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Why the Disney Movie Maleficent Matters

Jun 5 2014, 8:52am CDT | by

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Why the Disney Movie Maleficent Matters
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Why the Disney Movie Maleficent Matters

Disney’s Maleficent brought in $70 Million at the box office during its opening weekend. The real significance of the film, however, has nothing to do with revenue. Instead, it represents a cultural shift that can potentially have profound implications for our children.

In fact, what’s remarkable is that, with the exception of a few banal narrative devices that are presumable meant to hit us over the head with explicit evidence that the filmmakers are cognizant of basic critical gender theory, Maleficent is not a film about princesses, evil queens, femininity, nor girlhood. Don’t believe the buzz; there’s very little about gender here. Instead, Maleficent is a film about stories. It is a fairy tale of redemption in which some of the essential vulnerabilities of human experience are freed from their habitual narrative dichotomies.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, Disney has been the primary cinematic storyteller in the fairy tale genre. Maleficent matters because they spent $170 Million making a movie that’s different and then positioned it as a big summer blockbuster.

The Disney Company has not only dominated a market sector; it has also, to some degree, defined modern cultural iterations of classic narrative tropes. This is not merely because Disney has become such a media powerhouse that it can control what we view (although this is also true), it is also a result of Walt’s legacy: a remarkable intuitive ability to understand the kinds of stories that best capture the imagination of the collective.

When I write the words “capture the imagination,” I mean them literally, as if a Disney movie were a screenshot of the collective unconscious–like a photograph that captures a moment in time. The Walt Disney Company continues to present our dynamic psychic desktop back to us like a reflection of our collective imagination.

The thing about fairy tales is that they are more than just superficial stories. The great Jungian analysts Marie Louise Von Franz said that “fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”

Certainly we’ve all read myriad criticisms of Disney narrative conventions. Brilliant feminist thinkers, for example, have shown us the misogynistic implications of what is colloquially referred to as “The Disney Princess Rescue Fantasy.” But we’d do well to remember not to scapegoat the storyteller. Big media companies don’t colonize our imaginations all by themselves. Remember the lessons learned from Frantz Fanon, who wrote, “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists.”

Each individual–both oppressor and oppressed–bears some of the burden for the continued reinforcement of princess tropes and patriarchal evils. We will never conclusively solve the paradox of which comes first, the storytelling chicken or the collective psychic egg. Influence runs in both directions, from Disney to the consumer and then back again. Despite the Industrial Age’s insistence on describing the world in terms of simple mechanical causality, we all know that the relationship between a culture and its narratives is too complicated for simple who-caused-what and what-impacts-who explanations.

Still, who can deny that we’ve spent a century in a consumerist kingdom where good, evil, black, white, male, female, and many more have been codified and catalogued into clear oppositions? With Maleficent, things shift.

Spoiler alert: as much as I’d like to write this without giving away details, Maleficent just has too many surprises–narrative, aesthetic, emotional, etc. I couldn’t make my point without revealing them. Bookmark this page. See the film. Then come back and read the rest of this post.

The cultural shift that Maleficent endeavors to catalyze is clear from the start of the film. The castle of the ubiquitous Disney logo is absent. A new castle stands in its place behind Walt’s signature. I know this seems like a simple cinematic gimmick, but it is significant. In the world of fairy tales, ‘the kingdom’ is not just the setting, it is also the symbolic representation of a current psychic state–a way of being in the world that is in need of attention.

All fairy tales start with a neurotic kingdom, one that’s desperate for psychological alignment. The tale itself is always a kind of instruction manual on how make things right, how to restore balance. And this is why we often talk about “the moral of the story.” The lesson is always one of transformation: how to move from a current state of being into a better one. Disney’s familiar Cinderella’s castle logo finally appears after the final credits, as if to tells us that Maleficent puts the Magical Kingdom back in order.

Immediately, Maleficent’s opening narration tells us that industry and ambition are out of control in the kingdom. Hierarchy and inequality create an imperialist greed that’s always threatening the borders of the Mores (the land where the fairies live). All the adults in the audience should wonder at this point if, beneath all the fantasy and pixie dust, we’re in for an moral allegory about politics and wealth distribution in the current global economy? Yes, we are.

