“Rape has so permeated our culture that it ended up in a Disney movie.”
The above quote is from a Huffington Post article entitled “The Maleficent Rape Scene That We Need To Talk About,” written just before Angelina Jolie confirmed that a particular scene in the new Disney live-action film was indeed a metaphor for rape. Jolie is no stranger to speaking out about rape culture, especially as a tool of war—her film In the Land of Blood and Honey includes scenes of rape against civilian women during the Bosnian war. This type of depiction of the damages and horror of rape surprisingly made its way into a Disney movie. Because of this, many have thought this twist on the Sleeping Beauty animated fairytale makes Maleficent a powerful, Feminist movie. As Obvi’s resident Disney-lover, I am inclined to agree.
Maleficent starts as a story about a sweet winged-fairy, the title character, who befriends a young human boy named Stefan. They grow up together, fall in love, and even share “true love’s kiss”, despite the animosity between the human kingdom and the magical Moors. Things shift as Stefan becomes more ambitious. The human kingdom grows wary and jealous of the magical creatures and of course the King wants to kill Maleficent, the strongest and bravest fairy in her land. We know Maleficent will eventually become a villain because of this and that the Sleeping Beauty storyline will somehow interweave, but we don’t see how yet.
Stefan sets out to “warn” Maleficent that the King wants her dead and has offered the crown to anyone who can slay her and bring her body as proof. Though the two have not seen each other since their teen years, they rekindle their old flame quickly and enjoy a happy evening together. She trusts him again and feels at ease, letting her guard down. As the night winds down, Stefan gives Maleficent a swig of his flask, drugging her into instant unconsciousness. He goes to kill her, though he cannot bring himself to do it. We are relieved, but just for a moment. Then, he thinks of something else… he cuts off her wings and leaves like a thief in the night. This betrayal lands him the crown.
Maleficent wakes in the morning, writhing in pain. She is paralyzed, unable to make a sound as she realizes her wings have been taken from her. The raw, heart-stopping emotion made me hold my breath. It is easy to identify this scene as a metaphor for a rape scenario we know too well: a drugged woman is left humiliated and in pain, stripped of her autonomy by a man she trusted.
A survey performed by the CDC found that 13% of women and 6% of men reported they experienced sexual coercion at some time in their lives. This is a statistic that has my gut in knots. While I am lucky not fall into the statistic of those who have been raped, I can say that I have felt sexually manipulated. As a teen in my first relationship, I gave myself to someone I trusted, though my trust was sorely misplaced. A big part of why I made the decision to do so was that he stressed that we would be losing our virginity together, that it was romantic and special. I learned over a year later (after the relationship ended for many other reasons) that he had lied to me. He wasn’t a virgin, not at all. I felt disgusted. Ashamed. Stupid. I was long over that relationship, but now I felt like I had been robbed of my own virginity, something that was very important to me. But, I also felt like I didn’t have “the right” to feel like I had been assaulted.
I think this is why I connected to Maleficent’s trust in Stefan before she realized his betrayal. I think sorting out my own feelings was an important turning point for me in understanding the different forms of sexual assault. I realized that you do not have to be raped by a stranger for it to “count.” This kind of assault doesn’t always involve straightforward physical force and it can, and often is, perpetrated by someone who knows the victim.
The true climax of the film is the battle scene between Maleficent and King Stefan’s army after she saves Aurora from the curse she had put on her (during her darker days after Stefan betrayed her). Aurora returns the favor and saves Maleficent by releasing her wings from the case that Stefan had been displaying them in after all these years. The wings find Maleficent and her power of flight is restored, which restores not only physical strength but emotional strength. Aurora supports Maleficent, forgives her for the curse, and gives her the power she needed to finally overcome her darkness. I found this to be an empowering message to young girls: that they can be important advocates and supporters of other women, especially those who are suffering.
Overall, I think the changes Disney, specifically writer Linda Woolverton and Angelina Jolie, made to the more familiar animated story were integral to the pattern Disney seems to be developing within its princess stories. Movies like Frozen and Maleficent are challenging the way we think about love stories, which seems like a good place to start. I also find it incredible that Angelina Jolie directly stated that the scene in, a Disney movie no less, was a metaphor for rape. Luckily, many girls will not face what Maleficent did (the metaphorical situation, of course), but now young girls have a visible example of a woman going through a similar type of trauma and loss. There are many types of sexual assault, and far too many people are affected by it. It could help girls to understand that they are not alone in the way that they feel, and hopefully be more inclined to discuss those emotions if they come about. A scene like this opens the door for conversation to an interesting audience, which is what spreading awareness about Sexual Assault is all about.
This essay is a response to our Fem101 Syllabus Week 1 assignment. Did you complete the assignment? Share your thoughts on comments below!