Maleficent Unpacked: A Black Feminist Review

*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.

14 thoughts on “Maleficent Unpacked: A Black Feminist Review

  1. Thanks for this powerful post. I identify with an expanded understanding of rape and rape culture from having been locked up in psychiatry and forced to take debilitating drugs. Rape was the paradigm that it fit into for me, and when I was orally raped years later it was minuscule compared with the extreme, abominable violation that the forced drugging was in particular. Very much about taking away something essential to one’s power. In my case it made me go deeper to find what and who I was as someone who still existed after and despite and beyond this violation. I have written about the gender intersection with forced psychiatry and have also collaborated with women of color on a report on forced psychiatry against African Americans as an intersection of racism and disability discrimination. You can search for CHRUSP if interested; I will not give the website url as I know sometimes these comment forms reject anything with a link.

  2. Nice article. I’m interested to know if there have ever been any articles about actual good feminist movies?

  3. So many people hate on this film for so many reasons while totally missing what the film is about. I guess I shouldn’t expect more than that from a rape culture, but it’s disappointing to see even feminist critiques missing it.

    First problem, equating Maleficent’s wings with her strength is akin to equating a woman’s value with her purity. The movie is not making the binary call that her strength is lost with her wings. Your critique judges it as such.

    Regarding exploitation for humanizing purposes, her character was humanized and vulnerable before being “broken” when she was shown as a playful and adventurous child with a great respect for all life. She didn’t have to be harmed for anyone to love her, she was a lovable character who loved nature and the creatures around her before she was abused. She wasn’t waiting for Sleeping Beauty to teach her love. It was a strength that was always part of her.

    “It is not that the narrative of abused women should not have a voice or be shown, BUT” [emphasis mine]. Really? “But?” Do you really think they should have a voice? How about children who may not have an outlet or a way of understanding sexual abuse that they’ve experienced? This movie offers a beautiful voice that could speak to them. Or what other medium did you propose to reach out to a child population who may not have disclosed anything to anyone and is largely unidentifiable? Who, among adults, in a rape culture do you even know that would even willingly sit through a movie about rape? We are few and far between, so the symbolism in this film is a powerful way to reach the “ignorance is bliss” masses.

    The perceptions of viewers will surely vary and victim blaming statements can be projected anywhere, but it seems like you project those statements here as if this movie is ‘asking’ for victim blaming. How heavy and hard hitting did this film need to be before it wasn’t asking for rape culture interpretations?

    “Do women have to be broken (in film) in order to be reborn and viewed as good?” This was an empathy building film where Maleficent was always “good” and her “bad” actions can be clearly understood as the result of pain and figuring her self out on a journey to healing–not something malicious. The film goes beyond petty binary perspectives and I think that’s an incredibly powerful and important message in its own right that the film gets no credit for.

    In large part because of its defying binary perspectives of life experiences, I thought Maleficient’s journey in this film was very real. tminkowitz shared about going “deeper to find what and who I was as someone who still existed after and despite and beyond this violation.” I thought the film captured some of that. I’m positive tminkowitz’s journey was unique, and am only saying the essence of this film reflects that kind of journey… to find out what exists despite and beyond.
    At the end of the film, Maleficent finds herself, her strength, her love, without any repair work, amends, or restitution. She didn’t need her wings for any of that. Powerful stuff!!

    Will a rape culture get it? For the most part, no. Will feminists in a rape culture get it? Apparently not! Hopefully, young and old survivors alike who can relate will watch it and get it. But there’s no guarantee when even feminists are silencing the voice of the abused with their own internalization of rape culture.

  4. THIS perspective is what I was looking for. I mean the obvious parallel to “rape” is blatant to me however, can we get beyond the conspiracy (if that’s the correct word) and really look at the possibilities inlieu of slamming this film with negativity? I, too, questioned Disney’s delivery of this message initially and was like “rape?…really Disney?” but as I mulled over it I thought it applies to any journey in life no matter how macro or micro. The fall from innocence. Maleficient was innocent residing in her own world and as any curious child, foreigner, woman or man does in stepping outside of their own understanding in order to discover something/someone different entered into this Human world trusting and open and WHAM met with a reality that was different than her own. In life we get knocked off our foundation often and we are never the same but we learn something about ourselves in the process. Digging deeper, experiencing abilities, perceptions, strengths and weaknesses in ourselves that we may never have experienced if we didn’t try something new. Each decision in life comes with a consequence and a reward. Not looking to discredit rape or any violation of a person (speaking as a survivor of rape myself) but at some point wearing that label all the time for everything type-casts our experiences and that’s not what growth is about. I was told by a mentor that EVERYTHING in life requires friction to manifest. NObody can really dictate what that friction will be;however, it always results in a change of the original being.

