We are in the midst of a cultural shift, a time of awakening to the power of women. As a part of this shift, we need to retell our fairy tales—all the stories that have stripped women of power, defined “real men” as dominant abusers, and upheld patriarchy at all costs. We cannot simply replace the old tales with new ones, for the ancient stories are a part of us, buried deep within our psyches. They have been handed down through oral tradition for centuries. In the updating, we need not replace one form of dominance with another: no, the point is reclamation, a shift toward physical and spiritual wholeness. The movie Maleficent, in its retelling of Sleeping Beauty, has broken new, vital ground in this shift. It is an absolutely thrilling movie to watch as a woman, for it returns to us what has long been lost.
Maleficent is the story of patriarchy—how and why it was established, what it cost women, and how we can regain what we’ve lost. The wicked witch (here, a powerful fairy with vast wings) who cast a spell over Aurora did so not because she was inherently evil, but because Stephan, a human boy whom she loves, becomes a man who cuts off her wings, presenting them as bounty to his king and assuring his position as successor.
The tale speaks the language of symbolism and archetype:
- Maleficent’s Wings: Oh, these wings. These splendid wings. They are Ariel’s voice, and her legs. They are Cinderella’s hopes for an independent life. They are Snow White’s beauty, Eve’s communion with the source of knowledge. These wings are fully a part of Maleficent: they make both the child and the woman. The loss of them, early in the movie, is so viscerally tragic that I cried, not just for Maleficent, but for us all.
- The Mother: Although Maleficent is not Aurora’s mother, she comes to love her as though she is—watching over her, at first merely to ensure her survival for the fated day, and then in earnest. Maleficent loves Aurora so much that she tries to revoke her own curse, and cannot. She loves her so much that she enters Stephan’s castle to save her, risking her own life. She loves her so much that, when she kisses her to say goodbye (after a prince who has met Aurora once fails to revive her with his own kiss), she awakens the sleeping princess. This movie knows: there is no love like mother love. And it is what we need to heal.
- The Dragon: As King Stephan has Maleficent cornered in the castle, burning her with the iron he knows is her weakness, she transforms her servant (who began life as a crow) into a dragon. I’d forgotten the dragon—not just the one in the story, but the archetypal dragon, which, along with the serpent, was the symbol of feminine power during the centuries of goddess worship. The vanquishing of the dragon, in all our tales, is the vanquishing of woman. Of course Maleficent must call a dragon into being—to bring it back from the land of the vanquished, her own power to protect herself.
- Reclamation: As the dragon fights for Maleficent’s life and frees her, her wings—which Stephan has kept framed in a room upstairs—come to life, fly to her, and reattach. In my experience, there has been no more powerful moment in all of storytelling, on screen or on the page: the wings reattach. Because they belong to her. What was stolen is now reclaimed. Holy holy holy. That is some powerful stuff.
In the final scenes of the battle, Maleficent does not visit revenge upon Stephan—she shows him mercy. He, however, cannot let her go, and falls to his own doom. This is the one part of the movie I wanted something more from—I wanted to see the boy Stephan inside the eyes of the man. I wanted redemption for him as well as for her.
The movie does recognize that partnership is necessary for wholeness, as represented in Aurora’s union with her prince. But he is a stock character (much like the princesses in most tales), and does not possess the power that Stephan did, even as a child. Though this part of the movie was not as I would have written it, I was glad to see some recognition of the need for union in power rather than dominion.
I will watch this movie for years to come. Angelina Jolie’s performance is phenomenal—she makes the film. This story teaches us a lesson we need to hear again and again: female reclamation is not only possible, it is the path to healing.