The Common Good

Maleficent the Feminist? A Cautionary Tale

If the new Disney Studios movie Maleficent is, as some are saying, a feminist attempt to redeem images of weak and powerless women in fairy tales, then it is a cautionary tale. Feminism has always been its own worst enemy when it strives to create women in the image of men rather than encourage women to abandon rivalry with men and seek their flourishing elsewhere. This is a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love. I wonder how many feminists will embrace that message?

Image via Maleficent Facebook page
Image via Maleficent Facebook page

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Infected by Rivalry

This movie explores the line that separates love from hate, forgiveness from vengeance. The pivot point that determines on which side we fall is rivalry. The two protagonists, Maleficent and Stefan, begin as childhood sweethearts but their love sours and sickens when Stefan succumbs to a lust for power. Infected by the values and virtues of a kingdom that prizes warriors, Stefan stops at nothing to win the throne. He even sacrifices Maleficent, betraying her trust. He horribly disfigures her on his way to defeating all other claimants to the crown. Stefan’s imagination is so colonized by rivalry, that he never questions his betrayal of Maleficent’s trust as anything other than good. After all, if this is what is required for his dreams to come true then it must be the right thing to do. No prick of conscience for Stefan. He reigns in unexamined self-satisfaction.

In response to this betrayal, Maleficent becomes his mirror image, justifying her own hateful actions in the same way that he did his. And she bests him at his own game, if that’s possible! Her hatred encompasses not only him, but his child, an innocent victim of their game of revenge. This is how rivalry works – it always escalates, the exchanges between rivals becoming more and more violent, extreme and hateful. Which is the result we see at the end of the movie in a battle in which Maleficent and Stefan unleash all their destructive powers against one another. Almost forgotten is the child, now a young women, who is a mute witness to the destructive power of the one she calls father and the one she has named Fairy Godmother.

The Innocent Victims

This is the caution; this is where a rivalry with men, a competitive striving to beat men at their own game, can lead women. I am using the term “rivalry” here as it is used in mimetic theory. Which is to say that rivalries are mimetic or imitative: rivals imitate one another in a rapidly escalating exchange centered on desire. Rivals not only learn what to desire from one another (a foundational concept in mimetic theory) but the intensity of their desire increases in each other’s presence. In our feminism example, as men demonstrate by going off to work that fulfillment is found by succeeding in the workplace, women’s desire to not only be in the workplace but to rule there with might and power is ignited, which in turn intensifies the same desire of men for the workplace. We become mirror images of each other as our shared desire for work rises to a fever pitch, while the desire for child rearing and homemaking sputters out like a doused campfire.

Children become forgotten witnesses to our self-absorption, our competitive frenzy that leads to self-destruction. I don’t think that the scriptwriter, Linda Woolverton, meant this to be the takeaway. She has said that she wants to portray powerful, strong women so that young girls have better role models than weak princesses waiting around to be discovered by their Prince Charming in order for life to begin. Fair enough. I would agree that the romantic love model has failed women, but I’m afraid so has this striving after power and strength. What we fail to see when we are locked in rivalry with men is that this striving after power has failed them, too. When we prize power based on defeating rivals, whether in romance, at work, in politics or on the world stage, we lose ourselves. It bears repeating: we lose ourselves because we ultimately defeat no one but our own better natures.

And the innocent victims in all this striving by both men and women to gain a stronghold in the world are our children. Children who go to bed cold, sick, and hungry in our cities, in refugee camps, in countries we have invaded or neglected or colonized economically. Children who go to bed with the nagging sense that there is something or someone that their parents love more than them. If you bristle at this, if you feel anger rising in your gut, it may be because I am way off base and in dire need of your correction. But it may also mean that your own conscience is being pricked, that the pain you feel is what happens when we are confronted with a truth we’d rather not hear. The sign of a strength and power that would heal, not harm, ourselves and our children would be if we could undertake a heroic charge against the dragon of our self-serving rivalries.

Only Love Can Save Us

In the end, Maleficent and the child are saved by love. Their journey is a beautiful one, one I encourage you to take by seeing the movie. I will tell you this much, which will not spoil the movie for you: Maleficent is freed from rivalry, she relinquishes her throne and embraces the image of herself that she found reflected to her in the child’s eyes. What she saw there was an image of herself as one who loves, who nurtures, who protects – not something she was when she cursed the child and wished her dead. But she becomes that very thing under the loving gaze of the little princess. Now that’s what a true princess can do! That’s what women can do, and men, too, when we abandon our rivalry with each other for power and success as a world run by fear defines it.

The movie ends with the credits running underneath an oddly discordant version of the romantic love song from the animated Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. Remember the lyrics?

I know you
I walked with you once upon a dream
I know you

The gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam
Yet, I know it's true
That visions are seldom all they seem

But If I know you, I know what you'll do
You'll love me at once
The way you did once upon a dream

If it’s possible, it’s sung in an ironic tone, inviting us to wonder about the true meaning of love when it becomes infected by rivalry. Rivalry casts a gauze over our eyes so that we see each other dimly, falsely, as if in a dream or a vision. We see others as obstacles to be overcome, enemies to be defeated, or pawns to be played on the way to making our dreams come true. We cannot see them for who they are, people like us needing more than anything to find ourselves in the loving gaze of others. When we walk with each other “upon a dream” such as the one manufactured by rivalry, how can we trust the love we find there?

That love can’t be trusted because it’s not love at all. Rivalry spoils love and can only lead to destruction. So, where should we seek true love, true flourishing? The only sure place is in relationships modeled on the love between Maleficent and the young girl. With Woolverton, I hope that women will wake up from rivalrous dreams and that along with men we will begin to find our true worth in the gaze of those who look up to us, depend upon us, and love us unflinchingly. It is our children, with their eyes wide open, who can bring us to our true selves if we have the courage to return their gaze.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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