Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Maleficent: How To Explain The Cycle of Abuse To Children

Maleficent is a lovely, sweet fairy tale film. It has a happy ending, phenomenal performances, a story that manages to be both original and close to the Disney Sleeping Beauty, and altogether it's a joy to watch. It is also, and I say this with no contradiction in my heart, a story about rape.

I know, right? How does that work?

I figured it out while I was watching the movie, sitting in a theater full of children and parents, the only lone adult there, wondering if maybe this movie was too childish for me or too adult for them, when I realized that it is both. And neither. You see, this is most definitely a kids' movie. It's about a fairy and it's full of magic and there are multiple mud fights and the whole thing is a bit silly sometimes. And it is also decidedly an adult film. The movie examines how the chain of abuse can poison relationships for generations, and how choices reverberate throughout our lives and the lives of those around us. It is both a perfectly acceptable movie for children, and a deep and emotional film for adults.

And it's wonderful and amazing and makes me so incredibly happy. Also, incidentally, it does something few films even think to attempt: it gives children a vocabulary with which to talk about feelings of violation and fear, without traumatizing them. That's pretty important.

How does the movie do that, though? Allow me to tell you. SPOILERS from here on.

The movie starts way back at the beginning beginning, when Maleficent was a little girl, the only faerie of her type left after a big war with the human kingdom neighboring the faerie realm left her family dead. Maleficent, despite all of this, is a lovely, inquisitive child. All the other faeries adore her. When a boy sneaks into the faerie realm one day, trying to steal some of their riches, she finds him and helps him leave, but not before he too becomes enamored with the sweet girl.

And she becomes infatuated with him, and so on. They have a cute kiddish romance, that becomes a sweet teenage romance, and eventually it dwindles into an adult affair. But now Stefan, the boy, (Sharlto Copley) is all grown up, and he feels that he needs more than faerie magic to sustain him. You see, Stefan is ambitious. He was born a poor peasant, but he aspires to greatness. He wants to be king. 

He gets his chance when the old king, dying from a wound he incurred in battle with Maleficent herself (now in adult form and played by Angelina Jolie), declares that the man who kills the "winged beast" will become king when he dies and marry his daughter, yada yada yada. And Stefan sees his chance.

So he goes out into the Moors (the faerie realm), has a nice long date with his sweetheart Maleficent, then drugs her and uses and iron chain to tear her wings off while she sleeps. Maleficent wakes up to find her wings and lover gone, her body screaming in agony, and the world a much darker place than it was before. She screams. A lot. I cried.

Maleficent then delicately picks herself up and hobbles up and away, into the ruins of an old castle where she can be alone. She cries. She relearns how to walk. And, eventually, she leaves again. But she is not the same.

Out on the edge of her realm, the realm that she now protects with a fierce fanaticism because humans are so clearly genuinely evil, she comes up on a farmer beating a raven and getting ready to feed it to his dogs. She whispers a spell that frees the raven and turns him into a human, then drives off the farmer and his dogs. The raven, whose name is Diaval (Sam Riley), is grateful for her saving him (less so for her making him human), and declares that he is in her debt. He is now her faithful servant, and Maleficent has use of him. She needs him to be her wings.

The next bit is quite familiar - Stefan is crowned king, and Maleficent uses Diaval to spy on him. When she learns that he has had a baby daughter, she decides to make herself known at the christening. This will be the perfect time to take her revenge. Meanwhile, the faerie realm has become much darker and forbidding, as Maleficent has declared herself queen over the other fae and created a military state - all in the name of keeping them safe from the human menace.

At the christening, like one would assume, Maleficent shows up, does her speech, and curses the baby. But she does it not out of any particular malice towards the child itself. No, her wrath is concentrated wholly on Stefan, whose impotent rage and fear is the first thing that's made her smile in years. 

Now, here is the moment when I realized what was going on. Because all of the children around me were totally fine in this scene. A few whispers about how, "She's mad," and "Why is Maleficent being scary?" But no big heartwrenching sob like I was having. And why was I crying? Because I was watching a scene that Hollywood seems determined to never show. I was watching a rape victim getting to finally confront her rapist. The sheer amount of pain on that screen brought me to absolute tears.

