Monday, March 9, 2015

Maleficent Musings Part Two

Disney’s Maleficent is very much concerned with storytelling and how stories are told. In the opening scene, the narrator, who we later learn is the Sleeping Beauty herself, tells us that this is a version we are not familiar with, an “old story told anew.” Therefore, Maleficent firmly situates itself in the narrative tradition of all fairy tales, stories that are often revised for different audiences. However, the film’s revision also links it to strategies and processes of infertility narratives. Maggie Kirkman points out that, for the childless,  part of the process of mourning  is revising their autobiographical narratives, how they understand themselves and relate to the world around them. Their lives, she explains, have experienced a disruption in, what seem to be, natural processes toward adulthood.  Infertile men and women must consequently create new stories to fulfill these coming of age processes and with which to identify themselves. However, as Kirkman points out, there are several barriers to this necessary and painful revisionary practice. Namely, dominant, canonical narratives of motherhood perpetuated in mass media. In other words, films like Maleficent that rely on the power of motherhood to redeem a lost woman are not new stories. They are old ones simply told in a slightly new way. These films, then, do not assist—and often prevent—infertile women in constructing new stories about their worth and identities. 

Maleficent is also connected to themes of fertility in more tangible ways through imagery of the mother goddess. In her analysis of the origins of goddess worship and the divinity of the maternal, Rachel Pollack explains that the Mother Goddess is “life-giving, nurturing, sometimes terrifying, but always tied to nature and to the truth of our own bodies” (1). Maleficent is all of these things. She is first depicted as one who is capable of giving life and later as one who is frightening and capable of death. And in both of her identities—as hero and villain—she is connected to nature, and, consequently, to the truth of women’s bodies. In fact, the film is not subtle in its depiction of Maleficent as a goddess figure. The early scenes establish Maleficent’s connection to nature. She is dressed in earth-colored garments of browns, greens, and golds, and the narrator tells the viewer that Maleficent is the “protector of the moors.”   
We first meet a young Maleficent as she sits in a tree.  The young fairy holds a broken branch in her hands and heals the wound, allowing the branch to grow and to sprout new leaves. She is established, therefore, as a maiden goddess who embodies the life giving force of nature. She is a “source of vegetation, fruition, fertility of every kind” (Rich 100). Because she is young, innocent, and at one with nature, this young fairy, the film shows us, is also playful as she engages in a mud-fight with the inhabitants of the moors. Interestingly, mud or clay is often an image linked to the mother goddess. Barbara G. Walker explains that “… the early Semitic worshippers of the Great Mother…were “men of clay” -the meaning of their name-because their bodies came forth from Modir. This meant the root of both “mud” and “mother.” The maiden Maleficent we encounter early in the film ultimately provides promises of fertility. We expect the young fairy 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 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 simply cut away Maleficent’s wings; he uses iron chains to burn and cauterize them. If hysterectomy is understood as “cutting 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 that leaves her “empty and lacking.” A part of her womanhood that Maleficent must find again in order to be redeemed. 

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