It’s been such a very long time since I exited a cinema without feeling angry about anything in the film I just saw, but Maleficent achieved this. Utterly captivating, bitter-sweet, ultimately uplifting, and not at all sexist. Like, that never happens. It was such a relief! Such a joy! And knowing I would be able to talk about it without getting people down! Honestly – I don’t like to be down on all the geek movies out there at the moment, I want to join in the fun. But it’s not me who is bringing the downer to that party; it’s the films.
Such a breath of fresh air not to have that.
Granted, I got about ten feet from the cinema and realised that this was an incredibly white film. Everyone is just the palest of the pale*. And for anyone under the impression that filmmakers can ‘get away’ with this (and seriously, you want to question why exactly they want to) because ‘there were no people of colour in medieval Europe’ (even setting aside the fact that the main character in this film is a fairy) I encourage you to check out MedievalPOC, the history and art tumblr, and enjoy having your behind handed to you in an extremely well-sourced way.
There also weren’t any obviously QUILTBAG characters (i.e. Queer and Questioning, Undefined, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans*, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay and Genderqueer), and although I can see the interspecies subtextual relationship between Maleficent and Diaval as a stand in for a QUILTBAG relationship, that’s something of an uncomfortable suggestion. Just as people of colour do not want to only see their issues discussed via alien stand-ins for themselves, QUILTBAG people deserve to be directly represented as well. And given that enough people seriously think that gay marriage will lead to bestiality, the fact that Diaval is only sometimes human makes for a problematic representation at best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time for a brief outline of the plot (contains some spoilers).
Maleficent (young Maleficent: Ella_Purnell and Isobelle Molloy) was a lovely young horned and eagle-winged fairy who was friendly to everyone. She lived in a fairy realm that abutted a human realm, and relations had never been awesome between the two. But everyone loved Maleficent, because she was awesome and sweet and kind and super powerful and unusually large for a fairy.
One day, a young human boy, Steffan (young Steffan: Micheal Higgins), stole a gem from a pool in the fairy realm and got caught and they got Maleficent in to deal with it, because I guess she was better than all the adults or something – the fairy realm doesn’t seem to have a formal leadership structure. Maleficent persuades the young boy to put the stone back, and they become friends.
As they grow up, they lose touch. Steffan is off making his human fortune in the human realm, following his dream of one day living in the castle. Maleficent (adult: Angelina Jolie) is becoming steadily more badass, and the king of the human realm decides that she is a threat. He goes to war, Maleficent rallies the troops, there is a kickass battle. Maleficent defeats the army and mortally wounds the king. As he lies dying up in the castle, the king promises his daughter’s hand to whoever can kill Maleficent. Steffan (adult: Sharlto Copley) hears this and goes to find Maleficent. He tells her he has come to warn her, but he drugs her and cuts off her wings as proof of defeat.
Maleficent is understandably traumatised, but she pulls her shit together and goes into bitter-brooding. Whilst in this frame of mind, she comes across a raven, trapped by cruel men. Identifying with his predicament, Maleficent saves the bird, Diaval (Sam Riley), by turning him into a man. Whilst uncomfortable with her method of rescue, Diaval is grateful for his life, and swears himself to service in whatever form she might choose to put him.
When news comes that Steffan is king and has had a kid, Maleficent turns up, as in the Sleeping Beauty story, and spoils the party, cursing the girl to fall into a forever-sleep on her sixteenth birthday, to be saved only by ‘true love’s kiss’ (Maleficent allows this concession because Steffan’s behaviour has taught her there is no such thing).
The child is raised in seclusion by fairies, in an attempt to hide her and protect her. But as she watches the girl grow up Maleficent’s heart softens, and she comes to regret her curse…
Why this made me happy
Well, there are a bunch of obvious reasons. This is a story whose main character is a badass powerful lady who is in no sense sexified for objectification. Is Angelina Jollie strikingly beautiful? Of course. But unlike most films I have seen her in, she has not been shoehorned into skimpy or tight clothing to show off her assets. Part of that is because this is a kids film, but it’s refreshing, nonetheless. The only character who gets nekkid is a man (Diaval, after his first transformation). Again: kids film. We don’t see a lot, but it’s really nice to have the tables turned. And in a world where women are criticised for covering up as much as for showing a lot of skin, it’s freakin’ awesome to see a famously beautiful woman dressed for power in a way that accentuates her beauty without in any sense presenting it as ‘there for’ anyone else. Whether it’s head-to-toe covering up to crash a party and curse a child, or dressed practically for war as she rises above her enemies on strong wings, Maleficent casts an imposing figure, of which she is completely in control.
And she is not the only interesting female character. Aurora (Elle Fanning) is interesting as a character who is both ‘blessed’ and ‘cursed’ in such a way that she should not only be beautiful, but regard every situation with good humour. Although it is never directly addressed, one feels, in the humour of Aurora’s incongruously bright attitude, that there is something just as restrictive and controlling in forcing upon someone a bright and pleasing attitude as there is in cursing her to eternal sleep. Nevertheless, Aurora is not without character or independence. Whilst loving her ‘aunts’ she nevertheless recognises that their (rather incompetent) care is not all that she wants from life, and she takes the initiative to leave home on her own, to live where she feels she would be better suited.
