Category Archives: pop culture

Maleficent and Feminism [Spoilers]

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The story of Sleeping Beauty has come a long way from the Middles Ages and Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie is its newest incarnation.  Disney takes the ‘Wicked’ route in re-imagining the deliciously bad Maleficent as a misunderstood woman that has reasons for doing what she does.  Maleficent is no longer an evil witch that delivers a murderous curse for the crime of being snubbed.  Sleeping Beauty was my favorite animated movie when I was a little girl and I went to the theater out of childhood nostalgia.  I was not expected such feminist themes from a children’s movie and was pleasantly surprised if not a little shocked.

Though I shouldn’t have been.  I was just reading an interesting article by The Belle Jar about how fairy tales are, at their core, women’s tales.  They were passed orally while women did time consuming tasks such as spinning wool or sewing.  Sleeping Beauty is centuries old, and the original is not only sexist but downright horrible and disturbing.  The earliest versions of the story (the Italian “Sun, Moon, and Talia” by Giambattista)  is not about love, but about rape.  The Princess is not awakened by “true love’s kiss”, or by a kiss at all. The original Princess is asleep from a prophecy, not a curse.  While asleep a King is taken over by lust by and rapes her unconscious body.  She becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins, still unconscious.  When her baby sucks the flax off her fingers she is awakened to find  herself a Mother of the King’s bastards.

Later versions have turned this into a metaphor for a young girl’s sexual awakening.  A sleeping girl is “brought to life” by a physical act and starts to live her life. Symbolism 101.  Although this is softened by alleged “true love” it still retains the creepiness factor of the original because the Princess is asleep and obviously unable to give consent.  Disney then takes these stories and adapted it to the 1959 version that is the most widely known version in the modern cultural zeitgeist.

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Maleficent is a direct retelling of the 1959 version and while it could be described as a radical interpretation of the text it does not “cheat”, which I appreciate.  The species of the original Maleficent are unclear.  According to different sources she’s a witch, a sorceress, a fairy, or a demon.  The original Disney animator modeled her look after a vampire.  The Disney Origins Podcast postulates that she’s a campion, a half demon/half human that is the result of a union between a succubus and a man.  2014’s  Maleficent is very clear.  Maleficent is a fairy.  A large fairy with sweeping wings that is one of the more magical creatures in her realm.  The realm of magic and the realm of men are divided, and as Maleficent grows in power she is posted as a guardian to her realm.

One day Maleficent meets a human boy and the two become friends and later sweethearts as teenagers.  As they become adults Stefan becomes more ambitious and politically motivated, Maleficent is one of the strongest fairies and guards her realm jealously.  They grow apart and lead separate lives as happens with so many high school romances.  The current King tries to invade Maleficent’s land for it’s riches.  After a skirmish where Maleficent defeats his troops a bounty is put on Maleficent.  The prize? Her death in trade for being named the King’s successor.  Although Stefan hesitates he can’t resist.

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[Trigger Warning]  Malificent goes into the woods with a man that she trusts and they talk through the night.  Stefan drugs her drink and Maleficent falls unconscious.  She wakes up to the realization that Stefan has betrayed her and cut off her wings.  As Christiphor Orr at The Atlantic says:

The scene of Angelina Jolie shrieking as she regains consciousness:  betrayed, defiled, mutilated, her most wondrous gift torn from her.

Although it obviously isn’t said in a kids movie, the connotations are perfectly clear: Maleficent has been raped.  When she wakes in agony the camera holds on Jolie for a painfully long time and is the most emotionally affecting scene in the movie.  Not only has Stefan betrayed and physically hurt her, he stole her power and ability to fly.

Time passes, Stefan is King, and Maleficent curses his newborn daughter.  Though her wings are gone she still has her magic, and is easily the most powerful being in the Kingdom. What happens next is a change in the movie.  Maleficent watches Aurora from afar and comes to love the girl.  She shares the same love of nature and she reminds Maleficent of her younger, more innocent self.  A mother/daughter bond is formed and Maleficent mourns and wishes to retract her unbreakable curse.

Later, although Aurora and the Prince are attracted to each other, his kiss is not enough to wake her.  Cribbing Disney’s own Frozen released last year, it is Maleficent’s kiss that is that of true love.  It is lovely and symbolic in the power of female love and friendships.  Aurora awakens, Maleficent defeats Stefan, and Aurora and Maleficent live happily ever after.  She regains her wings, her power, and true love reigns.

