Archetypal Looking Glass: Disney’s Maleficent

Series: Archetypal Looking Glass

Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Maleficent. Basically just all of the spoilers for Maleficent.

Trigger Warning: While I do think Maleficent is potentially triggering for some people I don’t know how best to express the specific triggers. I think that some of the relationships and events in the movie could hit some very specific abuse related triggers, and I discuss some of those relationships and events in this post. I can imagine that the loss of Maleficent’s wings, which I do not discuss at length, could also be triggering.

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Image Description: A poster for Maleficent, taken from IMDB.com. Maleficent, played by Angelina Jolie, takes up most of the foreground. She wears a black cloak and has her horns wrapped in leather. Her lips are full and bright red, and her skin is white. Her cheekbones are high and enhanced, and there is a crow perched near her shoulder. Behind her is Aurora, who long blond hair and is wearing a light blue dress. The background shows a large kingdom with a castle on one side and a wall of thorns on the other.

In a number of today’s most popular fairy tale tellings, the most powerful and empowered women are also villains. The queen in Snow White and the sea witch of the Little Mermaid are good examples. Cinderella at least has the godmother in addition to the stepmother, but she is more of a plot device than a character. The witch in Rapunzel is the oldest and most powerful of the female characters in that story, although the story of Rapunzel generally gives a surprising amount of agency to its titular character. This is not true of all stories by any means, or even of all of those stories which Disney has adapted, and even those stories which do follow this formula can often be told in such a way that the seemingly powerless and vulnerable female protagonist is given a great deal of agency. I will be exploring some of the ways in which this has been done in some of my future blog posts. Despite what can be done with it, though, the trope of the wicked fairy/stepmother/witch is by itself grounded in some very sexist ideas, and upholds these ideas, particularly when paired with a helpless princess as the primary female character. It is grounded in an association between powerful women and evil, and it also pits the two main female characters of the story against each other.

Sleeping Beauty, particularly as presented in the Disney adaptation, is one of the strongest examples of this: While the three good fairies do have powers and do play a role in the story, they are also played off as foolish and used largely as comic relief. Aurora herself is not comic relief, but she also has no power and does basically nothing at all for the entire film. Maleficent, however, is a character to be taken seriously: Maleficent is no fool, but she is enormously powerful. One of the good fairies is able to change the curse, but she does so by the use of a man who will eventually defeat Maleficent. Thus, although the power may actually belong to the fairies, it requires a male vehicle. And so, in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, real power—power that is more than comic diversion—is either male, or wicked.

And then, in 2014, there was Maleficent.

Maleficent is incredibly powerful in this movie. The only show of power that is taken from her in the movie is her transformation into a dragon—but, despite this, I really don’t think they’ve lessened her power. She is still the strongest of the fairies, and there are plenty of scenes designed to show this. She is so powerful that the very earth rises and falls at her command, nature itself will make her a throne without her uttering a word, and every fairy in the kingdom will bow to her. She is so powerful that she can change a crow into a man, or a wolf, or a dragon, not with a spell, but with a three word command. She is powerful enough to make magic even she cannot break.

But she is not wicked. She’s also not exactly good—although the film makes Maleficent sympathetic, she still does some terrible things. In the end, she is described as being both a hero and a villain, and perhaps this is the best way of putting it. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is very simple in its morality. Maleficent, the most powerful woman in the movie, is evil, without motivation or depth. The princess is good, apparently, though our only evidence is that she can sing, gets along with animals, and seems from her few lines like a very pleasant young lady. She’s coded as good, but she doesn’t really do anything to prove that goodness. She is never tested in any way, she only exists, an object of rather abstract goodness. Philip is also good. We know because he’s coded as good, and because he fights the evil fairy to save the damsel in distress. Without depth, the story is just its outline and its archetypes, which, as previously discussed, uphold the sexist associations of evil with powerful women, and good with women who do literally nothing except lie there while a man rescues them.

But Maleficent doesn’t do this. In Maleficent, the titular fairy is a victim, and a villain, and a hero, all at once—or rather, first she’s a sort of hero, then she is a victim and, in response, a villain, and then, after a fashion, she’s sort of a hero again. I say sort of because the things she does after placing the curse are to fix past mistakes, and fixing those mistakes doesn’t negate them. Being a victim doesn’t entitle you to victimize others, and this film makes no attempt to absolve Maleficent, even when she tries to change the curse, even when she saves Aurora.  Maleficent herself does not even ask forgiveness, because she believes her deeds are unforgivable. Aurora’s apparent forgiveness is her choice, because it is what she wants, and for no other reason.

Maleficent is a very Greek character, and her tragedy a very Greek tragedy (except for the part where she and her loved ones survive the movie). The Greek tragedy formula is different from other types of tragedy, like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (which is a terrible example, since the nature of that particular tragedy is highly debated). The heroes of Greek tragedies are typically royalty, and they are good people who are victims of their own flaw or mistake, called a hamartia. Maleficent, though victimized by Stefan, has her own mistake, her own crime, which is the instrument of her tragedy. Her mistake is that she, in anger and pain, uses Aurora to work her vengeance on Stefan. Her tragedy is that she comes to love Aurora—perhaps in part due to her own magic, for she says that Aurora shall be “beloved by all who meet her”—and that even she cannot undo the curse, which she made to be unbreakable by any power.

