The Issues with Lack of Progressiveness in Maleficent
In this version of the Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is betrayed by her “true love,” a man named Stefan, who mercilessly cuts off her wings for the king in return for becoming his heir. Maleficent is hysterical when realizes what happened, so, when Stefan and his queen have baby Aurora, she seeks revenge with a curse that will put her into a death-like sleep on her 16th birthday, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss. As time goes by and Maleficent gets to know Aurora, she begins to regret her decision. After failing to break the curse with magic, she gives Aurora a kiss on the forehead, which to her surprise, fulfills the ‘true love’s kiss’ stipulation and wakens her. As Aurora narrates, Maleficent was ‘both the villain and the hero’ of the story after all.
Although this is a better fairy tale to tell young children, Disney’s Maleficent is not as progressive as it could be. For so long Disney films have taught children that validation and happiness only come with the love of a man, and while Maleficent directly places familial bond and female empowerment above the traditional princess / prince romantic arc, the story remains roughly the same as it is told in Sleeping Beauty.
To begin, one of the major concerns of the scholars in Mickey Mouse Monopoly is in regard to the stereotypes and ideas that Disney has constructed about gender that influences the way society views women. Maleficent tries to insert a progressive female empowerment theme into the original story’s gendered limitations, but Disney is only willing to extend the narrative of Sleeping Beauty so far. Therefore, to create a femme postive aesthetic that can also exist within the original tale, Maleficent devalues and injurs its female characters. For example, the beginning of Maleficent’s curse on Aurora goes, “The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who meet her” (Maleficent). Aurora is given the gifts of beauty and happiness, but never intelligence, strength, or other attributes that would place value on something besides her outward appearance. Like all of the other Disney princess movies, Maleficent places more emphasis on the character’s appearance rather than their substance. According to the article “Fairytale’s Most Wanted: The Five Most Well-Known Character Types,” “Ultimately, this is the universal truth of the princess character, her virtue must be reflected by her outward appearance—she must be beautiful” (Heckel). This leads to unrealistic ideals in young children, and cements negative body images and perceptions during the most developmental years. As stated on the website, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “What [children] see affects their attitudes toward male and female values in our society, and the tendency for repeated viewing results in negative gender stereotypes imprinting over and over” (Gender in Media: The Myths & Facts). It continues to send the message that a woman’s worth lies within her looks, reinforcing traditional gender ideology and stereotypes.
Furthermore, while Maleficent does not encourage the acceptance of violence against women like past Disney movies have, it still shows images of aggression and violence against women, and arguably endorses patriarchal attitudes. In one of the most shocking scenes, Stefan mutilates Maleficent’s unconscious body, cutting off her wings and leaving her to bleed. Not only is this symbolism for rape, but utimately adheres to patriarchal attitudes and violent prerogative. Although Maleficent does not let Stefan get away with it, seeking revenge with a curse– a true moment of female power– she is eventually overcome with guilt and regret, whereas Stefan never shows remorse for his actions and never apologizes. In other words, the story paints all the male characters in a despicable light, and comes across as shallow and lazy feminism. Because the movie is trying to appeal to children, instead of an outright revenge film we get story about Maleficent learning to become good again through her sudden connection to her assaulter’s daughter. It basically teaches kids that all men are just power hungry fools, and all women who have been abused will turn evil and become hell-bent on taking revenge. According to the article, “Elements Found in Fairy Tales,” “When you think fairy tale, you think, ‘children.’ But pay close attention to the stories and you will see bigger meanings meant not just for children” (Elements Found in Fairy Tales). Maleficent tries to be a power fantasy for women who feel they have been wronged by men and wish they could take revenge, and with feminist theory, “aims to understand the nature of inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality” (Elements Found in Fairy Tales). But, because producers were only willing to stray from the original narrative so far and still appeal to the children, the movie just becomes a jumbled mess of ill-conceived ideas that kids are unable to analyze critically. If Disney really wanted to show an example of a strong woman at the center of a narrative, she should not be accompanied by being diminished or violated by male characters.
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