How frustrating it is when a movie almost hits the target, but misses by just a little. I went to see “Maleficent” expecting the latest entry in the recent trend in books, movies, and television shows to redeem the wicked witch and tell her side of the story (“Wicked,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Frozen,” etc.). And the movie does try to do that for the villainess of the Sleeping Beauty story. But in the end, it doesn’t quite pull it off, because it focuses on only one half of the problem.
Most human cultures, especially in the west, have a polarized view of the feminine. Women are either pure and good and innocent, or they are sexual, evil, and scheming. The roots of this attitude are many and extend far back into human history. To trace just one root in brief: Plato argued that abstract thought, that ideas alone are “real” and physical experiences are delusions, while Aristotle taught that the masculine alone held the creative power and that women and the earth were merely passive vessels to hold and nurture what God and man chose to place in them. For these and other reasons, women became associated with earthiness and irrationality, while men got the sky and reason. The divorce between thought and being was paralleled by a divorce between the masculine and the feminine. The Catholic Church incorporated these attitudes into the religion of a Sky Father who creates and directs the universe, while women came to be seen as agents of the underground Devil who tempt men to sin. Together, these ideas not only caused humans to move away from a sensual connection to the earth, but also to devalue and become suspicious of the feminine. It also allowed men to project their own shadow sides, their own emotional, irrational, and sexual feelings, onto women and then to blame women for “making” them have those feelings.
“Maleficent” recognizes this split. The realm of the fairies, the Moors, represents the fecund Earth and is filled with impossible (irrational) beings. Maleficent, as the most powerful of these beings, is also the defender of the realm—of the feminine. The world of Men, both in the sense of race and of gender, is represented by a castle, a structure imposed upon the land and built with the primary purpose of defense against attack. A castle assumes there will be war, and when war does not come to it, the men within create one by riding out to attack the Moors and conquer it. Maleficent repels them, but this only enrages the king, who promises to leave his crown to anyone who can defeat her.
A young man named Stefan accepts this challenge. Stefan has already penetrated into the Moors, and instead of being killed, charmed Maleficent into letting him visit again and again. Like many innocent young girls, she wants to believe that the boy who says he loves and respects her is telling the truth. She has not yet developed what Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls “the hooded eyes of the watchful” that women need to be aware of potential danger. Stefan uses her trust to, essentially, date-rape her: he slips her a drug that makes her sleep and, while she is unconscious, cuts off the wings that allow her to fly free. It is this act that turns Maleficent into an “evil” character, bent—just as the king is—on revenge and domination at all costs. In other words, she’s evil because she’s become just like him. She takes on the king’s shadow for him, and brings it home: walking into the castle, she curses his infant daughter to die on her sixteenth birthday.
Where the film falls down is in the character of Stefan’s daughter, Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty. Aurora is presented as the polar opposite of Maleficent. Maleficent is tall, dark, powerful, and ruled by suspicion and anger. Aurora is small, blonde, innocent, and loves everyone and everything she sees. And this, we are told, makes everyone love her. The implicit message in the story has always been that girls have to be like Aurora to be loved, to be sweet and kind and entirely dependent upon the goodwill of others.
The sweet and silly fairies who hide Aurora away from Maleficent’s curse have no idea how to raise a baby. (They have not had sex and traveled the dangerous road of pregnancy and childbirth, so they are still children themselves.) Aurora only survives because Maleficent—who wants her to live long enough to suffer the curse—uses magic to take care of her. The dark and powerful feminine rescues the innocent sweet feminine. In time, Maleficent comes to re-integrate her own loving, innocent nature that Stefan took from her. Once she has done this, her kiss breaks the curse. Instead of killing her own “good” side forever, Maleficent is able to breathe new life into it.
But that should have been only half the story. For this film to work, Aurora herself needed to discover her disowned side, her own power. Both halves of the polarized feminine need to be healed by integrating the qualities of the other.
The television series “Once Upon a Time” gets it. While Regina, the Evil Stepmother/witch, learns how to embrace her softer, loving, “good,” side, Snow White gets a bit tarnished and finds herself capable of evil behavior. Eventually, the two women combine their talents and work together to save Henry, Regina’s adopted son who is also Snow White’s grandson (which makes Snow White Regina’s stepmother, in a way, just as Regina is hers–redeeming yet another “evil” archetype).
Aurora, although she helps Maleficent in the final battle by restoring her wings, remains unspotted and pure to the end of the movie. She’s even denied sex: the handsome prince Phillip who shows up late in the movie turns out to be no more than a red herring, with no actual role to play: like Stefan, his love is not true love. So Aurora never changes. It would have worked for me if Maleficent and Aurora had ended up co-ruling both realms, but when Maleficent names Aurora as her replacement as Queen of the Moors, I couldn’t help but think we’d just gone full circle: Stefan’s daughter, like her father before her, has tricked Maleficent into bestowing her favor on someone who does not deserve it.