(Warning: Spoilers. Oh ALL the spoilers.)
Growing up, my mom always called me Briar Rose whenever I’d watch Sleeping Beauty. My name, Shoshana, means Rose and so she’d always say I was her little Briar Rose. But even at a young age, I didn’t associate with the frolicking, soft-spoken blond in the woods. (Except in that singing voice, I always wanted to be able to sing like her). No, when I watched Sleeping Beauty – and it was one of my favorites – I watched it because I adored the villainess.
That’s right, I was a Maleficent girl.
While lots of little girls liked the princesses, I rooted for Maleficent. Why? Because even at a young age, after reading loads on medieval society, I knew that in the movie King Stephan and his ‘fair queen’ were kind of dicks to Maleficent on Aurora’s christening day. Anyone who has read up on medieval folklore knows that not inviting someone who is considered a peer of the realm to the crown princess’s coronation is tantamount to the gravest insult. (And the Queen identifies Maleficent as a peer when she calls her ‘Your Excellency’). So imagine being the only one in town not invited, showing up to face down the King and Queen for their grievous oversight, getting insulted by three tiny fairies, and then losing your temper. You know, I can see it. It’s understandable. Does Maleficent go overboard in cursing a child to die for the whole thing? Okay, sure. But her anger made sense. She had been left out, cast aside, insulted, and insulted again.
I think I responded so much to Maleficent because she was allowed her rage. In a world that often tells women to be silent in their anger, I saw Maleficent as a powerful, vengeful woman who made a choice and followed it through to the end. And she did it with poise, grace, power, fury, eloquence, and intelligence. She didn’t rant and rave. Maleficent commanded. Sure, she could have used a better brand of henchmen, but she was regal without a crown. Like the Morgan La Fey of Arthurian Myth, she was a power unto herself. She made her choice and she followed it through, faced the hero and died in the course of her actions.
And you know, I think I like that far more than Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent.
Recently, Disney has been on a kick of trying to humanize it’s villains. From Regina and Gold on Once Upon A Time to the rockstar status of Frozen, Disney is trying to show that villains, while doing bad things, are people too. They are creatures with their own inner worlds, and more often than not lately the villain is redeemed through the course of the story. Love triumphs over vengeance and pain, and the villain is healed to become good at the end. This is the new story of what it is to be evil. Evil is a choice. It is the acts you take and not the person you are. You can turn back and join with the good side of society again and have what you have done wiped away. This is true redemption and you know what? I love this idea.
Just… not the way it’s presented in Maleficent.
The live action Maleficent is not so much a retelling so much as a complete rewrite. Maleficent goes from a sorceress to a fairy girl, whose happy-go-lucky world turns to pain when the human boy she trusts turns against her in a bid to get the crown for himself. In a scene that was painfully reminiscent to me of being roofied, Maleficent is drugged and her precious and beautiful wings are cut off for the boy Stephen to present to the king who wanted her dead. Stephen then becomes king, goes and knocks up the old king’s beautiful daughter, and out comes baby Aurora. Maleficent, meanwhile, wakes up in a field with her wings cut off, betrayed and physically violated by the boy she thought loved her, and turns a little angry. Okay, very angry. And so she goes to the christening, and the scene plays out pretty much the same as it did in the animated classic.
Except with one major difference. In the animated classic, Maleficent confronts the royals over not receiving an invitation and this is the exchange:
Maleficent: “I admit to being quite distressed at not receiving an invitation.”
Merriweather the Fairy: “You weren’t wanted.”
Maleficent: “Not want- Oh dear. And here I had thought it must have been some oversight. In that case, I should just be on my way.”
The Queen: “Then you aren’t offended, Your Excellency?”
Maleficent: “Why no, your Majesty. And to show that I bear no ill will, I too shall bestow a gift on the child.”
In this version, it is Merriweather the fairy that exacerbates the situation. King Stephen and his Queen had no relationship of direct aggression on Maleficent that we know about, just their obvious dislike and the snub they gave her. It’s the fairy that makes things harder. The Queen in fact tries to back things down, tries to check to see if Maleficent is angry. And she is. Oh most definitely.
Still, in the live action version, it is King Stephen, Maleficent’s former childhood sweetheart and betrayer who now looks her in the face and says instead, “You aren’t welcome here.”
Let’s back up for a second. King Stephen is the former orphan boy, saved by Maleficent when he tried to steal from the faeries as a child. She then befriends him, gives him her heart, shows him the beauty of the faery world. And he then comes to her under the pretext of ‘saving her from the King’ and cuts off her wings to gain the throne. And when she, in her anger, shows herself in the kingdom, he looks her right in the face and says that she isn’t welcome. I don’t know about you, but watching that scene I thought he was LUCKY all she did was curse his child. Maleficent throughout the film is shown as having power over nature itself on a basic level. Yet she’s presented as cursing this child to go into a death-like sleep after sixteen years on this earth. She doesn’t bring down the castle. She doesn’t kill the King for his betrayal. She gives him a puzzle with an out. She is the one who says that true love’s kiss can break the spell, not one of the other faeries.