Make no mistake, either. Maleficent is a rape victim. Sure, it wasn't sexual, and it is a children's movie where everything has been a bit sanitized. But Jolie herself has stated that she played the morning after scene precisely the way she would portray a woman after being raped. Her wings were taken, her body was violated. While the sexual connotations are obviously more muted, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind. Maleficent is a woman who was raped by a man she trusted, and now she is standing in a room, staring at this man, and his wife, and their lovely child, and she burns with rage.

And so I cried.

There is also a twist on the curse that the movie puts in here, one that makes me even more invested. Maleficent first curses Aurora to prick her finger, fall into a sleep, never awaken, etc. But when Stefan begs, on his knees, pleading, she relents. Aurora can be awoken, but only by "true love's kiss". You know, that thing that Stefan swore he was giving to Maleficent. 

She also intones that the magic will hold until the end of time. Nothing can ever break the spell. But that doesn't stop people from trying. 

Stefan immediately gives his daughter over to the pixies to raise (the three good faeries from the story, led by a hilarious Imelda Staunton), and they take her into the woods to a lovely cottage right by the faerie realm. Maleficent, obviously, sees them, and in between devastating the human armies coming to kill her, raising a wall of thorns all around the faerie realm to protect them, and ruling the Moors with an iron fist, she comes to watch over the child.

First she's pissed. I mean, yeah, it's a baby, and so she doesn't really do anything to it, but this child represents the horror in her life, so no, she's not super happy. But time goes on. Years pass. Diaval, her raven friend, becomes rather besotted with the child. Moreover, the few times that baby Aurora catches sight of Maleficent, she doesn't react the way she arguably should. There's no horror or fear, just a grin and a childish grab for Mal's horns. It's very cute.

She swears otherwise, but you can see Maleficent beginning to truly care for Aurora. The pixies are absolute crap at taking care of her, so Maleficent and Diaval step in every once in a while to make sure the kid doesn't starve to death or walk off a cliff or anything. Maleficent tells herself all the while, though, that she's just preserving the child so that the curse can come into effect. That's all.

And then the strangest thing happens: Aurora and Maleficent meet. Maleficent, having a much softer heart than she herself would like to believe, lets Aurora into the faerie realm to play, but Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) is only curious about her mysterious benefactor. And, true to form, when Maleficent finally shows herself, Aurora reacts with glee. "You're my faerie godmother!" she squeals, running up and hugging Maleficent tight.

No one is more confused than Maleficent in that moment. No one.

The years pass, and Aurora grows up. She comes to love the faerie realm and her godmother, and Maleficent loves her too. Finally, it's all too much. Maleficent comes when Aurora is sleeping and tries to take away the curse. To undo it, to blast it away, to release it, something. But she can't. The curse is impenetrable, even to her. 

Far from still hating the little "beastie", Maleficent has now grown so attached to her that she thinks of Aurora as her own daughter. It's genuinely adorable, especially when you factor in Diaval, and you realize that they have this totally sweet family unit thing going on out there in the woods. Unfortunately it's a family that's about to be torn apart by betrayal and hatred. Hatred that has, by now, lessened to more of a dull roar than the scream it was before. But still.

Aurora falls to the curse, no matter what Maleficent and Diaval do. And when they get to the castle to save her (carrying an unconscious Prince Phillip along with them, just in case the true love thing really does work), they find it fortified with iron thorns, precisely to keep her out. It seems that even when she tries to do good, she is still judged by her past actions. The hatred and sorrow between her and Stefan has twisted and burned and rotted between them, and now Stefan is willing to destroy his kingdom, even the daughter he is trying to save, all to take Maleficent down.

The climax is fantastic and I will not spoil it here.

I'm hoping that after all that you can see where I was going, talking about how this movie explains the chain of abuse in a way that children can understand, but I'll elaborate. Stefan was hurt sometime in the past. We don't know what happened to him, but there are clear signs that his childhood is not a happy one, and no one performs actions that extreme or malicious without some strong motivation. In turn, Stefan hurts Maleficent, taking from her the one thing she assumed she would never be without. It's no stretch to say that her wings are Maleficent's most prized possession, but I would go further and say that she has never thought of herself without them. She is her wings. And the loss of them? Is the most profound of violations.