Do I recommend Maleficent as a movie? Well, no.  It’s too full of CGI.  The dialogue is too clumsily written.  The fairies are too annoying.  The King is too crazy.  It’s bloated and runs too long.  And yet….it contains some very powerful scenes and pockets of emotional resonance.  I found it interesting to explore the feminist scenes and am not sorry I watched it.  Angelina Jolie reminds us why she is one of the few certifiable “movie stars” that exist in modern society.  She is just mesmerizing to watch no matter what the role.

You can find me as Lindseykal28 on Twitter

This has been re-posted on my Movie Review blog

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Feminism and Orphan Black

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Straight up? If you are a science fiction fan and aren’t watching the new BBC America show, you’re missing out.  It is not only one of the freshest and well-crafted sci-fi shows I’ve seen in years, it is also surprisingly one of the most feminist.

(Minor spoilers ahead)  For the uninitiated, the pilot starts out with Sarah, (played by the ridiculously talented Tatiana Maslany.)  Sarah is a pretty but hardened petty criminal waiting for a late night subway train.  She witnesses a suicide, and is shocked and confused to find that the dead girl is her doppelganger.

Being the anti-hero opportunist that she is, Sarah’s first instinct is to try to take this affluent, dead look-alike’s identity in order to drain her bank account.  Through a series of twists and turns Sarah realizes that she is in fact a clone, made for reasons not given yet.  There are in fact a dozen or so of “her”, some friends, some foes, all made of the same genetic material.

The show has just debuted its second season, and more pratfalls and twists await.  Although I watch the show for the cleverness of the plots and the well crafted acting, it also employs some interesting feminist aspects that adds to my enjoyment.

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1.)   The Privilege Aspect –  Orphan Black  raises several thought provoking undertones about the aspects of sociology.  All the clones are beautiful, intelligent, and have impulsive tendencies.  But how they were raised morphs all of them into distinctly different personalities that raises questions about classism and internalized self respect.

There’s Allison, the tightly wound frustrated housewife.  Beth, the straight laced detective that solves crimes and upholds the law.  Cosima, the brilliant scientist grad student.  Last, there’s poor damaged Helena, so abused she is unable to function normally in society.

Theoretically they all have the brain power to obtain a PhD like Cosima, but she is the only one encouraged to take the academic route.  Sarah for instance uses her smarts as a low level grifter and scam artist.  As a woman raised in the foster system, she did not really have the temperament toward authority nor the opportunity to foster the traditional education route.

2.)Representation of GLBT Characters – Orphan Black has gay characters that don’t feel perfunctory or tokens.  There’s Felix, Sarah’s brother from foster care.  Felix is not only openly gay but he is a sometimes sex worker.  Sarah does not shame him or views him as less than for what he does for a living.  This is only one aspect of him as a young man and doesn’t define his role on the show.  Sarah and Felix alternate between love and frustration, a familiar dynamic to any sibling.  Felix is often funny, (and downright hysterical when paired with Soccer-Mom Allison) but his sexuality is never the butt of the joke.

 Cosima, the grad-school hipster clone mentioned above, is a lesbian.  This is never shown on screen to be a source of shame or pride, it’s just who she is.  Cosima’s lesbianism is never fetishized or unnecessarily focused upon as the main aspect of her character.  In short, she’s seen as a human being first, as most straight characters have been since TV began.

3.)    Female dominated cast. – Orphan Black passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.  The women are constantly interacting, at odds with, and supporting one another.  They rarely talk about their romantic relationships, there’s much more important things to do!  In fact, this show is almost a reversal on the Bechdel test.  Paul, Sarah’s love interest, is defined by Sarah.  Most of his conversations, actions, and motivations are based around his relationship.  It’s a flip on the standard formula and interesting to watch.

 4.)Bodily autonomy – I saved the most important for last.  The most striking symbolic theme for Sarah is an attempted control and ownership of her body by outside forces more powerful than she is.   She beats on ceaselessly against these forces, a boat against the current.  Spurred on by the soul deep belief that this is my body and it belongs to me.  You can’t get much more feminist than that.

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