By Laura Bogart | Press Play June 11, 2014 at 4:56AM
"The woman has power if she’s a villain." That’s what my college art professor told me once, when we were discussing the Disney films we’d grown up with. If you were a girl, or female-identifying, you were Team Ursula. Team Wicked Queen. Team Maleficent. These villains resonate with girls like us, who’d grown up knowing that they’d never be Prince Charming’s type; that all of creation, from the beasts in the forest to the flowers in the field, would never sing of our sweetness; that our parents would never be royalty.
The villainesses offered a new paradigm: If you can’t be beloved, be angry. Reduce the king of the seas to simpering plankton, poison an apple, will your body to turn into a dragon’s. But closer reflection, as well as exposure to feminist texts and more adult film fare, reveals that what may seem like delicious wickedness is, in fact, not real power: It’s just bullying. These women get back at the kings (and the kingdoms) that have cast them out and insulted them by attacking innocent princesses, young girls who haven’t done them wrong. This isn’t real vengeance; it’s just women sinking their talons into other women. And why? Just because.
Maleficent, which reimagines the Sleepy Beauty story from the vantage point of the woman who cast the curse, embraces the beating black heart of the villain’s appeal—only to sink its fangs into it. The movie is a Disneyfied exploitation flick: Maleficent’s curse is her roaring rampage against Stefan, the man who, once upon a time, promised her true love’s kiss before drugging her and stripping off her wings, so he could appease a dying king, and be named his successor. Maleficent roars, and she rampages, but she doesn’t get bloody satisfaction until she comes to the unsettling truth that she’s deployed her power against Stefan’s daughter, the innocent Aurora, instead of directly attacking the man who actually wronged her (and the patriarchal will-to-power that he represents). Maleficent (and the movie that bears her name) turns the righteous wrath of the woman wronged from a knife’s edge to a tightrope: She tiptoes along that fine line between between claiming justice and identifying with her aggressors.
Take Ursula the Sea Witch, who may rival Maleficent as the most beloved baddie in the magic kingdom. Ursula once lived in the pearlescent splendor of The Little Mermaid’s aquatic kingdom, only to be cast out (for reasons unknown) by King Triton; the circuitous route of her revenge—getting him to sign his soul to her to save his daughter—is designed as a pile-driving, pile-on of pain for the king. And yet to do this, she literally steals the voice of another woman. Ariel’s only “crime” is being the wasp-waisted embodiment of everything that Ursula is not, and Ursula’s grand revenge becomes an attack on the pretty girl—which, given the dark potency of her spells, is a waste; it reinforces, instead of breaking open, that tired binary of the lovely, much-loved “homecoming queen” vs. the ugly outcast whose countenance matches her soul.
We can shrug this off as a fairy-tale, a genre where only the purest of the pure-hearted and the blackest of the black-hearted get starring roles. However, it’s still deeply problematic to see a powerful woman literally tower over our innocent heroine—especially when so many women, particularly younger women, believe that there is no place for them within feminism because they “like men” or wear make-up or want to be a stay-at-home mom. They believe that feminism isn’t a movement for equality, it’s a matter of us vs. them—and never, sadly, a matter of us vs. the real enemy, the Stefans of the world, people who value having power over respecting the dignity and autonomy of women everywhere.
The in-the-flesh incarnation of Maleficent is able to get the revenge that eludes her cartoon counterpart because she realizes that the casting of the curse makes her no better than her former love. Stefan is the flattest character in the film, a man defined only by what he wants the most: to be king. His bristling ambition parallels her blazing rage: It allows him to steal the parts of her that brought her to the heavens, just so he can wear the crown. It allows her to condemn a laughing baby to a living death, just so she can hear the king beg. But she doesn’t truly get the better of him, or at least bring about his richly deserved end, until she’s reconciled with Aurora.
Aurora liberates Maleficent’s wings from the glass case where Stefan has entombed them, and Maleficent drags him out of his castle, lets him fall; in his last moments, he watches her hover above him as the air rushes around his body, and he knows what it means to desperately long for wings. Stefan’s death is more than just the extinguishing of an enemy; it’s the end of an era. The film ends with Maleficent crowning Aurora as a queen without a king: the arbiter of a new age of matriarchy.
Maleficent now exists within the archetype of the woman warrior, the righter of wrongs, and the avenger. This archetype wields her wand and sword, her pistol and Tiger Crane Kung-Fu, and, above all, her wits, directly against her enemies. She is Coffy, hiding razor blades in her hair; she is Beatrix Kiddo, crossing names off her “Death List Five”; she is Arya Stark, whispering her own kill list as a nightly prayer; she is Carrie, unleashing telekinetic Hell against the high school sadists and the fundamentalist mother who’ve tormented her; she is Mystique, the mutant revolutionary out to assassinate the political operatives who oppress her kind. She is Katniss Everdeen, who must “remember who the real enemy is” if she’s to escape the ceaseless spiral of violence and use her power for a purpose. And she is Maleficent, who must learn that cruelty is simply scratching an itch, not treating the wound that burns clear to the bone. Every time the woman warrior flexes her might, she’s defining who she is and who she wants to be: the victim-turned-avenger, asserting her worth against those who tried to break her—or the villain, just another abuser who thinks that making someone, anyone, pay, is the same as actual gain.
