*Trigger Warning: This article contains material addressing rape, gender based violence, and mutilation.*
Hello Everyone, I’m Judith and I’m currently an intern here at CFC. I’m a student at Agnes Scott College double majoring in Women’s Studies and Political Science. Outside of my academic interest, I make zines and ponder feminist theory.
From the moment I watched Tomb Raider; I have been a fan of Angelina Jolie. When I first heard word of the film Maleficent, a remake of Sleeping Beauty, the idea of Angelina, draped in black, casting spells on people sparked my interest. Before I went to the theater, I read a few reviews of the film. I read part of an article that compared the cutting of Maleficent’s wings to that of a rape scene. On the other hand, I read other articles that praised it for being a “feminist film” (Well it does pass the Bechdel Test). Going into the theater with this knowledge I believed I was prepared to view the scene and that it wouldn’t be that bad. Countless shows and films depicted violence against women as a key part of the plot, so how would this be any different? But once I got there, it was painful for me to watch even with knowing what was to come.
Disney presented us, viewers, with a woman drugged and mutilated by a man she was romantically involved with. By saying so I am not perverting the story or film but simply stating a fact. 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. In the beginning, Maleficent is trusting yet a aware character who befriends a human boy despite the rift between the two worlds. The storyline is familiar: woman trusts man and/or person and the trust is broken and is betrayed by this person and, as a result, the woman is harmed, either physically, emotionally, or mentally. Maleficent suffered all three, her body was pained and weakened, the man she loved harmed her, and her personality severely changes as a result of trauma. Through this journey of violence and trauma, the storytellers are able to create a complex character as a result of her being a victim. And I can attest that it worked. Sitting in the theater, I was on Malficent’s side all the way. I wanted her to get revenge on those who harmed her and to gain her strength. But did she have to be harmed in order for me to love her?
It is not that the narrative of abused women should not have a voice or be shown, but I am troubled by the way in which it is done and the group it was marketed too. I sat in the theater with my younger brothers, who are 16 and 14, cringing. It hurt to watch and it made me hate all the humans in the movie. Sitting there, when she wakes up in pain, screaming and crying, I couldn’t help but look around to see who was near. There were a few older couples and little girls with their mothers, who I believed just saw a rape scene and the aftermath of such: Maleficent weak, barely able to walk, first crying and then mad as hell. I don’t believe that young girls shouldn’t be educated on rape but I’m not sure if this was the best medium to expose them to this form of violence.
And for many parents and viewers in general this act of violence was not viewed as rape at all. Because of societies strict view of what constitutes rape and what factors must be involved for sexual assault to be “real.” Maleficent is a victim but not a rape victim. I believe these types of problematic distinctions make it easier for the viewer to watch a woman be mutilated by someone she trusts. Maleficent doesn’t fit into the “perfect victim” model: she isn’t sexually abused, she is not “pure”, and she “allowed” it to happen (seeing that she was drugged after drinking with a friend *insert mocking republican voice*).
Am I asking for an expanded notion of rape? Yes, because the film depicts a type of gender motivated violence and the intentional destruction of a woman’s body used as a weapon against her, similar to how rape is used. The medium and presentation of this gender based violence delegitimizes it because it doesn’t easily fit into a box that your average viewer can stomach or wants to explain to their kids. By recognizing the way in which Disney exploited rape culture in Maleficent there can be a larger discourse about how rape culture permeates film (including children’s films) and an attention to different forms of violence beyond sexual assault that impact women and girls.
Was Maleficent a “feel good” feminist movie? Well, it wasn’t exactly “feel good”. Yes, Maleficent was a strong, leading female character. Yes, there were other women. Yes, she was a badass. Yes, this was one of those few times in which there were lead female characters that romantic love wasn’t the answer to all their problems. I will say it was feministy. 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.
So, while the film had feminist qualities, I won’t let it off easy. I would say this film contributes to rape culture in that it allowed us to view the mutilation and dismemberment of a woman’s body by making this violence more palatable. The pairing of the destruction of the environment with that of a woman’s bodies is all too familiar for many of us to pay any mind. Maleficent’s depiction of gendered violence allows us a cop out, letting us to continue watch, dazzled by theatrics and special effects.