Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maleficent Musings: Part One

For quite some time, I have been interested in the use of infertility as a trope in fairy tales, but it was not until I saw Disney's Maleficent for the first time last year that I felt I had something concrete to research. In fact, I will be presenting a paper at a conference in April about this topic, if the paper ever gets written. The thing is, I am suffering from a severe case of writer's blog. A combination of too much work/grading, anxiety, intimidation, and even perhaps too much research has prevented me from writing a single word. I have lots of notes, but nothing that fits together yet. So, I decided to write this blog in the hopes that I can get some of my ideas down and to take the pressure off of myself to create a formal, polished piece of academic prose. So, here goes...
In a recent interview on the Diane Rhem Show, Marina Warner explains that fairy tales endure because they spark the imagination and allow for protest and resistance. Fairy tales, because of their simple narrative structure and broadly-defined characters, provide a unique space for creating adaptations of the tales for new, social and political contexts. Certainly, as evidenced by their continued presence in both academia and popular culture, fairy tales are fertile ground for authors, scholars, and film makers alike. They are reproducing stories that allow us to resist and challenge cultural values and mores. In recent years, the trend in Disney’s fairy tale films and television shows has been to offer a new, fresh perspective that attempts to challenge previous gendered narratives of their often-criticized princess films. At the same time, these reproductions often fall short of their goal. According to Cristina Bacchilega, postmodern fairy tales may revise and question classic, literary forms as they simultaneously adhere to previous models of gender norms.

In the summer of 2014, Disney's Maleficent was welcomed into the corpus of fairy tale reproductions. Some celebrated the film for its focus on one of the most beloved villains in Disney history and for it's rejection of the traditional "true love's kiss" formula of the animated version. In Maleficent, we no longer see a submissive and sleeping beauty waiting for a prince to save her, and audiences applauded the revision. On the other hand, others have criticized Disney's portrayal of Maleficent as yet another woman who has been wronged by a man and who is, therefore, vengeful and bitter. Despite these mixed reviews, most agree that Maleficent is a step in the right direction as it rescues us from the classic, happily-ever-after narrative. However,I will show that in spite of the film’s acknowledgment of feminist critiques of fairy tales and self-conscious attempts to resist them, it nevertheless emphasizes cultural norms of ideal femininity and motherhood that shape women’s lives. In this paper, I will read Disney's Maleficent in terms of the fertility narrative. I argue that while Maleficent investigates the reproductive narratives of classic fairy tale forms, the film reinforces enduring, internalized stories of feminine worth and fertility.

  Maleficent screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, explains that she did not consult classic, literary forms of Sleeping Beauty while writing the film. Because it was Disney who gave the evil fairy her name and developed her into one of the most iconic villains, it makes sense that Woolverton would rely on Disney's sanitized version as source material. However, Disney's animated classic was based on classic versions of Sleeping Beauty, and as an offspring to the literary fairy tale, Maleficent naturally contains traits of these earlier traditions. Therefore, it is important to briefly investigate earlier versions of the tale and its reproductive ideologies. In her book, Pregnant Fictions,Holly Tucker explores the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth “inspired anxiety, wonder, and—most important—tale telling" in early modern fairy tales(4). She explains that these fairy tales provide a space that bridges the medical and personal discourses of reproduction and that the "genre is clearly predicated on a cycle of marriage and procreation; tales begin with queens who are desperate to become mothers and end with the marriage of daughters to princes” (11). Certainly, infertility seems to initiate many fairy tales, making the daughters born to infertile royalty all the more valuable and, therefore, worthy of the princes who save them. The tale of Sleeping Beauty, however, seems to be one that maintains themes of fertility, sex, and even rape throughout its multiple versions.
The origin of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood begins with Basile's 17th century tale titled "Sun, Moon, and Talia." This early version has little in common with either Disney's animated film or the recent Maleficent. The story opens with the birth of a daughter to a gentleman. The baby becomes a beautiful woman, named Talia, who pricks her finger on a piece of poisoned flax and falls into a death-like sleep. One day, a king discovers Talia in the abandoned palace, rapes her, and leaves. The woman gives birth to twins, and when one of the babies sucks at the piece of flax in the mother's finger, the woman awakes. Though this version of the more well-known story does not open with the trope of infertility, it does portray the anxieties and mysteries of reproduction. It literally takes a child to suck out the bitter thing in the mother and to save her. It is not a prince who saves Talia, but her daughter. When Talia awakes, the king's wife, who notably does not have children, attempts to kill Talia and the twins and to feed them to her husband as punishment for his infidelity. The queen, who possessed the "heart of a Medea," is thrown into a fire, and Talia, with her children and her new husband, live happily ever after.

 Disney's Sleeping Beauty was primarily based on a combination of narrative characteristics found in both Charles Perault's and Grimm Brothers's versions. Though both open with an infertile king and queen who long for a child, notably, Perault's version is one of the few fairy tales that portrays the grief and desperation of the childless. “Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were ever so unhappy, because they had no children; so unhappy I can’t tell you. They went to all the spas to drink the waters there, gave presents to all the saints, went on pilgrimages, and always said their prayers; everything was tried and nothing worked.” Recent research indicates that grief, desperation, and anguish not only accompany infertility, but that the media and storytellers portray this desperation as something unnatural, negative, or unhealthy. According to Naomi Pfeffer, the portrayal of the desperate, childless woman contributes to popular discourses about infertility: "It seems that once you find yourself involuntarily childless, all other identifying marks are washed away.... The word desperation or some such synonym appears so frequently in conjunction with infertility that sometimes it appears that what troubles infertile men and women is not the absence of a child as such but some form of emotional disorder related to their failure"(82). What few have recognized, however, is that early, literary fairy tales also use this trope of the desperate, infertile woman, which, I believe informs popular culture discourses today. In these tales, we see women who are willing to try everything: bargaining, seeking out the help of a malevolent witch, or going on pilgrimages. These discourses, which appear in early fairy tales and persist in films like Maleficent continue to perpetuate myths about a woman's worth.

 Because these earlier tales serve as progenitors, it is not surprising that the evolution of and the making of Maleficent is rooted in dominant discourses about infertility and the redemptive power of motherhood. When asked about the biggest challenge she faced in transforming a villain into a hero, Linda Woolverton said, "How on earth was I going to justify that this woman would curse a baby? Even if you can never come back from something so horrific, what's done is done. She doesn't ask for forgiveness, and her love for Aurora is her redemption...I have a daughter, so I'm sure I wouldn't have written the same character 10 years ago." For Woolverton, the most evil and unfathomable aspect of Maleficent is her willingness to hurt a baby. Because of her own role as a mother, the screenwriter finds that the only way to combat this kind of villainy is through the love of a child. That, for Woolverton, is Maleficent's redemption. Likewise, Angelina Jolie, who is as often recognized as a mother of six as she is for her professional work, explained in a recent interview: "The core of [the film] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people. The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?'” Interestingly, Jolie first notes Maleficent's lack of maternity and equates maternity with womanhood and softness. Without maternity, a woman, then, is hard, dark,and unfeminine, someone capable of inflicting abuse on others, even a child.
These themes play out in notable ways throughout the film, and in part two, I will begin diving into a close reading of significant scenes.