Maleficent then channels her anger and hatred into cursing Aurora. The chain has been passed on. But instead of becoming enraged by the legacy of hurt left to her, Aurora is the first one to break the chain. Eventually she comes to know that Maleficent is the one who cursed her. And she is truly hurt, make no mistake of that. But she also manages to forgive her godmother. She refuses to let anger poison her, and instead works for reconciliation.

These are all very adult themes, and in a real sense, the kind of thing that only an adult would get out of the film. On a childhood level, things are actually a lot simpler. By showing Maleficent's agony and rage, the movie gives children a vocabulary with which to talk about abuse and rape and violation. It's like that whole thing about how useful Winnie the Pooh is to parents whose children might have mood disorders. Instead of saying, "Mother, I am feeling manic this afternoon," the kid can say, "Mom, I feel like Tigger right now!" You get the idea.

So rather than having to rely on a child's understanding of sexual or bodily violation, instead, with the help of this movie, you can ask simpler questions. "Are you hurt? Where are you hurt? Do you feel like Maleficent did when she lost her wings? Are you angry?" It's not perfect, but it's a framework. It gives children an idea that yes, there is pain and hurt out there. But more than that it gives them a character to relate to, one who has been in great pain, and it shows them clearly what happens if you let that pain consume you, and what happens when you start to let it go.

I'm not saying that your average five year old is going to get all of this out of the film. They won't and really, they shouldn't. What I'm saying is that movies matter. The stories we tell matter. And when we don't tell a single story about a character who is violated, whose violation is taken seriously and dealt with, and whose character arc includes deep anger as well as redemption - when we avoid those subjects because they are "too dark" for children, we harm kids. It's as simple as that.

It is vital that we create a world in which we can talk about issues of abuse and pain, especially with children who may not yet have a vocabulary for it. We need movies like Maleficent exactly because they're hard, not in spite of the fact. 

And we need narratives like that, that make it very clear: Yes, someone may have hurt you. Yes, you might be in so much pain you feel like screaming. But no, that does not make it okay for you to hurt someone else. No, you are not automatically forgiven for lashing out. Your actions, understandable as they may be, are still your actions. There are no excuses. 

It's funny to read the reviews of this movie, because it seems a bit like no one knows what to do with it. Maleficent is neither a hero, nor a villain. This is a revisionist fairy tale, sure, but it's also quite close to the original. Maleficent is shown to have a horrible tragic backstory, but the movie never tries to use that to sweep away the pain she causes. In short, it's complicated, and that's great.

Really, it is. While the themes of this film will (hopefully) go over most kids' heads, the basic ideas won't. The ideas of forgiveness and love and reconciliation, as well as an understanding of moral complexity, will stick. Those are things that kids understand, and this movie puts them in a way that makes them perfectly accessible.

That's not the only reason to love this movie, though. There are so many. I'll just list a couple of them here, because yes.

The heart of the story is about female relationships. While the plot is driven by the actions of a male character, the female characters are the core of the film. Similar to Frozen, the true love here is not a romantic one, but a familial one between women. Maleficent loves Aurora, and Aurora loves Maleficent. Their bond is the heart of the film, and that's not a simple statement to make. There's no jealousy here that needs to be overcome, nor is there a core of romantic resentment or anything like that. Insofar as they can be, the two women are equals (by the end of the movie), and treat each other as such.

You can really see this in the scene where Maleficent confirms Aurora's greatest fears and tells her that, yes, she is cursed, and Maleficent is the one who did it. Aurora's eyes grow in horror, and she steps back. Maleficent takes one step forward, as if to explain, and Aurora runs away, shouting at her. And Maleficent? Doesn't follow her. Doesn't insist that Aurora see things her way. She lets Aurora be angry, because she deserves to be angry. Maleficent treats her like an equal, with full rights to her own feelings and reactions.

Another awesome part of this movie is how clearly it shows the way that our choices are not ours alone. Or rather, how they don't just affect us. Stefan's choice to prioritize ambition over love reverberates throughout Maleficent's life. So too does Maleficent's choice to take revenge on Stefan. Her decision to curse baby Aurora indirectly causes the queen's death, the devastation of the kingdom, and sixteen years of misery for the people. Maleficent's choice might have been hers alone to make, but its effects were felt by literally everyone in two kingdoms. And, well, that's true, isn't it?

