked really well.

    I think the problem is that it was, perhaps, too subtle for people wanting big giant metaphoric signposts pointing to these things. (Ironically, if it had been animated, they likely would have gotten it.)

    Many thanks for the review!

  2. Aaron

    Well written and insightful Dori!

  3. Good review Dori. It’s a pretty movie, but that’s pretty much it. Not much else in the story department.

  4. Great review! I’ve enjoyed reading it!

    I think Disney tried so much to send a message through this movie that they’ve forgotten that it also needs to make sense and entertain.

    I mean the character development is really weak. Except Maleficent’s portrayal, Angelina did a brilliant job. But the rest – her relationship with Stefan, Aurora and Phillip, Queen’s Death (I almost missed that one) it’s too bland and under developed. They were just too shallow.

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