We see this dilemma played out directly with two of the younger, though still ethically complex, examples of the woman warrior archetype: Katniss Everdeen and Arya Stark. In Catching Fire, when Katniss, who’s been stop-lossed back into the arena, has a choice to shoot an arrow straight into another tribute’s heart, or to take out the heart of the arena itself—and the Capitol that created it—by aiming her bow at its force-field. She spares the tribute and sends her arrow whistling toward her oppressors. Arya Stark won’t use her quickness and cunning to help The Hound steal from a peasant farmer, but she will spear her sword through the throat of the brigand who’d stolen it from her years before and used it to murder one of the boys she’d been traveling with. Arya stares down at the man, who gurgles blood and rasps for air, with an impervious haughtiness. She parrots back the taunts he’d made as he’d stabbed her friend; his words are the hammer-strikes sealing his coffin closed: He brought this on himself the second he raised his blade against Arya and the people she loves. This is even Steven. This would be about square.
The woman warrior must choose what—and most significantly, who—merits her lethal gaze, and that choice reveals everything about her values. Will her capacity for violence imitate an arrow’s arc, striking with purpose and direction? Or is her rage an engine revving in a parked car, ceaseless churning and pointless noise? Toward the end of Maleficent, a now-grown Aurora remarks, “my kingdom wasn’t united by a hero or a villain, but by one who was both.” Maleficent’s evolution shows how simple it is to conflate the ability to bring devastation with the snap of her fingers with actual power, the kind of power that empowers her to stand up for herself and everything she cares about, that does more than just charge up the same dull machinery of abuse and degradation. Maleficent must show this evolution within the confines of a PG rating; however, films like the Kill Bill saga can sift through all the grit and the spatter for a more nuanced understanding of vengeance, violence, and the relationships between women who’ve gotten used to feeling of blood under their nails.
Despite the Kill Bill movies’ joint titles, our yellow-haired warrior takes the lion’s share of the narrative as she cuts down her former teammates on the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, the women who battered her swollen, pregnant body almost to the point of death after she tries to leave the group, to become more than Bill’s woman, a woman who kills for Bill. Beatrix’s impromptu retirement doesn’t actually hurt any of the DIVAS (indeed, it allows Elle Driver to slip into her much-coveted role of Bill’s best girl); they attack her at the behest of Bill. They’re a kung-fu coven of Ursulas: lashing out because of, or in reaction to, some man.
But no matter how savagely Beatrix and her former comrades battle, there is always a moment—“Just between us girls …” or “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids”—that recalls the intimacy they once had. Beatrix was one of them, and her arc toward autonomy is a transition from deadly viper to righteous avenger. It’s fitting, then, that the only DIVA who is given any substantive backstory is O-Ren, the character whose origin tale functions as a parallel and an inverse of our heroine’s. Beatrix recounts O-Ren’s revenge against Matsumoto, the yakuza boss who murdered her parents when she’s at her own lowest point, freshly awakened from her coma and willing her limbs out of atrophy. O-Ren’s story is rendered in hyper-stylized anime and scored with a lean yet operatic mournfulness that evokes the Fistful of Dollars trilogy, vesting it with a mythic grandeur that does more than simply align the viewer’s sympathies with her aim—it suggests that claiming her revenge is a vital, even sacred task.
However, this anime sequence ends with O-Ren delivering a round-house kick straight to Beatrix’s pregnant belly, doing Bill’s bidding so he’ll back her Shakespearean in magnitude quest to become the boss of all bosses of the Japanese yakuza. And then we’re back to live-action, down to earth, and O-Ren is beheading dissenters and letting her entourage bully the wait-staff of the bar she owns. Her violence has no purpose, no passion; trafficking in mindless cruelty, she’s more akin to Matsumoto than to the young girl who looks him in the eye and asks if she looks like anyone he’s killed as she twists her sword into his gut. That girl emerges again, however briefly, in that final fight with Beatrix; after Beatrix draws first blood, O-Ren bows her head, says, “For insulting you earlier, I apologize.” The sorrow in those six words shows that she can remember the raw feeling of violation without recourse. The women rush each other until O-Ren’s blood ribbons the snow: a single red spatter framed against a pristine whiteness that suggests the purity of Beatrix’s mission.
Maleficent shares a thematic kinship with Kill Bill by suggesting that revenge really can be cathartic, and by having its heroine find peace after vengeance through her bond with another woman: Maleficent has Aurora, and Beatrix has B.B., her daughter. So it’s appropriate that Maleficent’s final battle scene is set around another purifying force: fire. Dragon’s breath surges over stone, leaps over the battlements as a re-winged Maleficent takes flight with her nemesis, Stefan, clinging to her boot. It’s a grand fuck-yeah moment, akin to Katniss delivering her quiver-full of a middle finger to the Capitol and Arya scratching one name off her kill list, Coffy gunning down her first drug dealer and Carrie turning a prom full of bullies into a taffeta and sequined holocaust. But these are even more than fuck yeah moments—they’re fuck yeah moments that show the self-affirming power of revenge. Their message is written in blood and flame: I matter. I know who hurt me, and I’m going to make them pay.
Laura Bogart's work has appeared on The Rumpus, Salon, Manifest-Station,
The Nervous Breakdown, RogerEbert.com and JMWW Journal, among other
publications. She is currently at work on a novel.