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Maleficent, the Isolated and Powerful Fairy Queen

angelina jolie with huge black wings, as the star of Maleficent

Disney's much-hyped new adaptation of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale steers the story away from the familiar dashing prince protagonist, focusing instead on the story's supposed villain: Angelina Jolie takes wing as the powerful Maleficent. In the film, Maleficent is an intense, powerful woman who kicks butt as a fairy queen, but who hurts from the isolation of being, well, a perceived villain.

In case you’ve forgotten, Sleeping Beauty is a messed up fairytale. The pre-Grimm versions of this story include a roving king who does not stop at kissing Sleeping Beauty without her consent. He rapes and impregnates her. Sleeping Beauty, still unconscious, carries twin babies to term and delivers them, only awakening when one of the babies sucks the spindle from her finger. Newer, less shocking versions of the story helped set the archetype of the brave-knight-rescues-passive-damsel narrative. This is not a moral tale, exactly, and there have been many attempts to figure out exactly what Sleeping Beauty is supposed to be about. Disney—family-friendly monolith that it is—created the most memorable modern version when their 1959 animated film hit home that the story was really all about true, everlasting love. This new adaptation, Maleficent, furnishes a refreshing twist about forgiveness and redemption and how even the "good guys" can have nasty, selfish motivations.  

When I was a little kid feminist, I dreamed about having a tough warrior role model. I wanted to grow up to be a ninja turtle, ideally Raphael. Raphael was sarcastic, funny, and prone to anger—characteristics missing from the female heroes of my youth. Now, even as an adult, as I watched Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent stand with proud wings outstretched against her enemies, I felt goose bumps. Years of non-violent philosophy aside, I want her to beat up the bad guys. It’s so cool! Do I feel this way because I’m a bad human? I think I’m a powerful female character junkie and I didn’t even know I was in withdrawal.

Right from the beginning, a gentle narrator explains that although young Maleficent looks like a human girl, she is actually a fairy. She’s a very strong fairy, possibly the strongest. She is the kind of fairy that looks just like a human child, if the human child were wearing an unsettling amount of makeup. The narrator continues to explore Maleficent’s beautiful homeland, the Moors, and the longstanding grudge between this enchanted land and the neighboring kingdom of men: Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. For all the promise of backstory and explanation that we’ve heard about this Sleeping Beauty remake, there isn’t much background about why these kingdoms hate one another—other than that one is magical and green and the other is metallic and full of humans. 

As the sum of all its parts, Maleficent is a downright fun film. First time director Robert Stromberg, shows high standards for humor, pacing, and astounding visuals. His previous work as a visual effects designer, production designer, and matte painter on Tim Burton's Alice and Wonderland, Avatar, and Pan’s Labyrinth leaves an obvious signature. This is the guy responsible for bright colors, exceptional visuals, and the impressively diverse assortment of magical creatures that populate Maleficent’s world. 

The question hangs in the air, however: if there are so many diverse fairies in the Moors, why is the powerful, benevolent Maleficent always on her own? Her dearest friend is a human boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), from a nearby farm. Being that young Stefan is a greedy human, he strongly desires to be king. When the opportunity arises, he betrays Maleficent in order to become king.

Through this dark act, Jolie’s Maleficent hardens. When the betrayal becomes clear, she utters a single series of heart-wrenching cries and then becomes silent. Her resolve turns to stone. She is strong and forceful. She does not falter. Hey Maleficent! Now would be the time to reach out to your strong allies and fairy support system! Instead, she shoulders her grief alone and becomes isolated and furious. When humans are betrayed, it seems for the most part we need to mourn, receive support, and recover. Harm does not make me stronger. It makes me tired and sad. The same seems true for Maleficent, though instead of allowing herself sadness, she pours her pain into a productive vengefulness.

We’re getting a lot of these steely movie heroines lately. In the film version of the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen shoots her way through the second championship with barely any of the PTSD she had in the books. We’ve got Bella Swan’s chapter of whited-out time expressing/not expressing her grief in Twilight. This all makes me wish Sailor Moon would rush in to trip on herself, get food in her hair, and save the planet.

Maleficent, despite its violence, revolves around some good themes of forgiveness and the senselessness of war.  In the end, enjoying Maleficent as a fiery warrior fairy queen feels like a guilty human pleasure. 

Related Reading: Bite Me! (Or Don't) — "Twilight" has Created a New YA Genre: Abstinence Porn. 

Suzette Smith is a writer and illustrator living in Portland, OR. Of all the social medias, her twitter is best:@suzettesmith.


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Comments

2 comments have been made. Post a comment.

There are some people who

There are some people who prefer to process emotions in solitude or even process them in a logical way that doesn't involve much crying or any sort of outbursts. I happen to be one of those people and it doesn't mean I don't have emotions and am "steely" it just happens that I don't have emotional displays very often when I'm sad or upset. So it's sort of refreshing to steer clear from the overly emotional women type that people seem to clinge onto into the maybe more independent type. Although I understand that there should be a middle ground, women should be able to express there emotions on screen when it fits the plot and so should men but there should be a variety of how people of different genders process emotions. All genders should be allowed space for emotions to be expressed in a sterotypically feminine way or sterotypically masculine way (plus many others) and there shouldn't be any reprocrussions for exploring the diversities of emotions and the way humans deal with them.

Women Loving Women

What really stood out to me about this film is the female connection in it. This new version of Sleeping Beauty cast aside the traditional crutch of the love of a prince to save a helpless princess, and placed the true, strong, love of a mother-daughter-like relationship at the forefront. It was not the princes's kiss that awoke Aurora, it was the kiss from her "fairy godmother." This reframing of the focus on female discourse, bonding, and love is what makes it so refreshing to see. This is a feminist counter cinema if I ever saw one, Hollywood style. I was happily surprised, but then again not because it's a Disney movie, to see that a man directed this.
This film does a lot for me: it allows the woman to exact revenge against her male wrongdoer, it presents a very complex female lead, it explores a strictly feminine discourse, it presents women as strong and powerful, it shows a strong connection between women, it presents "true love" and "everlasting love" in a different light-- a light other than a heterosexual and sexual one, and finally it paints a woman as something other than a villain and a victim.
Maleficent shows that women are the answer for other women. When Maleficent has been wronged by her male friend and acts out of anger against him, she finds solace and meaning in Aurora. When Aurora is lonely and isolated from her home by her own father, she finds acceptance and love in Maleficent. These women have completed each other. And it's extraordinary and beautiful.