Guest blog: Maleficent Maternity

by Shaun Manning on October 14, 2014

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The following essay was written by Natasha Saje, whose Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, was published by the University of Michigan Press in August.

I don’t expect feminism from Disney, but The New York Times and Salon praised the film Maleficent as “a new kind of story” and “subversive.”  In fact, however, this Sleeping Beauty tale merely replaces the jealous older woman with another stereotype, the selfless mother. And that stereotype is so engrained in U.S. culture, even prominent film reviewers don’t see it.

Maleficent, “strongest of the fairies,” is played by Angelina Jolie. In what is symbolically a date rape, Maleficent loses her power to fly: her human lover drugs her, and then, in a violent rite of passage that makes him king, he cuts off her wings. The negative aspect of Maleficent’s name—”making ill-will” in Latin —isn’t referenced until she curses the baby Aurora born to the king.

In an interview, Jolie said, “What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?” The question, of course, assumes women are born maternal and soft, and so the plot must turn Aurora into Maleficent’s child. The film can’t have a heroine who doesn’t want children, even though (or because) such women are increasing in the U.S.: 47.1 per cent of women of childbearing age in 2010 don’t have children, a figure up from 35 per cent in 1976.

“You stole my heart,” Maleficent tells the sleeping Aurora, after risking her life for her.  Maleficent’s kiss removes the curse, although the film ends, predictably, with a prince to marry Aurora.

Examining 19th century sentimental U.S. culture, historian Ann Douglas points out that women were expected to sacrifice themselves for others.  Yet sentimentality “always borders on dishonesty,” Douglas says. Images of Maleficent and Aurora make us cry, tears that make us feel that something has been accomplished. But the problems of women and children remain, and they require real solutions—a year of maternity leave, affordable day care, or public schools financed on the federal level.

Maleficent reinforces a myth of female selflessness that is, in its own way, as constricting as the myth of female selfishness.  By not permitting Maleficent to repossess herself after her rape, by sublimating her rage into maternal love, the film in effect tells women “don’t be angry,” no matter how they have been violated. It tells them that ill will is unbecoming in women, never mind that in men it’s the vengeance driving them into heroism. Far from vengeful, Maleficent reinforces the Christian ethos of forgiveness.  And while the pixies complain about having given their best years to the care of Aurora, Maleficent knows that raising the child has given her own life meaning.

The moral is that women can’t escape expectations of motherhood even if they don’t have, don’t want, or don’t like children. Maleficent’s focus on maternity distracts from the question that every human being must try to answer: Why am I here? It’s a question that Disney still won’t let women ask.

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