By turn, the fairy ‘aunts’ cut interesting figures in that, despite their good intentions, they are not in the least naturally maternal. And although they care for Aurora, they do chafe under the restrictions placed upon them in raising her. As a non-maternal woman myself, it’s really nice to see this represented, especially in a film that places Maleficent’s growing maternal feelings so close to the heart of the story. It shows that we can respect and praise mother-daughter relationships without saying that to be a mother or to be maternal is inevitable or essential to all women.
The film also walks a tight line in introducing its romance element. I have been wary of other films that sought to ‘soften’ a powerful ‘evil’ character (especially a woman) by giving them a romance element. I’ve never felt a compulsion to see Wicked for this reason (which, I grant, is not to condemn the musical – after all, I haven’t seen it!), and I was pretty disgusted by the very concept of Oz the Great and Powerful, for taking one of our precious stories about female power and making it all about a man whom women are fighting over. Refreshingly, though, introducing a love interest for Maleficent does not undermine her in any way. She does not go to war for love and she doesn’t curse the child for a broken heart. War is brought to her by an aggressive and xenophobic nation, and she defends her people. She then suffers massive trauma – the removal of her wings by someone she trusted – and it is that which darkens her heart and makes her seek revenge. She shows no jealousy for Steffan’s wife whatsoever, and before her wings are taken she had accepted that Steffan had moved on with his life, even though she missed him.
This is not a story about a woman overreacting because women are so emotional. This is a story about a woman surviving abuse, finding her power again and, eventually, finding a way to heal. And doing so with the support and love of those around her. Other critics have focused on the mother-daughter relationship and sisterhood, but, whilst that is important, we would do wrong to ignore the importance of her relationship with Diaval, or with the rest of her people, who stand by her in her time of need, even though it sends her to a very dark place.
And now I’m going to talk about the thing I really liked. CONSENT.
CONSENT. CONSENT. CONSENT!
The story of Sleeping Beauty is kinda really problematic, in that its heroine is literally deprived of all agency, and the ‘happy ending’ comes about because, uh, a dude makes sexual advances on her when she’s unable to consent? All sorts of creepy.
In Maleficent, the love interest for Aurora is pressed by those who wish to save her into kissing her, but he resists (at least at first), saying that they only just met and it wouldn’t feel right.
But even more than this, I find real positivity in Maleficent’s relationship with Diaval. Her first transformation of him is without consent, but to save his life, and they discuss this. He tells her that he was not OK with her doing that without his consent, and that even if it saved his life, he wasn’t happy about it. Later, having gained his consent to change him at her will, Maleficent changes him into a wolf. Diaval really doesn’t like this. Again they have a discussion about both partners’ wants and needs. Diaval acknowledges that he had given her carte blanche to transform him, but having discovered that he does not want to be changed into a wolf or a dog, she agrees never to do this again. And she doesn’t.
Whilst the romance between them is never made explicit – not least because it is obvious that Diaval understands that she is hurting and unable to commit explicitly on that sort of emotional level – this is a really wonderful exploration of a dom/sub relationship. Wherein one partner may enjoy adopting a submissive role, and the other a dominant role, without losing respect for one another, and whilst explicitly discussing rules for their relationship. Diaval objects to her changing him without his consent, so she never does that again. He gives her permission to change him at will, but when he realises that there are some things he doesn’t want to be changed into, he voices this, and she respects that.
Moreover, just as she saves him when they first meet, he is given the opportunity to save her when she has been caught in a net by cruel men, later. And his saving of her doesn’t rob her of power, as he is only able to do so because she changes him into a dragon. It is a wonderful and interesting example of a relationship we rarely get to see on screen – where the woman is dominant and the man is submissive but both work in harmony.
Everyone is in charge of their self-actualisation and they work together to support one another and none of this robs them of power.
By contrast, Steffan moves in the opposite direction, and things do not go well for him. He seizes power from others, and fear of retribution consumes him. When he finds he cannot kill Maleficent he sees robbing her of her wings as a ‘good’ option, as ‘saving’ her. But she never consented to being saved in that way. This is the nice-guy logic that says that because a man didn’t take advantage of a drunk woman at a party, she therefore ‘owes’ him sex further down the line. But simply not taking advantage of someone does not earn you a cookie, and ‘merely’ horribly maiming someone, when you could have killed them, is not ‘saving’.
Maleficent never asked to be saved. She was perfectly capable of defending herself. If he decided he didn’t want to kill her – if he had genuinely had her interests at heart at all – he would have left having done nothing. He was looking for a way to be the ‘good guy’ and gain what he wanted (power – by metaphor, sex) too.
The contrast between this extreme, abusive, nonconseunsual act, and the explicit discussions of consent elsewhere in the movie are not only dramatically effective, but really important. I cannot underscore how wonderful this felt, not only as a rewriting of a really problematic story, but as an important message about power and consent for children to absorb.
If you’re a parent: take your daughters to see this, take your sons to see this. Let them learn to admire strong women whose strength does not lie in their beauty. Let them learn to be outraged at acts that are nonconsensual, and to root for people who discuss consent and treat each other with respect, even where there is a power disparity. And go to see it for yourselves, because it is wonderful.
* Looking at the scenes from the throne room, I can see that plenty of the courtiers are people of colour, which is nice, but none of the main characters (or even speaking roles) are.
[Edit:] Some essential balance on why it’s all very well for me as a white woman to enjoy this movie, but the lack of PoC really needs to be addressed: Yet Another Bland, White-Washed Fantasy World.