Stefan’s character, too, follows this formula (except unlike Maleficent, who is mostly good and does some terrible things, Stefan is not good. At all. He kind of sucks). His flaw is that he is really, really foolish. All right, actually it is that he is greedy and cowardly and consumed by ambition, but anyone who lives next to a fairy kingdom and still has the gall to anger one of the fairies—the fairy, the strongest one, the one who protects them—the way that he does, is really, really, really foolish. Also there are the whole destroying-his-kingdom’s-textile-industry and pressing-all-the-iron-workers-into-service-and-then-overworking-them issues. Also probably the whole kingdom has lost faith in the crown by this time, so there’s that.

What I’m saying is that Stefan is a terrible person and a worse king, or possibly the other way around. But at least his character holds together, and I can believe that he would do these really terrible things.

So Stefan’s flaw is that he’s terrible, and his tragedy, his punishment, is the curse, the loss of everyone he loves—if he does love—and his eventual death, not at Maleficent’s hands but at his own, trying to destroy her when she has let him go.

Okay, honestly, it is actually possible to follow the Greek tragedy structure a lot more strictly with Stefan—his hamartia is his ambition and the taking of Maleficent’s wings, the entire rest of the movie is his world crumbling around him as he tries desperately to hold it together, and if you told the story from his point of view perhaps he would seem to be essentially good. Even though in this movie Stefan is acting basically as the antagonist, we are shown enough of his story that we can understand his character. Doesn’t make him less terrible, but it does make him more real, and far more interesting.

But it’s not his story. It’s Maleficent’s story, chiefly, not Stefan’s or Phillip’s or Aurora’s. That said, Aurora isn’t left out here: the story gives her character strength, agency, choice, and heart. And the use of her as an object in the original story and the animated film is addressed, though not explicitly. Maleficent’s mistake is not just that she was vengeful or cursed someone, it is that she used the baby Aurora as a tool to hurt Stefan, the same way that the animated film uses Aurora as little more than a plot device in the story of Phillip and the fairies. Maleficent’s curse was aimed at Stefan, worked out of his betrayal (another way in which his hamartia is the instrument of his tragedy). Aurora’s 16th birthday, the same age at which Stefan gave Maleficent “true love’s kiss.” True love to save her, chosen to haunt him because Maleficent knows, now, that he does not believe in true love—and neither does she, anymore. It is very clear that this curse was meant for Stefan, and that anyone else was merely collateral damage.

But this is a mistake. This is wrong. Maleficent should not have used an innocent child, a person, as a tool of vengeance, and so she will suffer.

Because Aurora is a person, as we soon see. She is not a tool or an object or an archetype. She is a person, one who is curious and kind and full of love, truly beautiful in every sense. And she makes choices. She chooses to go to the Moors, to call Maleficent out from hiding, to tell her ‘aunts’ that she is leaving them, to go to the castle when she learns the truth, to free Maleficent’s wings. She chooses to forgive Maleficent, and to return to the Moors not with vengeance, but with forgiveness and peace in her heart and in her actions. And she has a voice—something a sleeping princess is not always allowed. It is her voice which tells the story.

And now, the kiss. Maleficent changes very few plot points. It adds much to the story, but it doesn’t change any big things, only reimagines and adds context and embellishment—like the thorns around the fairy kingdom grown by Maleficent, and the parallel thorns of iron built around the castle at Stefan’s demand. The shift of the dragon onto Diaval’s character is another of these changes, and the shift in who delivers the “true love” part of the curse. There are a few other changes from the animated version—what Maleficent is doing for 16 years, for instance—but the bones of the traditional story are still there, and they still fit together in basically the same way. Princess is born. Fairy is not invited. In vengeance, fairy curses princess with death-like sleep. Curse can only be broken by true love. Spindles are burned and girl is hidden (the latter coming mostly from Disney). Curse takes effect. Curse is broken with a kiss.

True love’s kiss.

But not, in this case, a prince’s kiss.

I love that about this movie. I love that it does not pit its two main female characters against each other, that it is about love between two women, that it is about love between a child and her guardian. That is not about romantic love. There is nothing wrong with romantic love, but not all of us experience it, and almost all of us experience other kinds. Those of us who don’t experience romantic love deserve love stories, too. All of us, whether we experience romantic love or not, deserve different kinds of love stories. I like that this story is, at least in part, about this love, a kind of love that is being celebrated more, I think, and more popularly, but still not enough.

And I like that Aurora gets rescued.

There is nothing wrong with being rescued. You cannot always save yourself. That does not make you weak. Aurora is not weak, and she has agency. She is her own person, she makes choices, and she is strong. Strong enough to unite kingdoms. Strong enough to tell stories. But that does not mean she can always save herself.

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