So far I've read a lot of reviews about what people didn't like about Maleficent. But what I haven't seen, so far, is an analysis of what the film means in terms of the attitudes it portrays and the assumptions it works from. Maleficent might not be the glorious evil villain some of us wanted her to be, but she still seems to have been a hit – the film opened with huge box office numbers last weekend and seems to still be going strong. If she's not an evil villain, though, who is she and what does her story say about what we, as a culture, believe?
From the opening scene, Maleficent is painted as a story between two very gendered kingdoms. The fairy kingdom, the Moors, where Maleficent herself lives, is feminine: there are no humanoid male figures, only trees, trolls that look more asexual than male, and one old mushroom guy who is definitely too old to be portrayed as a sexual interest or threat. There is no male sexual presence in the fairy world. The fairy world is also described as being peaceful and effortlessly successful, a fantasy matriarchy with no king. It is lush and the forest is filled with flowers, and everyone has the power to move as they please and basically live their lives as they please. Conversely, the human kingdom is described as being ruled by a king who is hard on his subjects; I believe the exact line used to describe it in the narrator's introduction was something like "the king rules harshly and the people are not free." Women are barely present in the human world. It is a world of men, iron, and war, and with the exception of Aurora and one sentence from her mother, whose name we never even learn, we hear nothing from any women that live there. Even the landscape is vastly different – there is a gray castle in the human kingdom, surrounded by barren fields of brown grass. No flowers, no crops, and no break in the landscape. This kingdom is conquered, and there is an intense lack of the life so plentiful in the fairy kingdom.
Then one boy from the human world, Stefan, dares to enter the Moors. He enters by trying to steal something – a rock. He doesn't even see it as stealing. It doesn't belong to anyone, he says. Maleficent makes him give it to her and returns it to its rightful place in the water. He complains, "If I knew you were going to throw it away, I would have kept it," and Maleficent explains that she didn't throw it away, she put it back where it belonged. Even at a young age, then, this boy shows a tendency to engage in claiming what belongs to no one, the beauty of the earth, for himself. He must own things. Maleficent doesn't understand this….but she will, the narrator ominously states.
Maleficent welcomes the boy into her heart and loves him without reserve. As a child, he loves her in return; but as he grows into a man he becomes obsessed with gaining power. Then the king tries to invade the Moors. He was not provoked; his reason is that he wants to take the Moors' greater resources. This seems to be a clear picture of a mindset that is both imperialistic and misogynistic. Maleficent and her army of earthen creatures soundly defeat him, however. Her power resonates with modern fantasies of mythic female power; she is a witch, she is connected to the earth and her power comes from it. She is the embodiment of New Age "goddess" power, which is also often connected, in the West, with cultures that we consider to have been "more in tune with the earth" – indigenous, pagan cultures. The king, now on his deathbed (it seems that Maleficent's power has taken his away and left him dying instantly) tells his advisors that they must avenge his defeat by conquering Maleficent: male pride is at stake if she is left with her power intact. Maleficent's childhood sweetheart Stefan, horrified but resolved, realizes that in order to gain power in a world of masculinity he must take it from the female world that he loved as a child. In a way this is similar to the cycle of abuse that is perpetuated in patriarchy - a male child identifies more with his mother and sister when he is young and equally powerless, and as an adult he must make a choice to either remain powerless as they are or take power from them and join his father in the ranks of the powerful. In order to do so he must cease to offer them empathy and see them as other, subhuman even.
It is important to note, I think, that Maleficent would not have lost her power if she had not trusted someone she believed loved her. He did not conquer her by strength but by deception – she is his equal in strength, if not stronger. In a scene many people have noted is strikingly similar to date rape, complete with a rape drug, the soon-to-be-king literally strips Maleficent of the physical incarnation of her power – her wings. When she wakes she screams with rage and pain. Something precious has been taken from her – not only her physical power, but also her trust in love. She becomes a different person.
When the king's daughter is born, Maleficent visits a curse upon her. We all know this part of the story, but within the context of this film it becomes important from the perspective of gender, I believe. The king's daughter – again, the only woman with a speaking role in the entire human kingdom – is cursed to prick her finger on a spindle (always, even in the original story, a metaphor for losing her virginity) and fall into a deep sleep. That is, metaphorically, she too is cursed to lose her power at the hands of men on the day she turns 16, the time when she becomes a woman (as it also was the day Maleficent experienced her first kiss, which is the only sexual experience mentioned in the film and so can be seen as the age at which one reaches sexual maturity). In effect, Maleficent curses the infant girl child to experience the same gender discrimination and loss of power at the hands of men that she herself has been subjected to. This is her great revenge. And it's a pretty clear picture of what has actually happened for generations: women are the gatekeepers of other women's sexuality and power. They police one another and call one another "sluts"; they blame other women for the pain men have inflicted on them.
But as Aurora grows up and Maleficent comes to love her, she regrets her curse and tries to revoke it. Since she isn't able to, she then tries to warn Aurora of the danger: "There is a great evil in this world." She tells Aurora to come to the Moors, a fantasy kingdom ruled by and mostly populated by women, where she will be safe from the evil of men, represented by the human world. But when Aurora learns that Maleficent cursed her, she does exactly what Maleficent did to her and what all women tend to do in real life: she blames Maleficent and calls her "the great evil." Aurora then runs to the castle and her father, who is literally the patriarchy. Her father takes one look at her, says she looks just like her mother, and without saying "I love you" or "I missed you" or "How was your childhood?" or mentioning anything about the 16 years they've been apart, sends her straight to her room to be locked up. That is, he immediately strips her of her power in order to protect her from the curse, which is ironic, since the curse is a metaphorical loss of power. He tries to protect her from the curse of losing her power by taking away her power. Think of this in terms of men who say things like "If that boy tries to take my daughter's virginity, I'm going to shoot him," thinking of their daughters as possessions to be protected and not realizing that the danger is caused and perpetuated by their own treatment of women.
The significance of the scene where the young prince is not able to break the spell but Maleficent does is clear, then: sexuality cannot break the curse that takes away women's power, but when women learn to love one another the curse can be broken. First Maleficent frees Aurora from the spell; then Aurora frees Maleficent's wings. Once their power is regained, the king/patriarchy is rightfully defeated and both kingdoms become free.
The conclusion of the film is unsettling, though, in a way that is a little bit reminiscent of one of Shakespeare's comedies – it seems like all the loose ends are tied up, but there is a definite feeling that there are a lot of gender and power issues that are not fully resolved. The film ends in the Moors, where Aurora and Maleficent are together in the fantasy world of female power and solidarity. They're learned to work together and stop blaming each other for what men have done to them, and that represents an enormous step. However, the young prince Phillip hovers in the background during the scene, representing the promise that he may end up with Aurora. Aurora, then, is not necessarily free - she is still younger than Maleficent was when she lost her wings. Phillip still represents a male threat that has not even remotely been resolved.
I do not necessarily think that this film means to be progressive or even consciously portrays these ideas of gender roles, but I do believe they are present and they represent one very common set of thoughts and beliefs about gender. And if our culture believes that maleness and femaleness are fundamentally opposed and one will always attempt to take power away from the other, that is certainly problematic. But it's an interesting finger on the pulse of gender politics in America today.