The choices we make affect us, yes, but they also affect every single person around us, and some people we don't even know will be affected. Maleficent had no way of knowing how her curse would change the world or what the end result would be, but that's sort of the point. You have to take that into account, the idea that your actions will have consequences, and that those consequences might be far beyond what you could consider.

Or how about this for a super amazing lesson: Yes, true love does exist, but true love requires knowledge. There's this whole thing where they bring in Prince Phillip and demand that he kiss Aurora and he does (but not before he argues a bit with the pixies about how that's kind of weird and he barely knows her). The thing is, the kiss doesn't work. Not because Phillip and Aurora are wrong for each other, but because he doesn't know her, and therefore he cannot truly love her.

Crumbled is perhaps an understatement.
To love someone you have to truly know them. That's why Maleficent and Aurora have such a strong relationship by the end of the film - they truly know each other. And that's why Maleficent and Stefan's relationship crumbled. In the end, they did not know or understand each other. That's also what makes Maleficent and Diaval work. Love at first sight? It's nice, but it's not true love. True love is knowing precisely how horrible a person is, and accepting them anyways. Then demanding that they become a better them.

I could keep going, but I've said quite a lot already. There is more, though. This movie succeeds on so many levels, it astounds me. Jolie's performance is stunning, and Fanning and Riley, despite being relative newcomers, do a good job keeping up. Especially Riley, whose Diaval was my favorite character in the film. He also portrayed another role that is worth seeing more of - the man who loves a woman convinced she cannot love, and who is willing to wait.

Like, not in a creepy way, but that's clearly what Diaval is doing. He's in love with Maleficent (they did raise a child together, after all, and they've spent about twenty years together), but he never presses the issue. It's obvious she's not ready to even consider that. She thinks true love is a myth. He doesn't. And he remains devoted to her, even though she may never be healed enough to want romantic love again. It's just...it's really good, guys. It's really, really good.

So go see it, and think about the value of stories like this. They're not easy, no, but they are important. And when they happen to be wrapped up in packaging as nice as this, well, I think they're worth supporting.



  1. I likey this post! It brought out things I had not thought about when I watched the movie.
    "Hurt people hurt people", is a saying that has stuck with me...
    My one complaint to the movie is how the men are portrayed! They are evil, or flat, or defined by their relationship to another. If the gender roles in this movie were reversed you woukd be complaining, I think. :) This was an awesome movie, but I'd like to see some movies come out (especially in this genre, fantasy) with a strong male lead character.

    1. I actually disagree on that. I feel like the male characters were actually pretty complex. Well, except for Phillip, but no one's really expecting that of him. No, Diaval and Stefan are both very rounded characters. Diaval is both frustrated by Maleficent's actions and incredibly loyal to her. He even goes so far as to defy her and help Aurora several times, but he stays by her through the end of the film, even when she gives him the chance to leave. Stefan, on the other hand, betrays her, but it's clear in the film that he has mixed feelings about it. He tries to kill her, and can't. He even turns to leave when she doesn't show right away. Yes, Stefan is a villain, but he is not wholly villainous. And I think it's much to the credit of the movie that they show his later darkness came because he was afraid. I think that's very true.

  2. I agree with you, this was a really, really good movie. Little kids watching the movie in my theater were really reactive to it, cheering up for Maleficent, and getting why she was so angered, while being happy when she started caring for Aurora. She was just magnificent (the battle near the beginning made me shiver), and the way her relationship with Aurora develops is wonderful. And I honestly don't get the complaints about male characters... as you said, Diaval is a wonderful character: he is caring, supportive, and he isn't explicitly "rewarded" by "winning the girl in the end", like it happens in many movies. I loved the fact he was the character to show more of a parental instinct towards little Aurora than all the rest of the cast combined. Philip is a sweet, naive kid, and Stephen is a very complex character. If anything, they could have spared a little more time for Leila.

