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Kings Will Be Kings

| June 20, 2014

title
an image of Maleficent

Beware the woman-hating that is evident in reviews of Disney’s Maleficent.  The betrayal of the film’s heroine is brutal, yet reviewers have minimized the crime committed against her in the very same way our culture minimizes violence against women and the value of our experiences.  

In the story of Maleficent, by Linda Woolverton, Angelina Jolie portrays a heroine whose fury is unleashed after the would-be king, her trusted childhood friend, poisons and disfigures her one night by severing her massive wings from her body.

Just as our culture has become desensitized to rampant violence against women, often excusing its perpetrators, reviewers of the film are unimpressed by the attack on Maleficent.

Time teases that she was “clipped,” Variety jokes that she was “scorned and shorn,” and Anthony Lane snarks in The New Yorker about her wings being “plucked off.” A few reviewers note the morning-after imagery as evocative of a rape, practically yawning as they state the obvious: Oh, you know, that old story. 

No thanks for the half-hearted rape comparison—seeing this ex-boyfriend on-his-way-to-be-king drug and mutilate our hero needs no re-interpretation for a wingless audience.

Recent headlines include two girls in India gang-raped and hung from trees. High school yearbook editors in Utah photoshopped over girls’ cleavage and bare arms. Yet another girl’s photographed assault by her peers in California, while she was unconscious, sent her over the edge; she killed herself. And all on the heels of the misogynist shooting spree in Santa Barbara and outpouring of examples of everyday misogyny brought forth by #YesAllWomen.

The hounding and disfigurement of women by people who should be their friends is by no means too fantastical for us to relate.

“Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound,” writes Maxine Hong Kingston in her 1975 memoir, The Woman Warrior. My heart soared in the theater to see Maleficent defend her land by calling on the very earth to arise and stand with her. With her magnificent wings, she was undefeatable. I knew she’d pay dearly for it.

Kings will be kings, after all. Their evil doesn’t bear mentioning, somehow—not when compared to earth-shattering vengeance of a woman who dares survive the murder of her soul by men’s ambitious “nature.”

In the 1992 bestseller Women Who Run with the Wolves, Jungian psychoanalyst and storyteller Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés reminds us that it’s the Devil’s job in fairytales to change the message. Maleficent’s reviewers play their part brilliantly.

“By carving away this, and blotting out that, and severing a root here, and sealing up an opening there,” writes Estés, “the ‘devil’ in the culture…causes generations of women to feel fearful yet wander about with not the simplest clues about the causes or about their own loss of the wild nature, which could reveal all to them.”

The New York Times review was fair, though Manohla Dargis apparently lost the battle over the headline (“Dumped by Her Prince”). Ms. also celebrates all that’s feminist about Maleficent.

But ultimately, it wasn’t the horror of seeing my hero cut from her power that caused me to flood with emotions in the theater. I’m old enough to anticipate the moment in a woman’s life story when she is taken down by patriarchy. It brings both relief and revelation: confirmation of the world as it is.

It was Maleficent’s healing that undid me. That “slow” and “flawed” second act, according to various reviews, when Maleficent appears to be passing time until she can be gratified by the fulfillment of her curse. Lane begs the question in The New Yorker, “But why is she gazing? What has the movie done to her, and to the armored gleam of her wickedness?” and reveals only that he has missed the point.

The movie has grossed $441 million worldwide, and an estimated 60 percent of viewers are women. What they seek and find in Maleficent is a fantasy of protection for women by women.

By far, the most devastating and healing image in this movie, worth whatever it cost to create it, was this: our death bringer, our wicked witch of the Moors, thundering over the hillside in desperate fury, commanding her horse to go faster.

Maleficent is nobody’s mother, and she is motherless as well. Yet her instinct tells her to fight for the imperiled Princess Aurora as if it were her own innocent self come back to life. Not only can she not shield the girl from the evil in the world, she has wrought some of it herself. But she is wise enough to know that evil is part of the story—within us and perpetrated by our culture. 

While the real villain in Maleficent is the king, and the king before him, and the one before that, this movie dares to suggest that even they might be vanquished by the un-holy alliance of Princess and Sorceress. 

But you sure won’t hear that from reviewers who complain about everything except Jolie’s performance. What seems to bother them most is that Maleficent can’t just be bad. This echoes our culture’s frustration that sluts can’t just be sluts; moms can’t just be moms; and wives…forget about it. They ruin everything by having, like, integrity.  Memory. Love of self and other women across generations, across time.  

Estés reminds us: “Not only when people are hungry and deprived does the Devil show up but also sometimes where there has been an event of great beauty….”

A Disney fairytale that resurrects the sacred bond between maiden and crone is such an event, and so is #YesAllWomen. We do well to keep recognizing the Devil at work in our culture and our media, and put our trust in what we already know about the value of our lives.

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Tune in this weekend on WMC Live with Robin Morgan. This Saturday on CBS Radio WFJK 1580

Robin on Mormons excommunicating a feminist, and George Will and campus rapes. Guests: Cyndee Readdean, producer of “Freedom Summer” doc; Mona Eltahawy reports from Cairo on sexual assault epidemic; Marisa Tomei on sexuality, spirituality, film, and being back on Broadway.

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