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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Response to "Maleficent Unpacked: A Black Feminist Review"


earlier this week, Judith Jones at Crunk Feminist Collective published a review of Disney's Maleficent (2014) in which she analyzes the film through a Black Feminist lens. in it, Jones dictates several concerns that she has with the film, chief of those concerns being that, in her opinion, it "contributes to rape culture".


i'm sure you know the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959). a king and queen have a baby girl named Aurora, and an evil fairy named Maleficent curses her: "before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death" and she can only be awakened by "true love's kiss." the prophesy comes to pass, Maleficent is killed by Prince Phillip, and Aurora is awakened by his kiss.

note: if you have not seen the Maleficent and have plans to do so, i suggest that you delay reading this post until after viewing the film. there are spoilers beyond this point.

this film tells Maleficent's side of the story: her curse on Aurora serves as revenge against King Stefan. in an interview with BBC Radio's Women's Hour, Angelina Jolie confirmed that the scene in which Maleficent's wings are stolen is a "metaphor for rape" after much speculation from fans. in the aforementioned scene, Maleficent shares a drink with Stefan, whom she trusts and has been in a romantic relationship with since their teenage years. after drinking from the bottle which he has given her, she quickly falls into a deep sleep, resting her head on his shoulder. Stefan contemplates killing her, but finds himself unable to perform the act of murder. instead, he slices off her wings (off screen). when Maleficent awakens, she discovers that her body has been violated and releases a long, deafening cry as she mourns the loss of her wings.

afterwards, she suffers in silence and isolation. she shuts others out and does not speak of the attack to anyone, sinking into a depression that is reflected in the world around her. she becomes critical and cautious of relationships, romantic and otherwise, which is a logical reaction to being betrayed by someone whom you trusted and loved. her sadness soon becomes fury. she does not take the assault lightly and she does not accept the status of a shameful victim. the film acknowledges that Maleficent was wronged and that she is rightfully angry. Stefan becomes king after presenting her wings to his predecessor as proof of his worth, but the film does not let Stefan prosper on his ill-gotten throne. he spends sixteen years obsessed with Maleficent after she curses Aurora, struggling with paranoia and madness in isolation, and talking to Maleficent's amputated wings which he has kept as trophies. he is the true villain of the story and ultimately meets his well-deserved end when he is dropped from the air by Maleficent and falls to his death.

this is not a perpetuation or glorification of rape culture. rape culture apologizes for rapists, blames victims, and promotes the idea that rape is just a part of our existence as living, sexual beings (because of evolution, or a gift from god, or whatever) and should be accepted and ignored. this film does none of those things.



what the film does seem to do is indict rapists and the evils of patriarchy. it is Stefan's greed and desire for power, as well as ownership of the princess, that drives him to steal Maleficent's wings (the dying kings says, "i would choose a successor to take the throne and care for my daughter. who among you is worthy? kill the winged creature. avenge me, and, upon my death, you will take the crown."). the film is critical of that fact, rather than reinforcing a patriarchal structure like most Disney films.

in her piece, Jones writes: "Disney used the imagery of a broken, mutilated female body, in which her greatest strength was taken from her out of fear and greed in order to break her. Unfortunately, this image of the mutilated female form is often exploited throughout film as a humanizer and way of depicting vulnerability."


here, she seems to equate Maleficent's wings with her power. with its connections to rape which have already been established, she is also making the assumption that rape inherently strips women of whatever powerful virtues they may possess. i think that this is an incorrect assumption, as it suggests that power and strength is merely physical. Maleficent's power comes from her resilience which is evident throughout the film, before and after her wings are stolen. it is clear that her wings are not her only source of strength, for she continues to maintain her emotional, spiritual, and mental fortitude even without them. she continues to be the most powerful of all the creatures in her land and she protects them from the tyranny of King Stefan. also, we see the mutilated scars on her back only twice in the film, and they are not overtly displayed. i would not say that they are "often exploited" at all. nor do they "humanize" her. technically, she is a fairy, not a human at all, but Maleficent shows her compassion and her capacity for identifying with all forms of life at an early age. this is evidenced by the fact that she befriends Stefan when they are children, even after he tries to steal a precious jewel from her magical land.

