I Spit on Your Fairy Wings, and Your Little Dog, Too!: On MALEFICENT and Other Films

I Spit on Your Fairy Wings, and Your Little Dog, Too!: On MALEFICENT and Other Films

“The woman has
power if she’s a villain.” That’s what my college art professor told me once,
when we were discussing the Disney films we’d grown up with. If you were a
girl, or female-identifying, you were Team Ursula. Team Wicked Queen. Team
Maleficent. These villains resonate with girls like us, who’d grown up knowing
that they’d never be Prince Charming’s type; that all of creation, from the
beasts in the forest to the flowers in the field, would never sing of our
sweetness; that our parents would never be royalty.

The villainesses
offered a new paradigm: If you can’t be beloved, be angry. Reduce the king of
the seas to simpering plankton, poison an apple, will your body to turn into a
dragon’s. But closer reflection, as well as exposure to feminist texts and more
adult film fare, reveals that what may seem like delicious wickedness is, in
fact, not real power: It’s just bullying. These women get back at the kings
(and the kingdoms) that have cast them out and insulted them by attacking
innocent princesses, young girls who haven’t done them wrong. This isn’t real
vengeance; it’s just women sinking their talons into other women. And why?  Just because.

Maleficent,
which reimagines the Sleepy Beauty story from the vantage point of the woman
who cast the curse, embraces the beating black heart of the villain’s
appeal—only to sink its fangs into it. The movie is a Disneyfied exploitation
flick: Maleficent’s curse is her roaring rampage against Stefan, the man who,
once upon a time, promised her true love’s kiss before drugging her and
stripping off her wings, so he could appease a dying king, and be named his
successor. Maleficent roars, and she rampages, but she doesn’t get bloody
satisfaction until she comes to the unsettling truth that she’s deployed her
power against Stefan’s daughter, the innocent Aurora, instead of directly
attacking the man who actually wronged her (and the patriarchal will-to-power
that he represents). Maleficent (and the movie that bears her name) turns the
righteous wrath of the woman wronged from a knife’s edge to a tightrope: She
tiptoes along that fine line between between claiming justice and identifying
with her aggressors.

Take Ursula the
Sea Witch, who may rival Maleficent as the most beloved baddie in the magic
kingdom. Ursula once lived in the pearlescent splendor of The Little Mermaid’s aquatic kingdom, only to be cast out (for
reasons unknown) by King Triton; the circuitous route of her revenge—getting
him to sign his soul to her to save his daughter—is designed as a pile-driving,
pile-on of pain for the king. And yet to do this, she literally steals the
voice of another woman. Ariel’s only “crime” is being the wasp-waisted
embodiment of everything that Ursula is not, and Ursula’s grand revenge becomes
an attack on the pretty girl—which, given the dark potency of her spells, is a
waste; it reinforces, instead of breaking open, that tired binary of the
lovely, much-loved “homecoming queen” vs. the ugly outcast whose countenance
matches her soul.

We can shrug this
off as a fairy-tale, a genre where only the purest of the pure-hearted and the
blackest of the black-hearted get starring roles. However, it’s still deeply
problematic to see a powerful woman literally tower over our innocent
heroine—especially when so many women, particularly younger women, believe that
there is no place for them within feminism because they “like men” or wear
make-up or want to be a stay-at-home mom. They believe that feminism isn’t a
movement for equality, it’s a matter of us vs. them—and never, sadly, a matter
of us vs. the real enemy, the Stefans of the world, people who value having
power over respecting the dignity and autonomy of women everywhere.

The in-the-flesh
incarnation of Maleficent is able to get the revenge that eludes her cartoon
counterpart because she realizes that the casting of the curse makes her no
better than her former love. Stefan is the flattest character in the film, a
man defined only by what he wants the most: to be king. His bristling ambition
parallels her blazing rage: It allows him to steal the parts of her that
brought her to the heavens, just so he can wear the crown. It allows her to
condemn a laughing baby to a living death, just so she can hear the king beg.
But she doesn’t truly get the better of him, or at least bring about his richly
deserved end, until she’s reconciled with Aurora.

