Feminism and Gender Roles in Maleficent:  The Good and the Ugly

maleficent feminism

*In case you missed it at Shepherd Project*

(Spoiler Alert!!!)

I loved Maleficent.  Hear that first.  (You can see my review/discussion of the movie here, and read about some fantastic ways it ties in to Christian themes.)  I thought it was magical and fun and very captivating.  Really, my only caution about the movie was that it only tells part of the story.  Which is probably a confusing statement since the point of the movie is to tell the “rest” of the story, to show you the story from Maleficent’s perspective.  It does that, but there is another story which, I fear, is only half told.   More accurately, I should say it’s the half telling of a perspective.  It’s not a false perspective, per se, but it lacks counter-balance.  Specifically, I’m talking about Maleficent’s perspective of men and true love.

The basic story is that two young orphans met in the woods.  She was a young, idealistic, pure hearted fairy raised in an idyllic home.  He was from the world of men, hungry for power and success.  They bonded over their aloneness in the world and grew fond of each other.  He gave her what he promised her was “True Love’s Kiss”.  For her it was so.  For him, it was short-lived.  Maybe he meant it at the time to the best of his shallow capacity, but he knew little of love.  And Maleficent knew little of manipulation.

In her innocence, Maleficent believed that True Love’s Kiss was really that, even after her true love began to distance himself.  Stefan was an orphan.  He didn’t understand love.  His place in the world had always been tentative, not based on love but on his performance and possessions and position[1]….things he had little of until an opportunity presented itself.  The dying King promised to pass on his title and his daughter (in marriage) and all his possessions to the man who killed Maleficent, who he deemed his arch rival.  Stefan came to Maleficent, wooing her with their love of old, and in an act of unthinkable betrayal cut off her wings.  The King took them as proof she was dead and, true to his word, gave Stefan title, kingdom and princess wife.

Maleficent’s betrayed heart became bitter and full of hate.  When the king had a baby, Aurora, Maleficent cursed her to eternal sleep at her sixteenth birthday.  The king begged for mercy and so Maleficent appeared to relent.  She offered an ironic caveat—the spell could be broken by True Love’s Kiss.  It wasn’t an out or a provision though.  Maleficent cursed her that way so that there could be no fix, no breaking of the spell because Stefan had shown her that “true love” was nothing but a manipulative myth.  With that caveat she effectively gave her former love the middle finger.

(Spoiler Alert!!!)  The three “good” fairies took Aurora to the forest to raise her and hide her from harm, but they were inept caretakers.  Maleficent watched from the shadows and saved Aurora’s life on countless occasions, her heart slowly but surely warming to the “little beastie” through the years.  In the end, True Love’s Kiss did save Aurora, but it wasn’t Romantic Love’s Kiss; it was a kiss from Maleficent.  The evil King stayed hardened, jealous and greedy and died, leaving Aurora to lead his kingdom.  She and Maleficent finally were able to bring peace to the two realms through their love for each other and wisdom and peace.

So that’s the main idea.  It’s a great story and has some very positive messages, like: True love happens in many forms, not just romantic; women are empowered and shown as capable, wise, loving rulers; forgiveness also gets front stage as Aurora has to forgive Maleficent for cursing her as a baby.  There are some other messages that are also good and true, but a little darker like:  some people will use love (romantic or otherwise) to manipulate and hurt you; mankind is often poisoned with greed and jealousy; sometimes you will be betrayed, and you will struggle to keep from becoming bitter; letting bitterness motivate you to revenge is never a good idea; cursing someone else always backfires; etc.  Though dark, those messages aren’t necessarily bad to hear.  There is a place for the cautionary tale just as much as there is for the story of hope.

My caution is that there are also some implied messages that are simply bitter and one-sided.  The underlying message about romantic love is that there is no true romantic love.  The only romantic love that is shown is a hideous betrayal and a lie.  Had Maleficent’s experience with Stefan been juxtaposed with another romantic love story that rang true (i.e. that didn’t fail), the message would have been that there is real love, but there are also counterfeits, so beware[2].  As it stands though, it would be easy to take away from the movie that any “true love” romance would turn out as Maleficent’s did, and that none can be trusted—that true romantic love is nothing but a myth.

