For anyone who's seen "Maleficent" with adult eyes, it's hard to avoid the fact that the scene where a drugged fairy queen is shorn of her wings by a disloyal lover bears a distinct resemblance to rape, one that's underlined by Angelina Jolie's anguished reaction when she discovers she's been mutilated. And in an interview with the BBC Radio Hour, Jolie has confirmed that's what she and screenwriter Linda Woolverton had in mind: "We were very conscious, the writer and I, that it was a metaphor for rape," Jolie said.
At Femamom, Hayley Kirscher wrote that Sharlto Copley's Stefan "doesn’t kill her. He rapes her of her ability to fly," a suggestion that struck some readers as offensively simplistic and others as entirely on-point. (For once, the comments are worth reading.) Badass Digest's Devin Faraci called it a "rape/revenge retelling" of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" -- "I Spit on Your Grave" for tweens.
In the wake of Jolie's statement, we're bound to hear people complaining that rape has no place in a story for children -- one that, with its pat psychological rationalizations and trite happy ending somehow manages to Disneyfy a Disney movie. But at In These Times, Sady Doyle pointed out that the original story of "Sleeping Beauty" has always been, at least partly, about rape, including entirely unmetaphorical requirement that she be "kissed" by a boy while she lies in a state of permanent unconsciousness. (I think "Kill Bill's" Bride might have a comment on that part.)
Indeed, you could even argue that the central curse of "Sleeping Beauty" -- the prediction that, on her sixteenth birthday, the beautiful princess shall "prick her finger" on a spindle and fall into a "sleep like death" -- is a rape allegory, one of those wild and eerie and inappropriate bits of dream imagery that give fairy tales their enduring power. When the princess is a child, she's safe. But as soon as she reaches sexual maturity, she will be penetrated. There will be blood, and pain, and it will cause her to fall into a living death. If you buy the idea that fairy tales were women's stories -- coded ways of passing down wisdom about the world -- the "pricking your finger on a spindle" story is a very effective way to talk about how sexual assault (or sex and marriage more generally, in heavily patriarchal societies where women didn’t get to choose their partners or exert power within relationships) can feel like the end of a woman's life.
The problem with "Maleficent" isn't that its inciting incident is a metaphor for rape; it's everything that surrounds it. The story as it's (re)conceived would require Maleficent to grow twisted and cruel, to internalize the harm done to her and take it out on the world around her -- on everyone, that is, but her rapist, whom she punishes by proxy through cursing his newborn daughter. But the movie spends every minute after that moment of palpable darkness running as fast and as far away from it as it can. Maleficent, we learn, is not a larger-than-life icon, but a misguided victim who spends years trying to make up for a single, irrevocable mistake. She nurtures Elle Fanning's Aurora, eventually becoming a surrogate mother to her, trying to protect her from a curse that even she cannot undo.
The requirement to soften Maleficent up robs Jolie's performance of its grandeur and its pathos, which until then has been substantial. Given how tawdry the rest of the movie looks, it seems as if director Robert Bromberg spent about 90 percent of his time on set adorning Jolie with the lighting of a silent-movie goddess, and it was time well spent: She's magnificent, the kind of figure about whom stories will be told for aeons. But once she starts nurturing Aurora, she's reduced in stature; it's like seeing Norma Desmond babysit. She was big; it's the movie that got small.
Fairy tales have always been a means of processing fears, sometimes as a cautionary tale, sometimes for the sole purpose of reminding children that the world is a dangerous and sometimes terrible place. At its best, "Maleficent" comes to terms with that horror; at its worst, it tells us to forget it.