Because in this version, no matter what she’s doing, Maleficent is kind.
This rewritten Maleficent is kind, deep beneath her betrayed anger. She loves woodland creatures, trees, and magical things. She saves little boys and protects her homeland from invaders. And, as we see, she can’t kill. This isn’t the same Maleficent that landed in all her glory in a ball of fire in front of Prince Phillip and declared: “Now you must deal with me, oh Prince, and all the powers of HELL!” This is a kinder, gentler Maleficent, who spends the rest of the film spying on the baby Aurora growing up and, gradually, comes to love the little princess as her own.
That’s right. There is no sixteen year search for the princess by goblin soldiers and one very overworked raven. Maleficent knows from day one where Aurora is and watches over her. Then, gradually, the baby Aurora wins her over. Maleficent even picks her up at one point and holds her while the tiny infant grabs adorably at her horns. “I don’t like children!” the sorceress complains, all the while giving the baby goo goo eyes. It’s obvious from moment one that the true love of this film will not be between Aurora and Prince Phillip as is so classically expected, but much like Frozen, the love that will save Aurora will also redeem and save our villainess from herself. In the end, Aurora is Maleficent’s surrogate daughter, and Maleficent the ‘fairy godmother’ that teaches her to be good to the magical creatures, unlike her selfish father. And, because it’s Disney, they even rewrite the ending so that they all live happily ever after.
(Though they did leave in the dragon part. At least a little).
This is a wonderful story of vengeance healed through love, of a woman finding her way back from grief and betrayal to heal.
The problem is: this is not Maleficent.
This character, rewritten as she is, is a shadow of her former glory. Angelina Jolie shows beautiful poise and gives much to the savage beauty and grace of Maleficent, but her performance is so sunk in the tragic vulnerability and pain of Maleficent that her rage is gone. Instead, she spends so much time trying to make Maleficent seem redeemable that she defangs perhaps Disney’s greatest villainess.
The worst part of the sanitization of Maleficent is the ways in which she is brought into this vengeance/healing storyline and the way she is ‘saved’. No longer is Maleficent just insulted by the royalty and decides to act on that insult. No, the story had to change so that Maleficent has been betrayed and mutilated by the man she loved to justify her rage at the little baby Aurora. Ahem, I have a question: why does everything have to have a damn love story? And to be fair, this wasn’t even a very GOOD love story. This was a rushed, half-narrated, shlock of a love story to justify Maleficent’s anger. Because a woman cannot be angry or insulted if she’s not being betrayed by a man she loved.
And finally, there is Maleficent’s journey to healing, also known as the bond she creates with Princess Aurora. This storyline, while precious and beautiful in a nurturing, female bonding kind of way, left a bad taste in my mouth. Where once Maleficent was an independent woman, operating on her own agenda and feelings, here Jolie’s Maleficent is sublimated back into the traditional mother-nurturer archetype. It follows the typical fairy tale trope. Now that Maleficent isn’t the villainess, per say, her happy ending must come through finding true love. Since we’ve already sat through one annoying false love story in this, are we presented with another for Maleficent? No, there’s no he-dragon to win her hand. Is it love for herself, or even for her adorable and fabulous hench-bird (who was my favorite part of this whole movie) that saves her, then? No. Maleficent must become a surrogate mother, for only in the power of nurturing a child can she truly reclaim her heart. Because, as we know, the only way to find fulfillment as a woman if you aren’t the transgressive villainess is as a lover, a wife, or a mother. That is fairy tale archetypes 101.
This is not Maleficent. This is not the dragon who chained Prince Phillip in a dungeon and cackled as a spell overtook the castle with thorns. This is the transgressive woman neutered back into a typical, well-understood form. The mysterious sorceress is now just a girl whose boyfriend betrayed her, hurt her, and she, the jilted lover, comes to wreck his happy new home. We feel for her, of course, and applaud and love her for her journey to reclaim her heart by embracing the innocent child of her insane ex. In the end, her goodness makes her powerful again as she battles for Aurora, her own freedom, and that of her people. Stephen is rightfully vanquished, and Maleficent regains her glory to become again the fairy that she once was, beautiful and good. All she had to do was become a recognizable trope to get there.
The new Maleficent film is a beautiful fairy tale about the healing power of one woman nurturing another into adulthood. And I can get behind that, one hundred percept. But don’t slap the name Maleficent on there and expect that there won’t be some not-so-flattering side by side comparison. Jolie’s Maleficent strains against few gender stereotypes, and in fact reenforces many of them, all the while parading as a modern retelling of an old classic. In fact, it is a demystifying of the villainess, the transgressive woman archetype, to force her into a more palatable box. And it’s a square peg-round hole situation that does nobody any favors.
Next time, Disney, if you want to make a happy, ‘mommyhood can save you from your anguish’ story, go ahead and do that. But let’s not call it Maleficent.