Aurora liberates
Maleficent’s wings from the glass case where Stefan has entombed them, and
Maleficent drags him out of his castle, lets him fall; in his last moments, he
watches her hover above him as the air rushes around his body, and he knows
what it means to desperately long for wings. Stefan’s death is more than just the extinguishing of an enemy; it’s
the end of an era. The film ends with Maleficent crowning Aurora as a queen
without a king: the arbiter of a new age of matriarchy.

Maleficent now
exists within the archetype of the woman warrior, the righter of wrongs, and
the avenger. This archetype wields her wand and sword, her pistol and Tiger
Crane Kung-Fu, and, above all, her wits, directly against her enemies. She is
Coffy, hiding razor blades in her hair; she is Beatrix Kiddo, crossing names
off her “Death List Five”; she is Arya Stark, whispering her own kill list as a
nightly prayer; she is Carrie, unleashing telekinetic Hell against the high
school sadists and the fundamentalist mother who’ve tormented her; she is
Mystique, the mutant revolutionary out to assassinate the political operatives
who oppress her kind. She is Katniss Everdeen, who must “remember who the real
enemy is” if she’s to escape the ceaseless spiral of violence and use her power
for a purpose. And she is Maleficent, who must learn that cruelty is simply
scratching an itch, not treating the wound that burns clear to the bone.  Every time the woman warrior flexes her
might, she’s defining who she is and who she wants to be: the
victim-turned-avenger, asserting her worth against those who tried to break
her—or the villain, just another abuser who thinks that making someone, anyone, pay, is the same as actual gain.

We see this
dilemma played out directly with two of the younger, though still ethically
complex, examples of the woman warrior archetype: Katniss Everdeen and Arya
Stark. In Catching Fire, when Katniss, who’s been stop-lossed back into
the arena, has a choice to shoot an arrow straight into another tribute’s
heart, or to take out the heart of the arena itself—and the Capitol that
created it—by aiming her bow at its force-field. She spares the tribute and
sends her arrow whistling toward her oppressors. Arya Stark won’t use her
quickness and cunning to help The Hound steal from a peasant farmer, but she
will spear her sword through the throat of the brigand who’d stolen it from her
years before and used it to murder one of the boys she’d been traveling with.
Arya stares down at the man, who gurgles blood and rasps for air, with an
impervious haughtiness. She parrots back the taunts he’d made as he’d stabbed
her friend; his words are the hammer-strikes sealing his coffin closed: He
brought this on himself the second he raised his blade against Arya and the
people she loves. This is even Steven. This would be about square.

The woman warrior
must choose what—and most significantly, who—merits her lethal gaze, and that
choice reveals everything about her values. Will her capacity for violence imitate
an arrow’s arc, striking with purpose and direction? Or is her rage an engine
revving in a parked car, ceaseless churning and pointless noise? Toward the end
of Maleficent, a now-grown Aurora remarks, “my kingdom wasn’t united by
a hero or a villain, but by one who was both.” Maleficent’s evolution shows how
simple it is to conflate the ability to bring devastation with the snap of her
fingers with actual power, the kind of power that empowers her to stand up for herself and everything she cares
about, that does more than just charge up the same dull machinery of abuse and
degradation. Maleficent must show this
evolution within the confines of a PG rating; however, films like the Kill Bill saga can sift through all the
grit and the spatter for a more nuanced understanding of vengeance, violence,
and the relationships between women who’ve gotten used to feeling of blood
under their nails.

Despite the Kill Bill movies’ joint titles, our
yellow-haired warrior takes the lion’s share of the narrative as she cuts down
her former teammates on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the women who
battered her swollen, pregnant body almost to the point of death after she
tries to leave the group, to become more than Bill’s woman, a woman who kills
for Bill. Beatrix’s impromptu retirement doesn’t actually hurt any of the DIVAS
(indeed, it allows Elle Driver to slip into her much-coveted role of Bill’s
best girl); they attack her at the behest of Bill. They’re a kung-fu coven of Ursulas:
lashing out because of, or in reaction to, some man.

