Warning: Lots of Maleficent spoilers ahead.
Not since I Spit on Your Grave have I seen such an intrepid and compelling rape-revenge film.
I am talking, of course, about Disney’s Maleficent, the latest in a long line of revisionist fairy-tale epics to hit theaters in the last few years, though this might be the first one that I actually found personally inspiring. And it goes further in its exploration of sexual assault than any mainstream fantasy film might dare.
Maleficent presents the “untold” backstory of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty villain, portraying the dark fairy in her youth as a winged protector of a colorful, enchanted forest kingdom inhabited by a number of magical creatures. She is fierce and loyal to her homeland, relying on her magnificent wings not only as weapons for defense against invading armies, but as boons to surveil her personal paradise. They aren’t just instruments: they are a part of who she is and how she lives.
In a pivotal moment early in the film, Maleficent is raped. The rape is not via a sex act, though to be fair, rape is never about sex at all: it’s about power. And power, in this case, will literally be bestowed on anyone in the neighboring kingdom who can provide the crown with Maleficent’s corpse. After years of silence, her long-lost human love Stefan (Sharlto Copley) returns to her and they share the twilight together in the glow of wistful reunion. Maleficent suddenly slips into sleep; your stomach drops as you realize Stefan has drugged her drink. Your heart stops when you understand he intends to sever her wings.
Many commenters have debated whether this film is about rape at all and whether that subject matter, even veiled, is appropriate for young audiences. Others have reminded us that the filmmakers are putting the subtext of the original story back where it belongs.
Instead of shying away from the connection, Angelina Jolie has thankfully seized the opportunity to be honest about her intent: “We were very conscious, the writer [Linda Woolverton] and I, that it was a metaphor for rape,” Jolie said in an interview with BBC Woman’s Hour. The actress, an advocate for women’s issues around the world, recently spoke at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, commenting on the struggles of rape survivors in countries torn apart by war. Jolie knew what she was doing with this role: she was shining a light on the diverse emotional difficulties of women who are attacked, injured, and humiliated when they are most vulnerable.
But this is no Lifetime movie-of-the-week. Beautifully, it embraces its own darkness. Too often, rape on screen is at best denied and at worst, made to seem arousing. Stefan doesn’t wrestle with Maleficent or “take her by force,” the typical image we’ve come to associate with rape. (He may exploit her body, but the camera does not.) Nor does she change her mind in the middle, or consent and then regret it later. She is unconscious. Period. And when Maleficent awakes, Stefan gone and with him something so deeply ingrained in her identity, she cries out in physical and emotional agony for nearly a minute. It is brutal to witness.
But it is important to watch her pain, to see her suffering and how it manifests into the blackness she shrouds around her kingdom and her own body. She doesn’t cower, but instead chooses rage. Maleficent is not ashamed; she’s ready to inflict pain. Real-life survivors have many ways of coping with sexual assault, but there is something deeply gratifying about seeing a movie star, larger-than-life on the big screen, don a decadent black cape to confront the man who has stripped her of a piece of herself and simply fuck his shit up. It’s commonly brought up in feminist discourse that women are socialized to modulate our personalities to appear “pleasant” or “nice” and certainly undemanding. When Maleficent walks in her own anger, it is powerful to behold.
What makes this film truly audacious, however, is not its portrayal of Maleficent’s wrath or cynicism, but how it pushes the rape symbolism to include an aspect of sexual assault that is often ignored, denied, or papered over: pregnancy. Maleficent does not physically give birth to Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, but the girl is still a child of rape. When Stefan slices off our heroine’s wings and presents them to his king, he is given the hand of the royal princess and secures his place as next in line for the throne. Without Maleficent’s wings, he never would have been able to marry the royal woman. There is no Aurora had her father not violated the woman he claimed to love. There is no Aurora without Maleficent.
When Maleficent barges into the infant’s christening and curses her to eternal sleep upon the prick of her finger, she has no intention of true love’s kiss returning the girl to consciousness; she doesn’t believe in true love now that the illusion has hurt her. Yet she remains drawn to the child, even after three squabbling pixies whisk Aurora away to the woods for her own safety. Maleficent is fueled by her hatred, calling her “beastie.” She is fearful of her, disgusted by her. But even against her own rational judgment, she slowly begins to protect the child as she watches her from afar, using her magic to keep the curious little girl from harm. The audience begins to understand this is not just a story about revenge, but about the complicated mother-child relationship that can arise from violence.
Later, Aurora finds her “fairy godmother” and Maleficent is entranced by her metaphorical daughter and consumed by the guilt of cursing her all those year ago. It would be easy to dismiss the film as sentimental by the time Maleficent discovers that only she can provide the “true love’s kiss” of her own doing, even politically conservative for seemingly suggesting the birth of a child from rape could be rewarding. But that would be diminishing the beauty and power of that moment and of this rare mother-daughter action film.
I loved Maleficent because we need images of women’s sexual trauma and anger, not for the sake of fetishism or torture porn or sexual thrill, but to show that there is just as much pain in “invisible” violence as there is in the assault narrative we normally see portrayed. We need them to fuel activism and to strengthen the voices of those who are hesitant to reveal their experiences. Maleficent is loud and proud and making hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Frozen, ostensibly about the dangers of suppressing your feelings and personality for the sake of others, is now the fifth highest grossing film of all time. These movies are making money. People are responding.
Robyn Bahr is a writer and humorist who lives in Cambridge, MA. She tweets @RobynBahr about television, pop culture, and fat politics.