    1. I have so many feelings about Diaval and Maleficent and their adorable little family unit with Aurora. So many feelings. I also find it interesting that the movie shows that Aurora herself is more emotionally attached to Diaval and Maleficent than she is to her "aunts". And I love that there is no shown "reward" for Diaval, nor is there a moment when he declares it all "too much". He just is. He loves her, and he is content. I like that.

      Definitely could have seen more of Leila, but I think it's an interesting idea not to show her so much, because in a real sense, she's so sidelined by this story. It's not about her, but it impacts her life so much. What I want is a scene where she's dying and Maleficent comes to see her and they really have a talk about what happened and why. That would be an amazing scene.

    2. (deleted my comment and reposted because I had to edit)

      Oh yes, they were such an adorable family! I have a big soft spot for "families of choice," and when Aurora's first reaction upon waking was saying she wanted to go back to the Moors I grinned. I also liked Philip wasn't someone Aurora thought of at all, when she woke up. I mean, of course he made an impression, but he still was someone she got to talk with for what, five minutes? They'll get the chance to know each other better, and maybe fall in love, in the future, but in that moment it was good to show he didn't make such a big impact in Aurora's life. Too many stories show that as soon as romantic love (or a crush) enters the picture, all the characters start to revolve around it...

      Diaval as one of the best role models, period.

      Oh, such a scene would have been so interesting! Maleficent cursed Aurora to hurt Stephen, in her anger she didn't consider how she would hurt Aurora's mother (or Aurora herself). As she comes to care about Aurora she might realize her mother did nothing to deserve such punishment. Question is, how Leila would react? I mean, she has probably been told for all her life that the Moors and Maleficent were the enemy, and the narrative going on is that Stephen killed Maleficent (I guess they later adjusted it to "tried to kill her" to avenge her father King Henry). Leila's reaction to the Pixies show she wants the peace and has good will, but again, for many years she might have blamed Maleficent for her father's death, her husband's obsession, and her daughter being cursed and taken away from her. That's a lot to deal with...
      Considering how Maleficent is only recently learning to care again about humans, she might not have the motivation to go seek Leila, too...

      I apologize, I got carried away and rambled. I should write fanfiction about all this...

    3. I absolutely adored the bit where Aurora meets Phillip and then proceeds to go straight to her aunts and continue with the plan. Like, yes, this is a cute boy. But Aurora has things to do! She's going to run off and live with the fairies, thank you very much. No time for boys. And I love how much their family clearly means to all of them. I need more Maleficent/Diaval fic to sate my need for cuteness in this family of choice. I mean, I love how the movie ended it, but I'm a sap. Fic please!

      All of that sounds so interesting. My one big complaint about the movie, I think. That we never got to explore that interestingness. Sigh.

      And never apologize for being enthusiastic! Love proudly and with abandon. And also write fanfic. :DDD

  3. I still think the "rape metaphor" is a big fail, though I like that you can use it to help kids. From Stefan's point of view, he really did nothing like raping her (he thought he was saving/protecting her from being completely killed, in a way?), even if Maleficent's feelings are very akin to those of a rape victim.

    1. I consider it a rape metaphor because Jolie and the director consider it a metaphor. Even if Stefan doesn't think of his actions as a violation, that doesn't change how Maleficent feels about them. Rape is not defined by the rapist, it's defined by the victim. The victim is who determines what is and is not assault, so in that sense, Stefan's good intentions don't matter.

  4. This is fantastic review, thank you.

  5. I got talked in to watching this movie and liked it much more than I expected, and I thought the exact same thing when her wings were gone. Good flick.

    1. I've been talked into watching it by this thread. Although I'm not certain when I'll get the chance. :(

    2. Honestly, finding out that you guys see movies because I recommend them is the highest compliment I could get. You're both wonderful.

  6. "Make no mistake, either. Maleficent is a rape victim. Sure, it wasn't sexual"

    I'm pretty sure for rape to occur there has to be some form of forced sexual intercourse. Her wings were amputated and stolen, she was not raped, nobody forced her to have sex with them. Why do feminists (I'm guessing you are one) always have to equate EVERYTHING with rape even when it has nothing to do with it? You guys really seem to have a morbid fixation on the subject, it's honestly rather perturbing...