But no matter how
savagely Beatrix and her former comrades battle, there is always a moment—“Just
between us girls …” or “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids”—that recalls the
intimacy they once had. Beatrix was one of them, and her arc toward autonomy is
a transition from deadly viper to righteous avenger. It’s fitting, then, that
the only DIVA who is given any substantive backstory is O-Ren, the character
whose origin tale functions as a parallel and an inverse of our heroine’s.
Beatrix recounts O-Ren’s revenge against Matsumoto, the yakuza boss who
murdered her parents when she’s at her own lowest point, freshly awakened from
her coma and willing her limbs out of atrophy. O-Ren’s story is rendered in
hyper-stylized anime and scored with a lean yet operatic mournfulness that
evokes the Fistful of Dollars trilogy,
vesting it with a mythic grandeur that does more than simply align the viewer’s
sympathies with her aim—it suggests that claiming her revenge is a vital, even
sacred task.

However, this
anime sequence ends with O-Ren delivering a round-house kick straight to
Beatrix’s pregnant belly, doing Bill’s bidding so he’ll back her Shakespearean
in magnitude quest to become the boss of all bosses of the Japanese yakuza. And
then we’re back to live-action, down to earth, and O-Ren is beheading
dissenters and letting her entourage bully the wait-staff of the bar she owns.
Her violence has no purpose, no passion; trafficking in mindless cruelty, she’s
more akin to Matsumoto than to the young girl who looks him in the eye and asks
if she looks like anyone he’s killed as she twists her sword into his gut. That
girl emerges again, however briefly, in that final fight with Beatrix; after
Beatrix draws first blood, O-Ren bows her head, says, “For insulting you
earlier, I apologize.” The sorrow in those six words shows that she can
remember the raw feeling of violation without recourse. The women rush each
other until O-Ren’s blood ribbons the snow: a single red spatter framed against
a pristine whiteness that suggests the purity of Beatrix’s mission.

Maleficent
shares a thematic kinship with Kill Bill
by suggesting that revenge really can be cathartic, and by having its heroine
find peace after vengeance through her bond with another woman: Maleficent has
Aurora, and Beatrix has B.B., her daughter. 
So it’s appropriate that Maleficent’s
final battle scene is set around another purifying force: fire. Dragon’s
breath surges over stone, leaps over the battlements as a re-winged Maleficent
takes flight with her nemesis, Stefan, clinging to her boot. It’s a grand
fuck-yeah moment, akin to Katniss delivering her quiver-full of a middle finger
to the Capitol and Arya scratching one name off her kill list, Coffy gunning down
her first drug dealer and Carrie turning a prom full of bullies into a taffeta
and sequined holocaust. But these are even more than fuck yeah moments—they’re
fuck yeah moments that show the self-affirming power of revenge. Their message
is written in blood and flame: I matter. I know who hurt me, and I’m going to
make them pay.

Laura Bogart’s work has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Manifest-Station,
The Nervous Breakdown, RogerEbert.com and JMWW Journal, among other
publications. She is currently at work on a novel.

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Comments

Andreas

Where is this glorification of violence going?
When this theme is realized with male roles, it is standard avenger pulp, something to distract the powerless, to give them (faked) catharsis, without risk, and without having to deal with the tricky morality of there being a stark deficit of actually bad (or good) people in the world, compared to
Isn't it the same in this made-by-men female version, too?

Bobbee

Love the article with one exception, the inclusion of Carrie. She killed indiscriminately, including people who had been good to her and those who had done nothing to her at all. I don't see her as a strong women who got self-affirming revenge. She was completely out of control, so pretty much the exact opposite of that.

Athena

Wow, what a brilliantly written article…Bogart, you knocked this out of the park. The last sentence gave me chills, will stay with me and that is a beautiful thing.

Karla

Laura! You rocked this article

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