Actually, more specifically, it wasn’t Maleficent that failed at true, romantic love, it was Stefan, the greedy man.  And this is the stronger point, I’m afraid—that it’s men that can’t be trusted.  The movie doesn’t just exalt women, it subtly (at best) bashes men.  Again, I agree that some men are greedy and manipulative and cannot be trusted, just as some women are greedy and manipulative and cannot be trusted.  But in Maleficent, it’s not just some, it’s all.  There is no good male counter part to King Stefan’s  bad.  His counter part is Maleficent.  She comes from a wonderful, magical kingdom where there is no need for a ruler because everyone trusts each other.  He comes from the greedy, warring world of men where they need a sovereign to guide them.  His kingdom is jealous of hers.  Her love was true, his was a lie.  He remained evil to the end; she found restoration through the love of another female, his daughter (but having a daughter did nothing to change his heart).

The two kingdoms finally find peace through women.  The greedy kingdom of man finds contentment through Aurora’s leadership.  Sure, there is the potential suitor, Prince Phillip, but he is in the background and unnecessary.  Not to mention, there is no proof yet as to whether or not he will turn out to be like Stefan.  The only other male figure in the movie who isn’t evil is the crow turned man (off and on) by Maleficent.  He’s a good figure in many ways, but he’s her servant, not her equal.

I understand that Maleficent’s story is a real one in many ways.  I know many women who have had similar tales of hurt and betrayal, where a man the loved and trusted failed them horribly, lied, hurt, manipulated and used them for one purpose or another.  I also understand that Aurora’s story is a real one for many girls who also have an absentee father who abandoned them.  Actually, Stefan, Aurora and Maleficent all have that pain in common—not one of them had a father figure in their lives.  But just because the story is a real one and a common one, doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

There are also fathers who are wonderful and loving, who are present and engaged and attentive.  There are men who are not motivated by greed and selfishness.  There are men who remain faithful to true love and fight for it, and for the women they pledge it to.

I’m concerned about the prevalence of these feminist, anti-male messages.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be honest that sometimes things go wrong.  I’m not saying we should only portray rosy, idealistic scenarios.  But I think it’s better when both sides of the story are presented side by side.  When we see only one side of the story, if we aren’t careful, we can become jaded and let it seep into our souls.  What if you’ve already felt betrayed by love?  You’re all the more ready to accept Maleficent’s experience as the defining reality…because it’s been yours, so far…especially if no other alternative reality or counter-balance perspective is presented.

I’m also concerned about how this affects our theology.   The underlying message was Maleficent had to work her own salvation because there was no one else to trust.  There was no one who was willing to fight for her.  This may be true for us in the natural, but it isn’t true in the supernatural.  God wants to be our rescuer, our deliverer, our savior.    He does fight for us.  He fought Satan to the death for us, and then defeated death and sin and Satan as he rose again.  We need to be reminded that we are not alone and that we need not and can not work our own salvation.  God is our ever present help in time of trouble, and his love never fails.  No matter who may have failed you on this earth, don’t let your heart become bitter for there is one who never fails and whose love never ends.

Maleficent Movie Discussion (connecting the movie to spiritual themes).

Quotes from Maleficent

A few related articles you don’t want to miss / Movies with similar themes: 

[1] I have heard some interesting talks about the difference between the mentality of an orphan and the mentality of a son/daughter.  The orphan mentality is pervasive in Stefan.  He doesn’t feel loved for who he is as a son/daughter would.  He feels he has to earn his acceptance, which leads to fear, insecurity, guilt, anxiety, jealousy and competition, etc.

[2] Or, if Aurora had been awakened by a kiss from a romantic suitor, we would see that same message—true love exists, but so do counterfeits.  Of course, that would negate the message that true love comes in various forms, not all of them romantic.  Which message is fine, as long as it doesn’t imply that true love exists, but only in forms that are not romantic.

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