We first meet a young Maleficent in the budding promise of Spring as she lounges in a tree. The scene is vibrant, and the moors are a fertile place where flowers bloom and young fairies thrive. The young girl holds a broken branch in her hands and heals the wound, allowing the branch to grow and to sprout new leaves. Maleficent is established, therefore, as a maiden goddess who embodies the life giving force of nature. She is, in the words of Adrienne Rich as she remarks of the mother goddess, a “source of vegetation, fruition, fertility of every kind” (Rich 100). The maiden Maleficent we encounter early in the film ultimately provides promises of fertility. Because the young fairy is in the Spring season of her life, we expect her to reproduce and to insure that the truth of women’s bodies is a healing and fruitful one.
One of the most poignant scenes of the film, however, shows us the dangers of women’s bodies and their power when this promise of fertility is unfulfilled. In an attempt to win favor with the king and to inherit his throne, Stefan must bring proof that he has killed Maleficent. He approaches the maiden as a friend and the one who offers her true love’s kiss. He drugs her, and then, unable to follow through with killing her, Stefan violently removes her wings as she sleeps. This scene serves as the catalyst for the events that follow. Because Maleficent loses her wings—and her soul with them—she turns vengeful , embodying the terrifying aspect of the Great Mother, and later curses Stefan’s child, Aurora.
This emotional scene has been understood symbolically both as a rape and as a castration. Not only do we see remnants of the fairy tale’s ancestry here, we also see a clear, but complex, metaphor for infertility. In fact, Adrienne Rich explains the rhetoric of sterilization and hysterectomy: “the language suggests a cutting—or burning—away of her essential womanhood, just as the old word “barren” suggests a woman is eternally empty and lacking” (29). Similarly, Stefan does not merely cut away Maleficent’s wings; he uses iron chains to burn and cauterize them. If hysterectomy is understood as “cutting—or burning—away..of womanhood,” so can the removal of Maleficent’s wings. After all, it is the loss of her wings that leads, as Jolie observes, to the loss of Maleficent’s maternity, a part of her womanhood and femininity that leaves her “empty and lacking,” and willing to curse a baby. It is a part of her womanhood that Maleficent must find again in order to be redeemed.
Maleficent is, instead, thrust into winter, a metaphorical season of a woman’s life that embodies both sexual unavailability and reproductive inability. In other words, we first encounter Maleficent as a maiden, and now we see her as a crone, the last figure of a female, triune deity that signals the last stages of a woman’s life. The Triple Godesses, the maiden, the mother, and the crone, illustrate a woman’s connection to nature, traditional life-cycles, and “embody the Moon as a symbol of women’s fertility” (Pollack 19). The Crone Goddess is also known as the dark mother, a figure associated with the death and destruction of late autumn and winter seasons. When Maleficent realizes she has lost her wings, one of her first actions mirrors those early in the film, and she takes on the cloak of the crone. The traumatized woman notices a broken branch lying on the ground and uses it to magically fashion a walking stick, a scepter that has now become an iconic symbol associated with Disney’s villain. It is not a coincidence that the figure of the crone is most often depicted, like Maleficent, with a walking stick and a raven on her shoulder.
While the Crone is often a figure of wisdom and benevolent power, she is also at times portrayed as one who signifies the darker aspects of the Great Mother, those that are terrifying. Disney’s Maleficent seems to offer an explanation for the crone’s destructive aspect. The disruption to her life-cycle, her loss of maternity, has produced an unnatural consequence: she is hard, dark, and vengeful. In a word, Maleficent is unnaturally unfeminine. The role of motherhood, then, is a natural progression that produces wise, benevolent grandmother figures, but without a child, the power of the woman becomes corrupt and dangerous. Ultimately, the film’s imagery of a female, triune deity as embodied by Maleficent reinforces the social importance of reproduction and motherhood in a woman’s natural life cycle. It also perpetuates the myth that a childless woman is one to fear.