On the most basic level, economics and governance will play a primary role in Maleficent. But it goes much deeper. There’s also an environmental message, and a philosophical one. The film operates in a way that makes eco-feminist author Susan Griffin’s words ring true, “One cannot separate a culture’s way of ordering reality, its cosmology, its epistemology, from the social structures it contains.” In Maleficent, we see two competing social structures, the monarchy of the human kingdom and the utopian Democracy of the Mores. The humans order the universe into resources for industry. The fairies care for a sustainable planet.

The fairies live in the Mores: a magical land where all beings are happy, empowered, and seen for their individual strengths. The Mores is a swamp–a classic image of the unconscious imagination: fertile, moist, and scary in its unfamiliarity. Aesthetics are flipped upside down. There are strange flying shrimp-like creatures, tall wood-ogre guards, and mushroom critters with big noses covered in warts. They are all friendly, playful, and just generally living a good life. That is, they are living a good life until Stefan arrives.

Stefan is an orphan boy from the human kingdom and in his first scene with Maleficent (still a little girl at this point) a superficial puppy-love story blossoms. Although Stefan seems sweet, he really never does anything nice. He enters the Mores to steal a jewel, not because he’s hungry, but because he wants riches. He sees the wonders of the Mores as a source of extractable resources. Even in the montage of their blossoming love, he is never doing anything for Maleficent. She carries him, willing and excited to let her wings bear the burden of his weight. She’s naive, innocent, and too trusting.

Eventually, Stefan becomes both the king and the villain of the story. There’s nothing revolutionary here. Greediness, technology, and industry are often bad in our popular stories. Think of Star Wars’ empire. Think of Pinocchio’s Honest John. When it comes to our narrative conventions, we tend to maintain Puritan values. Hard work and ambition are pure when motivated by love and passion, but not money and materialism.

Still, there is something striking about Stefan: he’s an orphan that’s willing to do what it takes to get ahead in the world. And just like that, in 3D IMAX, Disney just criminalized the rags to riches story. The most common American protagonist is the average Joe that climbs the ladder to a position of power. Suddenly, here, living the American dream just turned Stefan into the enemy.

Readers are probably objecting that what makes Stefan evil is not his ambition, but rather that he drugged Maleficent and stole her wings to get ahead. Many writers have already pointed out that the theft of the wings is a symbolic date rape scene, roofies and all. I agree. But I think most writers are stuck on the gender implications and, therefore, missing the real point.

The scene is not about rape. It is a social commentary arguing that any hierarchical rise to power inherently happens through the exploitation of others and is therefore tantamount to rape. This is why, without her wings, Maleficent also becomes an oppressive ruler of the Mores. She’s been robbed of her ability to fly. Tethered to the ground, she cannot soar. Everything she represents, believes, and stands for has been grounded. Like most victims of oppression, she responds in kind. She takes it out on those who are smaller and weaker than she.

Had Walt made this movie during the cold war, he would’ve been blacklisted. I suspect this is why there’s an sappy platitude about the power of motherhood masking the real message: true love is not about living happily ever after in an out-dated institutionalized legal arrangement where one person is almost always exploited. The princess (Sleeping Beauty) is not a prize and she doesn’t need to be rescued. This story does not end with a wedding. The kiss of a handsome prince is a comedic gag in this film. The kingdom is transformed, and balance restored, when Aurora frees Maleficent’s wings, defeating the patriarchy, and allowing the magic of the Mores to flourish once again.

What is it about the Mores? Things are different there. It looks like a socialist democracy. True love, therefore, is not only between a man and woman, but rather, about valuing others: community, sustainability, caretaking, and social equality.

Because I’m writing in Forbes, most readers will probably take this as a criticism. Don’t mistake my explication for a condemnation of a film with an anti-capitalist message. I loved Maleficent. I saw it twice. There’s no criticism here, no judgment, just observation and interpretation.

I see the film as a reflection of where our collective psyche is inevitably headed. We’d be wise to heed its message. Let’s free the fairy’s wings from patriarchy’s prison. The boring dichotomy between socialism and capitalism is like barbed wire between two kingdoms that need to be united.

The movie’s final narration reminds us that Maleficent is both hero and villain. It is time to leave the kingdom of familiar partisan oppositions: let’s replace the either/or with neither/nor or both/and.

Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss , and MindShift’s Guide To Games And Learning  For information on Jordan’s upcoming books and events click here.


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