Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘Maleficent’: A sea-change in popular culture

Maleficent (Disney 2014; directed by Robert Stromberg) is a magnificent film, and it almost seems more than fortuitous that the eponymous, powerful faerie is not called Malevolent, but bears a name that rhymes with “magnificent”. Judging by this recent re-imagining of the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, which was rendered in its classic Disney animated movie format in 1959, we are on the cusp of a far-reaching sea-change in our “cultural unconscious”, as it were, as far as imagining gender and its relation to nature, power, and “others” are concerned.

Films, like all artworks, whether popular or “serious art” (so-called “high art”), are important signs — perhaps even “symptoms” — of developments within a culture that are not immediately apparent, but happen at a subliminal level. In ancient times, this was true of myths too, as Leonard Shain has argued in The Alphabet and the Goddess (Penguin Arkana 1998). Shlain points out that through myths one can gauge the time when a woman-centred, socially egalitarian time passed over to a preponderantly male-centred, patriarchal era. So, for example, the Akkadian myth relating the murder of the great earth goddess Tiamat by the upstart god Marduk dating from the late third millennium (Shlain 1998: 49) marks the transition in Akkadian society from a woman-centred society and culture to a patriarchal, misogynistic society and culture. Similar myths can be found in other ancient societies.

It is not only myth, however, that registers such fundamental modifications in the collective cultural unconscious. Films, novels, sculpture and architecture do as well. Maleficent is a case in point, and to my mind a very significant one at that. Recall, for instance, that in the original fairytale and Disney’s 1959 account of it, Maleficent was the antagonist whose curse on the baby princess resulted in her falling into a deep sleep until a handsome young prince awakened her from her long sleep with a kiss. In the 2014 version this is fundamentally different.

It is not enough to point out, as one review does, that the fairy story is retold from the perspective of the antagonist, that is, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) the Faerie of the moors, although it seems plausible. It is much more than that. Not only does the young prince fail to awaken Aurora with his kiss, but it is Maleficent, the supposedly evil sorceress who originally cast the spell, who succeeds in doing so.

Why is this so significant, you may wonder, and I would argue significant far beyond the mere attempt to infuse new life into the Disney movie factory. It represents a reconceptualisation, and re-evaluation, of the notion of femininity in relation to several other concepts, the most obvious of which is the traditional association of women with witchcraft and “black” magic (I can just imagine what ideologically blinded religious groups would think of this film). In Maleficent the power of women is indeed emphasised, but in its intertwinement with a totally different set of salutary values instead of insalubrious, destructive ones.

To understand the full extent of what is going on in the cultural landscape as reflected in the iconography of this remarkable movie, one has to take several things into consideration. First, the faerie Maleficent is depicted from the beginning as a wholesome character who is kind to the creatures of the forest and the moors, and who exults in her power to fly and play with the birds and winds. She is also not averse to falling in love with a human peasant boy called Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who, driven by a burning ambition to be king, betrays her as well as his own love for her by burning off her wings with iron (which faeries succumb to) and presenting them to the king as proof that he has killed her.

The king previously announced that any man who killed Maleficent, would succeed him as king — a promise resulting from Maleficent and the creatures of the moors defeating the king’s army when he attempts to conquer the moors. This intended conquest of the king is a fitting metaphor, by the way, for western culture’s attempt to conquer nature, so accurately formulated in Descartes’ description (in his Discourse on Method of 1637) of a future science that would render humankind “masters and possessors of nature”. This attempt, aided by modern technology, cannot ever succeed, given the imponderable forces of nature, but sadly it has inflicted immeasurable harm upon nature already.

It is because of Stefan’s cruel betrayal that Maleficent pronounces the curse over the princess, Aurora, and not out of inherent evil. Keeping in mind that Maleficent represents nature herself — embodied in her horns and her wings — her retaliation is simultaneously a warning to Stefan, who has become king, not to challenge nature any further.

Equally important is the fact that the film shows Maleficent as having her home under a tree overlooking the moors, and not in a building of any kind, while the castle in the distance represents human culture as something removed, if not alienated, from her natural domain. Castles, like other cultural artefacts, are quintessentially human creations, but one should never forget that even those who live in fortified castles would sever their bond with nature only at their own peril. Water and food come from nature; without them there is no human society.

Just how fundamental the film’s implicit transformation of the faerie’s (and therefore of nature’s) role and meaning is, becomes clear in the light of Maleficent’s gradual change from someone who saw in princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) an instrument to punish Stefan to one who genuinely learns to care for her as a mother does. Stefan sends Aurora to three pixies to look after her until after her fateful 16 birthday, and Maleficent steps into the breach of the pixies’ neglect of Aurora’s upbringing by watching over her from afar.

Tellingly, upon meeting Maleficent when she is 15, Aurora refers to her as her “faerie godmother”, given her awareness of Maleficent’s watchful, albeit distant, presence in her life. The narrative therefore construes nature as the “faerie godmother” of humans, that is, someone who, although not always visibly present, protects one’s interests even in her absence. Isn’t that what nature is, or at least should be allowed to be by human beings, given their abuse of her for a number of centuries?

Perhaps the most meaningful event in the film narrative occurs in the wake of Aurora wandering into the dungeon where the remains of the spinning wheels (which were destroyed at the king’s orders) are kept, pricks her finger with a needle as the curse foretold, and falls into a deep sleep. This happens despite Maleficent’s unsuccessful attempts, upon realising that she has come to care for Aurora, to revoke her own dire curse over the princess. Recalling that only a kiss born of true love could undo the curse, she takes prince Phillip into the castle to kiss Aurora, but to no avail (presumably because, although they met earlier, they don’t know each other well enough yet to talk of love).

Regretfully Maleficent promises to watch over the sleeping princess, and kisses her forehead. The fact that this causes Aurora to awaken, has huge implications. In terms of the narrative it simply shows the true “motherly” love that Maleficent feels for her. But if one remembers that Maleficent represents the forces of nature, it further means that the film is a powerful reminder that nature can redeem a humanity that has fallen into a deep sleep as far as its relationship with nature goes. What is needed, though, is for humanity to register the salutary attributes of nature, which it has ignorantly relegated to the level of something to “control”, just as the king and later, Stefan, attempt to control (indeed, kill) Maleficent in the film.

In the final analysis Maleficent instantiates a gently powerful eco-feminist gesture — that is, it embodies the insight (articulated by Linda Woolverton, the scriptwriter, and of Stromberg, the director, but ultimately surpassing them) that the dominant patriarchal attitude to and practices involving nature should be recuperated by a caring, holistic feminine approach. Only this will bring the two realms, nature and human culture, together again, as it happens in the film, Maleficent.

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