Jones also questions whether the films can actually be considered feminist, whether female characters must be victimized in order to find redemption, and what Aurora's ultimate role is in the film: "My counter to the feminist argument would be, do women have to be broken (in film) in order to be reborn and viewed as good?  Her wings were a source of power and strength and they are taken early on in the movie. And as a result she is left alone and to an extent othered by her community. Her “dirty” body is then paired with darkness and she is perceived as evil and witchy. This often happens to women of color in films. She is then positioned next to a blonde, blue eyed, pure “pretty” girl making Maleficent’s ways more apparent. The image of darkness juxtaposed with light has always had light as the saving grace, as if the image of darkness (in this case, Maleficent) could not save itself. In a variety of movies and shows a white character is the savior to the women of color and the voice of reason, while the person of color adds excitement and spice to the white character persons content life. This white “savior complex” reinforces racist ideals of women of color lacking ability to run their own life and as a result need the guidance of a white woman. Sleeping Beauty is Maleficent’s white savior. She is only redeemed by loving this innocent blonde girl."


A) this assumes binaries of good and evil, and broken and whole, and draws natural connections between them. Maleficent is not broken and she is not evil. she retaliates against patriarchal violence and she succeeds in the end. B) Aurora is initially used as a tool in her scheme, but Maleficent eventually understands that she has been "lost in hatred and revenge" after she grows to love the girl. in addition, Maleficent watches Aurora closely as she grows from an infant into a young woman, and in fact provides for her and protects her anonymously until they finally meet in the forest. Aurora is not her "white savior", as Jones argues, nor is she her "voice of reason". Maleficent is her own voice of reason. this is because Maleficent is a complex character with morals, a conscience, and an appreciation for all living things, virtues which she displays from the very beginning of the film. the "white savior complex" does exist, of course, when people of color are saved by a white character who is unexpectedly introduced into the culture and takes pity upon them and their struggle with poverty, invisibility, or other forms of racialized oppression in a white dominated society. see: The Help (2011), Freedom Writers (2007), Hardball (2001), and Avatar (2009) - which is essentially Dances With Wolves (1990) with blue Native Americans and set in the future with amazingly beautiful CGI (we see you, James Cameron). none of this is the case in this movie. most obviously because Maleficent is also a white woman. C) in Jones' argument, Maleficent is equated with a woman of color because she wears dark colors. again, i think that this assumption is wrong and problematic. in fact, i would argue that the film challenges the cultural association with darkness and evil because Maleficent wears dark colors throughout the entirety of the film (as does Batman, by the way) and she is an ultimately good character. 

Jones does write that the film is "feministy" because it passes the Bechdel Test: two (named) female characters speak to each other about something other than men. this is true, but the film goes beyond that and is a huge improvement upon the original Sleeping Beauty, in which Aurora is a completely passive character and Maleficent has no legitimate motivation for casting a spell on a baby. this is actually one of the best Disney films in terms of female character development (aside from Aurora's mother, who is conveniently removed from the plot by a mysterious illness. she exists only as a prize for Stefan and a womb to bring forth Aurora. she literally only has three lines and 30 seconds of screen time near the beginning before she disappears for the rest of the film). while Maleficent's trauma is used as a plot point, it does not define her. she experiences a trauma which is a logical catalyst for her becoming an antihero, she is not defeated or saved by a male character, and she develops a meaningful friendship with another female character. Aurora is initially constructed as the perfect female subject, as the pixies bestow upon her the gifts of beauty, grace, and perpetual happiness when she is an infant, but she is also an adventurous girl with a healthy imagination and curiosity. when she learns of her true royal heritage from her pixie guardians, she journeys to the castle on her own to meet her father. when she succumbs to the curse and falls into a "sleep like death", it is the kiss of Maleficent which revives her, rather than the kiss of a young man whom she had only met once before (Disney has also used this premise of friendship between women as "true love" in Brave (2012) and Frozen (2013). finally!). furthermore, when Maleficent is captured by the king, even though her male servant is present and in the form of a fire-breathing dragon, it is Aurora who saves her by freeing her wings from their encasement so that they may return to their rightful place. the film ends with Aurora being crowned as the queen by Maleficent, uniting their two kingdoms. thus, it is the "true love" of friendship which ultimately saves them both. all things considered, Maleficent seems down right feminist to me, and certainly does not perpetuate rape culture. 

and, besides, Angelina Jolie is perfect.


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