    I agree with the author on her observations but maybe…she needs to dig a little deeper as well. Seems there’s more power in that

  5. I’m not convinced that there is white saviour symbolism in the movie. Sleeping Beauty is blonde because she is blonde in the original movie, and yes, the obsession with blonde princesses is racist, but I don’t think one can blame “Maleficent” for that.

    At no point in the movie did I consider Malficent evil. Her revenge was justified, only misdirected. I viewed her black clothes as display of power, much like her throne – of course, her seeming evil was intended, but she only seemed evil, never was, and teenagers just love the colour black, because it signifies strength.

    Also, Aurora doesn’t actually do much. Maleficent pretty much redeems herself. It is her decision to feed and care for baby Aurora, only helped a bit by Diaval, who is black-haired and wears black clothes all the time, while not being evil in the least.

    Aurora’s innocence and kindness does help, but to me, that only shows that Maleficent had always been capable of love, but only able to express it towards innocent creatures. (She does pet Diaval in his raven form even at the beginning, and she never harms a creature of the moors. It is only humans she hates, and those who help humans, such as the three pixies.)

    I understood the movie as attempting to show that black is, in fact, not evil, and that the black=evil prejudice is just that; a stupid prejudice. Aurora is completely ignorant of that stereotype, and this ignorance never harms her, quite the opposite. It is her firm belief in Maleficent’s kindness (or lack of racism / prejudice against black, if you want) that enables Maleficent to love her.

  6. I want to add something; maybe a moderator can add it to my original reply? I’m not sure how the reply system here works.

    “Maleficent”, in my eyes, shows how patriarchy hurts women, and then casts them as villains when they react with righteous anger.
    If you view characters in black clothes as symbolic for PoC, then one could also say that the movie shows the same for racist oppression. Diaval, the “blackest” main character in the movie, is also the most kind and loving adult in it. Never having been harmed as badly as Maleficent, he is able to see Aurora as innocent child from the beginning. As I see it, Aurora is not so much a white saviour as an innocent white person. She “redeems” Maleficent by simply not giving her “fairy godmother” a reason to hate her.
    Maleficent’s “redemption” ultimately consists in Aurora giving her back her wings, ending the oppression Stefan started, and making Maleficent happy again. Aurora in a way redeems herself, proving that she is not like her father, by giving the wings back.

    The gloomyness of the moors and the fact that Maleficent forces the moor creatures to bow before her, is symbolical of the fact that oppression poisons the atmosphere, and seeps into every aspect of one’s life, causing the oppressed to oppress each other in an attempt to regain the power that was stolen from them. This is what Aurora ends by giving the wings back; but the gloomyness was always only unhappyness, not evil. It had no negative effects at all. What Aurora actively ends is not evilness, it’s the unhappyness caused by the very existence of sexist (or racist) hate and oppression.

    At least that’s how I understood the movie. I suspect it was not intended to be understood that way, what with Aurora becoming queen of the Moors, which, as was established at the beginning of the movie, do not need a queen at all, but I quite like my interpretation.

  7. How about this everyone. She is a remake of an old character for today’s world, Yes she was tricked and poisoned, lost her wings but her life was spared “Ouch.” She was pissed off. Any independent freedom loving “leader” MALE OR FEMALE would hate to have their wings cut off. A bird would hate that, Yet we capture, cage and clip their wings all the time don’t we? Let’s see what Peta has to say about that! and we dont call it rape. Still Maleficent did not lose all her powers. Disney has been victimizing women forever –just in a much more colorful and less obvious way. There she is the old witch and fairy godmother, poison and prince charming to the rescue. I would much rather my daughter see Maleficent kicking and screaming over the reality of what life is today….and then fighting back! Yes, …slowly regretting the curse she placed on Aurora err blondie. In the end though…..I was secretly praying that it was Maleficent and not some prince who would be kissing sleeping beauty to awaken her. Instead Maleficent had the purest of all loves and over time she came to regret what she had done. There was a relationship built and a love bond like mother and daughter. The older story where the Aurora gets sent away with fairies –to me was always a bit disturbing…..I like it that Maleficent followed this princess and three fairies into the forest to guard the baby and oversee her curse she had placed one the princess to the point that she had even interacted with Arora. In reality wouldn’t she?

    This was a PG-13 and was not meant for immature children. It was a Fairy Tale We all get raped. MEN DO TOO in fact more men are raped in the military than women are it just doesn’t get reported. This is our life. The pain, the messy truth and ugliness. Now sit down with your kids and start telling them the truth about life….and as for you Maleficent —–SOAR!!!!

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