Disney’s Dark Side
Maleficent and the echoes of rape in a classic fairy tale
*First published in The Stake
Once upon a time, the beautiful daughter of a nobleman pricked her finger on a piece of flax, and fell into a deep cursed sleep. Overcome by grief, her father placed her on a velvet throne, locked the door of his home, and left, never to return.
Years later, a king was hunting nearby and his falcon flew through the house’s window. The king followed, hoping to retrieve his bird, but found a sleeping woman instead. He could not wake her, but overcome by her beauty, he raped her while she slept. The king left, but the woman — then pregnant — remained in her magical sleep. When she gave birth to twins, they suckled on her finger tips, and one tugged the piece of flax from her finger. The curse was broken, and Sleeping Beauty awoke.
This early telling of Sleeping Beauty was printed in 1634 as part of a collection by Basile, the first great Italian collector of fairy tales. Thirty years later, the French story teller Perriault revised the tale and removed the rape and pregnancy; in his version, a Prince falls on his knees before Sleeping Beauty in adoration and she wakes. Three hundred years later, in 1959, the American storyteller Walt Disney brought the story to film, and replaced the Prince’s kneeling adoration with “true love’s kiss.”
Henry Meynell Rheam, Sleeping Beauty 1899
This year, Disney’s live-action version of Sleeping Beauty carries on the tradition of malleable adaptation. This time, the tale is told from the point of view of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), a fairy queen who puts the sleeping curse on the princess. Curiously, this latest Disney adaptation is much darker, closer to the earliest Italian version than the romanticized and sanitized ones that followed. This time, it is Maleficent, not Sleeping Beauty, who suffers.
Before seeing the film, I had heard Jolie’s statements about these dark themes and one particularly violent scene: “We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene] was a metaphor for rape,” Jolie commented during an interview on BBC Radio 4. Early in the movie, while resting in her human lover’s arms, she is drugged by him and falls into a deep sleep. While she sleeps, her lover betrays her and severs the fairy queen’s great brown eagle wings. He carries them to an opposing king as proof of Maleficent’s death, and becomes the king’s heir as a reward.
When the moment of her lover’s violation and betrayal came, I knew it was the rape metaphor of which Jolie had spoken. Despite its horror, my first thought was grim relief: “At least he didn’t kill her.” The scene’s careful composition makes it clear that the man could have murdered Maleficent, and that he believes he’s been merciful for not doing so. The connection between my immediate response, relief, and her lover’s rationalizations of mercy was horrifying. I was echoing the justifications regularly seen in rape culture. This nuance makes it one of the film’s strongest and most troubling scenes.
Maleficent awakens from drugged stupor, wailing with terrible physical pain and the heartrending realization of her betrayal and loss. She may be alive but her delight is dead; she has been cut in two by her lover. As the fairy queen, she must continue to protect her land and people from the king that ordered the attack. The movie rolls on, following the victim after the occurrence of violent trauma and assault on her person.
There is no hero to save Maleficent or seek vengeance on her behalf. She must save herself, as ultimately all victims must. Her path leads into the darkness; there is no way out. She is wingless and cannot behave as the whole person she once was. Instead, Maleficent keeps to the shadows, accompanied only with her raven sidekick.
Jolie is a woman well known for her tendencies towards the darker side (both in her past personal life and film persona), and it is the special charisma and intelligence that she brings to the fairy queen that gives Maleficent its merit. Otherwise, the film is a letdown in many ways: the CGI characters and landscapes are annoying at best, the supporting cast’s performance is too weak to be believable, and the plotting and script loses its momentum in the second act. But Jolie’s ability to make Maleficent’s darkness palatable and accessible saves the film from complete disaster. She owns Maleficent’s magnificent horns and razor blade cheekbones (I have to admit, these constantly drew my attention away from everything else — which wasn’t a negative). And she wears black latex like a new queen of the night should.
Maleficent skulks about in the darkness until her former lover, now the king, celebrates the birth of a beautiful daughter, Aurora. Maleficent crashes the party at the castle and curses the child as an act of vengeance, bringing the movie back to the fairytale’s traditional story. That daughter is Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning), and the king orders her to be hidden far away to keep her from the curse. Despite that caution, Maleficent and her spy track the child, keeping watch as she grows. As the years pass, Maleficent warms to Sleeping Beauty, meeting her in the woods to make ominous remarks. Surprisingly, their growing relationship slowly brings Maleficent back to a world with joy. Although Jolie pulls off the transformation admirably, Fanning’s mediocre acting and bland presence leaves much to be desired. If Maleficent is charmed out of her misery by a shallow and irrepressibly happy girl, well then, maybe she’s more open to healing than anyone imagined.
As she heals, Maleficent deeply regrets her curse on the child but cannot undo it. Aurora inevitably pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into a deep sleep. A prince, who’s chatted with Aurora a few times, is brought by Maleficent to kiss the princess and break the spell. While the prince is attracted to Sleeping Beauty, he’s only seen her a few times. He barely knows her, and there’s is no way he could bestow “true love’s kiss.” Maleficent stands behind a golden screen, watching the prince’s failed kiss. There’s only one being who knows the princess inside and out and loves her for who she is.
For the first time in recorded fairytale history, male royalty cannot wake Sleeping Beauty. Be it rape, adoration, or a kiss, men no longer wield the power to awaken this princess. In an act of her own love and despair over the prince’s failure, Maleficent kisses Sleeping Beauty’s forehead. The princess opens her eyes and smiles at her horned protector.
The ending is still the same for Sleeping Beauty, as it has been for hundreds of years. She awakens to be queen and will marry her prince.
Three hundred years ago, Basile’s story ended with Sleeping Beauty marrying her rapist king and becoming queen; her true pride and joy would be her children. Disney’s latest version kills off the “rapist” king, and the princess is saved by her fairy queen and surrogate mother, Maleficent. “The core of [the film] is abuse,” Jolie says, “and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people.” Deep in the heart of this story, the linchpin of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening has changed yet again, this time to a tale of healing. While the effects and supporting cast may fall short, Maleficent brings a new telling to an ancient story and that, in many ways, is the truest tradition of fairy tales.