**NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS**
There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Disney is turning a new leaf regarding its portrayals of female characters. Given the latest kerflufle with the #WeWantLeia Twitter hashtag, I remain skeptical. In fact, I refrained from seeing Disney’s Frozen because I saw mixed reviews on social media from both feminist friends and various Internet articles like this one. Social media has had nothing but good things to say about Maleficent, however, so I took the plunge. Sadly, the film did not live up to its hype, and I am a bit concerned about how many people have been singing it’s praises.
Firstly, I have always found Sleeping Beauty to be the least interesting of the fairy tale princesses – all blond hair and singing and dancing in the forest, but not much else there. No ambition, no brains to speak of; just a pretty face waiting around like a placeholder for the curse she doesn’t know about to kick in. The fairies give her grace and beauty, but that alone is not enough to make a person interesting or valuable to society. Honestly, I’m not sure how good of gifts they are for anyone, female or not, regardless of the social status oftentimes attached to the traits.
But Disney isn’t always great with princesses, and we know that. It has, however, created some amazing female villains in its time. I was excited to hear about this film because if any of Disney’s villains deserved more camera time, it was probably Maleficent. Plus, who doesn’t love a good anti-hero storyline? Unfortunately, within the first five minutes of the film, Disney found a way to make Maleficent’s story all about heterosexual romance. Maleficent is the most powerful fairy in the moor, but somehow her relationship with Stefan is the guiding force for every decision in her life? Wow, interesting take on the strong female character, Disney. Thanks for looking out – we really needed another plot centered around romantic betrayal – there’s just not enough of that in popular culture these days.
Sarcasm aside, maybe there’s something to be said for taking a popular trope like romantic betrayal and turning it on it’s head. Except Disney doesn’t actually do the last part. The scene where Stefan steals Maleficent’s wings can be read as a metaphor for being roofied and raped. Now, Angelina Jolie has admitted that it was purposeful and at least people are talking about it. But this is one of the only articles which seems to share my concerns about that. We shouldn’t ignore the prevalence of rape culture, but what does it say that this movie which is supposed to be empowering toward women has a plot which centers around the bodily violation of its main character? We need models of strong women in popular culture where getting out of the patriarchy alive isn’t the best scenario we can hope for ourselves. Even Prince Phillip doesn’t want to kiss the sleeping Aurora because they’ve only met once, but the fairies keep egging him on to do it anyway. So the end of the film still perpetuates this idea that there are situations in which taking advantage of a woman’s body is the right thing to do, and that’s not okay.
If you think about it, this movie shows that Maleficent only turns evil because men are horrible to her. Which brings me to another point. Why are all the male characters terrible people? Both King Henry and King Stefan are selfish, ambition-ridden assholes trying to destroy Maleficent’s culture and kill her for their own personal gain. Prince Phillip is a bumbling idiot. He wouldn’t have even found his way to the castle if it weren’t for Maleficent putting a spell on him and dragging him there herself. I suppose Diaval isn’t awful, but he also isn’t technically human. And even his character is not very compelling (though he and Maleficent do get some great dialogue) because he’s mostly just a tool for Maleficent to use. Plus, the one choice he actually makes (except for becoming Maleficent’s servant in the first place) is to convince Maleficent to take the Prince to the castle to kiss Aurora, which almost gets everyone killed. So he’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, either.
I felt like Disney was taking its cue from second wave feminism, where women aren’t equal to men, they have to be BETTER than men to compensate for misogyny somehow. But patriarchy hurts everyone, not just women. If you only switch who is on top that doesn’t solve the problem – you’re still complicit in a hierarchical system which is harmful to everyone involved. I want to see real, complex, three-dimensional, human characters instead of poorly fleshed-out archetypes and a plot full of holes. Maleficent was the two-dimensional villian of Sleeping Beauty, so to make up for it, Disney gave her her own movie where she gets to be three-dimensional but everyone else is two-dimensional? Instead of turning the tables on the melodramatic paradigm of good and evil, why not show the messy, complicated, multi-faceted nature of the world we live in? Or maybe that’s too much to ask of Disney.
If the film had been full of strong female characters, I might have been able to overlook the way the male characters were portrayed. But Maleficent is the only compelling female character in the film, and there aren’t that many female characters to begin with when you think about it. Aurora is as vapid and uninteresting as she ever was, and her fairy aunties are portrayed as idiots beyond the scope of believability. Why would King Stefan send his infant daughter off with three women who don’t know better than to try to feed her whole carrots before she even has teeth? It felt like a lazy plot device meant to allow Maleficent to care for Aurora while creepily stalking her for her entire life. And where’s the queen in all this? We don’t see Stefan’s wife at all (or King Henry’s wife for that matter). Maleficent is an orphan and so is Stefan, so Disney is continuing its great tradition of protagonists without mothers. Maleficent sort of functions as Aurora’s mother in the film, but she starts out not even liking children and only hanging around to cause mischief and mayhem, so even Aurora is mostly on her own until she’s a teenager.
Furthermore, half of the film is Maleficent and Aurora alone in the woods. Almost all of the moor creatures and humans we do see are male, and none of the minor character are given any personality traits the audience can connect with. There’s ultimately no reason to care about the outcome of the war which is central to the plot, even ignoring the fact that the film does not sufficiently explain why the humans and the moor are at odds with one another.
I did, however, like how the film showed the impact culture has on our worldview. Aurora loved the moor because she was raised in it, showing that there is not necessarily an innate difference between the humans and the fairy creatures causing their dispute – just cultural differences. But what does it mean for Aurora to be made queen of the moor at the end? Are we really supposed to believe that all the humans will put aside their ill-will and live in harmony with the moor because this young woman they’ve never met, who is only technically their queen, says so? I don’t buy it. Especially not after Maleficent murdered their king, even if accidentally.
I don’t want to be too harsh, because there were some points of the film I liked. I appreciated that the film portrayed the love between Maleficent and Aurora as “true love,” showing that there are different kinds of love and romantic love isn’t necessarily at the top of a love hierarchy like we’re often taught. It was good to see the relationship between two women as central to the plot, and to see Aurora and Maleficent grow together and learn from each other. But I wish there had been stronger supporting characters to back them up and flesh the story out.
I’m also glad that Maleficent used those sixteen years to do some self-work and start to get over her issues with love and trust – unlike Stefan who just ruminated and plotted to destroy her the whole time. I’m not sure why it took that long to forge a net and some shields, but I won’t get into all the non-feminist problems I had with the film just for the sake of brevity. The end of the film is cast in a hopeful light, so maybe things will be better for Aurora? But Prince Phillip was hanging around Aurora in a way that made me think Disney was trying to say they’ll end up together after all. As charming as his smile might be, she can really do better. Or maybe since neither of them seem to have much going on upstairs they’re actually perfect for each other. What do I know?
I’m glad Disney at least seems to be trying to break out of its traditional mold a little bit, and maybe I shouldn’t expect much from a company as steeped in conservative mores as they are. But I do. As is evident from my colum last week, a show like Orange is the New Black is an example of what feminist storylines look like. I want everyone to be working and thinking on that level. Even Disney. Especially Disney. Because little girls deserve good role models. And honestly, the big ones do, too. There just aren’t enough of them. We can do better than Maleficent. So why aren’t we?
This review was first published by The Horn on 06/20/2014.