Maleficent – Revisionist Fairy Tale Motherhood

I realized that we Book Warriors hadn’t yet done a review of Maleficent, Disney’s newest Sleeping Beauty retelling from the perspective of the antagonist – Maleficent.  Now, Sleeping Beauty was always one of my favourite movies as a little girl. I remember arguing fervently with my little sister that the blue dress was way prettier than the pink one (how subversive, I know!). As such, I wasn’t really eager to watch Maleficent. Often I find myself disappointed with adaptations and remakes, and honestly, I’m kind of ready for the movie industry to start creating films out of more original  screenplays for teens and kids – but that’s a different blog post altogether I think. But it is retelling month and I managed to get a copy of Maleficent from my library so here we go.

First, the Grimms tale doesn’t really make much of anything. A queen is visited by a frog and afterwards she is pregnant and gives birth to a little girl. Fairies bestow gifts, the 13th fairy (having not been invited) curses the girl, the 12th fairy changes “death” to “100 year sleep”. The 100 years pass and on the day that she is meant to wake up anyway, a prince comes and kisses her, she wakes up, goes downstairs and then they get marries, happily ever after! I know there are very different versions of the story out there (if there weren’t, what would be the fun in retelling month?) but the one thing about this origin story that stands out is the desire to be a mother.

Often in fairy tales we see cruel mothers (the Grimms often changed mothers to step-mothers because natural mothers should not be seen as so cruel, and that’s where the step-mother thing comes from), absent mothers or dead mothers. In this tale the only little bit of motherliness that we get is that the queen wants to be a mom and then they all go to sleep and when they wake up it’s Briar Rose’s turn to get married and have children – it seems that having children and being a mother is all women have to live for in the Grimm’s patriarchal world. I mean, men only live to find a pretty girl and get them pregnant – and be king, so it’s not much better on that gender role either, but we’re dealing with mothers here.

Upon watching Maleficent I was just a little baffled. I’d heard some good things, most of which dealt with Disney redeeming older women and empowering girls. But to me, they seemed to have missed the point…

First, let me summarize/review the film for you (SPOILERS).

Maleficent-Jolie

In this version, Maleficent is a beautiful and peaceful fairy who guards the fairy forest – she is also the most human looking and therefore most viable for romance on the big screen but we’ll just overlook that. This part, I really liked. Here in the forest Maleficent was a kind of Gaia figure, nurturing, playful and protective of the natural habitat of fairy and woodland creatures keeping it safe from the greedy hands of mankind. However, very soon she befriends and then falls in love with a human boy named Stefan who she catches trying to steal from the forest. The love is childish though and before long Stefan stops visiting and life goes on – Maleficent quite content to stay in her forest and protect it. However, Stefan does eventually return and when he does he betrays her by drugging her and cutting off her wings in order to be named king. Maleficent, driven sort of mad by her need to avenge herself does curse the princess Aurora.

As Aurora grows up, in the forest watched over by three incompetent fairies, Maleficent takes on a nurturing role, making sure that Aurora is fed and eventually befriending and guiding her into the fairy woods and teaching her the fairy way of life. Maleficent regrets her curse but cannot take it back and so searches for a way to undo it, she discovers that Aurora has made friends with a young prince and hopes that perhaps his kiss will wake Aurora and no one will be harmed. When Aurora inevitably pricks her finger, Maleficent risks her life entering the castle with a comatose Prince Charming in toe but alas Prince Charming’s kiss is useless and Maleficent, who didn’t believe in true love in the first place, is crestfallen. Before leaving the chamber Maleficent kisses Aurora and lo and behold, Aurora wakes up at this demonstration of true love. A battle ensues which is very cinematic and fiery, the king is killed and everyone lives happily ever after – that is, Aurora takes the throne in her human kingdom but also remains close to Maleficent and the fairies, uniting the kingdoms (in a very motherly way…).

So, while I was pleased to see that the conventional focus on the romantic union between the princess and her prince was displaced, discarded and stomped upon, as seems to be the general movement of fairy tale retellings of late (Frozen, Brave and OUAT) what I was left with was this feeling that… now we have fairy tale women centrally defined by their roles and identities as mothers and daughters. Not only this, but the power these women have and how they are redeemed in their stories is now framed around their expressions of motherly love and devotion as proven by the “true love kiss” from mother, Maleficent, to daughter, Aurora.

Is this really a whole lot better than romantic love? More importantly, is this really redefining and empowering these female characters?

When we consider how little redemption is needed for modern male anti-heroes, like, say, Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Dexter, which has audiences identifying with these men with questionable morals (to put it lightly), an overwhelming desire to attain actualization of self through their inexhaustive hunger for power and control… Well it just diminishes the power of these women who are redeemed by motherhood (which is swell and all, but still a very firmly female good thing). A man need only succeed while a woman need only reproduce. This is an unacceptable binary.

Now, I don’t want to slag motherhood – as an expecting mother that would just be ludicrous – but Maleficent’s revision as Gaia, mother and deliverer of true love’s kiss merely seems to be a way for Disney to market to their changing audience. To test the waters… I mean Brave worked, so let’s try this angle, right? Well, for me, much of the potential complexity that I saw in Maleficent at the beginning of the film as natural caretaker and as not heartbroken when Stefan stopped visiting was torn away as she merely became villainous because of heterosexual love and her return to power only came when she accepted her role as mother once more. And this isn’t really much of a revision of the original tale. The women, with traditionally feminine characteristics and virtues can now live happily ever after – and oh look, Aurora’s Prince Charming gets a little spotlight at the end, promising that the inevitable heterosexual marriage won’t have to wait long.

I think the danger here is that this sort of courageous romantic motherhood is what the new generation of young girls will grow up watching. Is motherhood really the only path to agency viable in these tales?

I think that the boundaries of these retellings need to keep being pushed because they just aren’t at a place that offers a satisfying agentive solution for either male or female viewers – and they completely leave out the possibility of any other genders at all.

  • Yeah I was pretty disappointed by this too – I felt like it could have been so much more!

  • Yash

    I so agree with your post. To me, Maleficent was almost more interesting in the original animated Sleeping Beauty … which is just disappointing as hell.

    • Yeah – I mean the original Sleeping Beauty had it’s faults but was more a product of it’s time, I suppose. Maleficent tried to tackle and issue and kind of made it worse…

  • I liked it, personally. I guess I can see where you can be dissapointed. I agree. But, it shouldn’t have anti-family messages either. That isn’t fair. A girl should save the kingdom. I do agree, but love isn’t all bad. But, still, I know I can be brave. They’re really just pushing it.