Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Sexual Politics in Fairy Tales. Part 3

So here's the final installment folks -

Maleficent – Mark 2, 2014

Jolie is the star vehicle and she certainly has presence, a stillness that is intense and mesmerizing.  She looks amazing – just like her earlier animated version in the flesh. However the story-telling is confused, the film over-produced and the musical score bombastic. If a voice-over can be heavy-‘handed’, this is it.

The script is frankly a mess. Linda Woolverton who has written such classics as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, as well as the unfortunate latest version of Alice in Wonderland, here revels in formulaic battle-scenes and psycho-babble.

It begins with Maleficent who isn’t evil but really good. Words obviously mean the opposite of what they say. She lives in a place named The Moors which are not windswept open and uncultivated, but green, watery and forested, crowded with creatures who all love each other and practice equality. The other country is seemingly open and barren, dominated by a big castle where a king who loves battle, rules with iron and lots of chaps in armour.
Throughout there is a tension playing out between good and evil; the 2 countries, the 2 sexes, (the male betrays and violates the innocent female ),  and the 2 generations – the bad, mad  father who cares nothing for his daughter and the wronged, yet maternal Maleficent protecting, despite herself, the young vulnerable girl.

We follow Maleficent’s story from carefree, winged childhood to betrayal and hideous violation. The removal of her wings, which gave her freedom, power and joy, is shocking, and in true fairy-tale gruesome tradition. This is probably the most authentic moment in the film. But there is no-one else in the story to counter-balance her power and give ballast to her role. The real evil-doer, the King becomes a cipher of crazed paranoia. The raven side-kick, who Maleficent tyrannizes, is just a comic-book caricature who never has a chance to act because the special effects keep getting in the way.
 Aurora is a blonde baby doll whose sweetness irritates. The poor girl flits aimlessly about with no parental guidance or education from her real parents or from the surrogate selfish, silly, fairy women. Maleficent’s guardianship takes the form of keeping her physically safe and watching her pat tame, fanciful creatures. Even the Barbie fairy tale movies grappled seriously with authentic activities that would help the princess’s debut into adult life.

If one definition of maleficence can be characterized by that horrible marketing phase – ‘It’s all about me”- I think this is a huge unredeemable fault of the film.
This is one woman’s movie, and it is literally all about her. The other side never has a chance against Jolie’s star power, and the script skews it this way as well. The script gives a twist to the famous kiss of true love which might help resolve Maleficent’s dilemma (kind of), but leaves the pretty boy prince, solely a decorative character. Once he’s bundled offstage by the fairy mothers, the male side of the cast has no place to go into the future.  
  Because the young man didn’t bring ‘true love’ to Aurora, then their future together becomes very problematical. When he grows up, if he succumbs to power and greed his behaviour could easily become a carbon copy of the older generation father. The prince represents an ongoing threat, for he may well turn and betray Aurora as Maleficent was herself betrayed.

Aurora is never truly woken from her ‘sleep’ of ripening through metamorphosis into sexual flowering and womanhood. In discovering Maleficent’s wings and helping return them to their rightful owner, she plays a service role, not that of an individuated person. She has been reconciled with the older woman who cares for her, but an authentic transformation into womanhood requires a separation from the mother figure and an awakening into one’s own body.
In the older traditional narratives, a wedding allowed for a satisfying open ending that gives the possibility of hope between the 2 sexes, the 2 countries and the 2 generations.
The film ends after the iron king is well defeated in clichéd battle by Maleficent and her dragon. Back home in the’ Moors’, Aurora and Maleficent are happy together in their fantasy world of female power and solidarity.
Presumably the three squabbling, self-involved fairy mothers are as ineffectual and powerless as ever they were, in this dream of female community.

Words once again belie the reality, for despite the voiceover assuring us that tyranny is over, Maleficent is firmly in charge of both countries, both genders, both generations.
In sole charge. Power and gender issues are certainly not resolved. Any power remaining in the hands of one boss, does not create equal rights for the whole community, despite all the smoke and mirrors of CGI shape-shifting.

This Disney movie is an international blockbuster and Angelina Jolie has a huge world-wide fan base. Many women admire her as a movie star, as well as her leadership of social and political issues, not to mention her personal life in the roles of mother and lover. Her movies then, become an extension of her and her ideas, which I suspect she intends them to be. Mostly she plays the female action heroine, a kick-ass sex object, a strong woman albeit in conventional Hollywood terms.  And this movie is no exception. Here she plays a famous animated anti- heroine who intimates that ‘it’s ok to be all about me’.
But I think she, as well as the female script writer Linda Woolverton, have ultimately failed in their responsibility to the public and especially to children viewers. The movie is a muddle, but there’s one strong theme we take away from it.
The film suggests that maleness and femaleness are fundamentally opposed and always attempt to take power away from each other. This is a terribly problematic proposition and certainly not a feminist principle.
It’s a disturbing finger on the pulse of gender politics in America today.

The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood by Charles Perrault 1696 (from Classic Fairy Tales 1922)
Little Briar Rose in The Complete Grimm Fairy Tales. 1944
From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner. 1994
Spinning Straw into Gold by Joan Gould 2005
Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman 2012

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