• author
    • Reviving Herstory

    • November 13, 2014 in Bloggers

    The secret history of Maleficent: murder, rape, and woman-hating in Sleeping Beauty

    Henry Meynell Rheam, "Sleeping Beauty," Public Domain image.

    Henry Meynell Rheam, “Sleeping Beauty,” Public Domain image.

    A version of this post originally appeared on the RH Blog on Reviving Herstory: Reviving and retelling lost women’s stories. Biblical, historical, and otherwise. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

    If you know a little of the dark underbelly of fairy tales, you know that behind the happily ever after of Disney films often lies a more macabre origin. In the tales of the Brothers Grimm, from which Disney borrowed heavily, Cinderella’s step-sisters hack off a chunk of their feet trying to fit into the famous slipper, while in Snow White the evil queen is fitted with a pair of iron shoes seared in red-hot coals and forced to dance in them until she drops dead. In Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil.” But what kind of woman was she, really, and what do you know of the dark secrets hidden in the stories she emerged from? In a world that is anything but Never Never Land, who has the time to go chasing down fairy tales in search of their deep dark truths?

    Like many of us, I grew up with the haunting voice and sinfully delicious image of Disney’s iconic Maleficent, and have been enchanted by her ever since. When Angelina Jolie took on the role this year I was thrilled to find a feminist reclamation of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Enthralled by her spirit and her costuming alike, I decided to pay homage to Maleficent for Halloween. But, good herstorian that I am, I did not just dress the part; I also sought out Maleficent’s history. What I found was a world where women’s power was a threat punishable by death, where the image of the passive, youthful woman was revered while that of the strong, older woman was despised, and where a seemingly innocent kiss, once upon a time, was an act of rape.

    Why do I care? And why should you? Because reclaiming women from the stereotypes of fairy tales can empower us, as real-life women, to defy the roles too-long proscribed for us by men.

    Sivan as Maleficent, Halloween 2014.

    Sivan as Maleficent, Halloween 2014.

    When the world first met Maleficent, in the early 17th century, she was neither witch nor evil fairy. In the earliest known version of Sleeping Beauty — Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia — the ‘villainess’ is, in fact, a queen betrayed. When her husband the king cheats on her and starts a new family with the younger Princess Talia, the queen orders the illegitimate children of their union killed, cooked, and fed to her husband. Then she orders “a large fire lit in the courtyard of the palace, and command[s] that Talia should be cast into it.” The king swoops in and saves the day by having his wife burned in Talia’s place and taking the younger and more amiable princess as his new wife. As luck would have it, their children had in fact been spared, and, in a Henry VIII kind of way, everyone but the wronged queen gets to have their happily ever after.

    And so Maleficent emerged onto the world literary stage. A woman without rights, with no recourse when her husband lies to her and cheats on her with a younger woman. An archetypal “mad” or “hysterical” woman who is jealous, vain, and petty, and who stoops to cruelty and murder to get her revenge.

    Ever wonder why the world needed The First Wives’ Club?

    In the late 17th century Charles Perrault picked up the mantle of Basile’s story and recast it as The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. Here Maleficent becomes an amalgam of different kinds of ‘evil’ women. She is part “old fairy,” jealous and spiteful and murderous, and part “ogress,” a woman who cannot be trusted to abstain from eating her own grandchildren and/or feeding them to a pit of snakes. A woman married solely for her money, whose own son does not mourn her death for long, “for she was his mother; but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife and his pretty children.”

    Because who needs a mother, really, when you have a beautiful wife and pretty children?

    In each of these tellings the author sets up a dichotomy of types of women. The beautiful young princess — malleable, obedient, and acted upon by dominant men — versus the unwanted older woman who is jealous, bitter, vengeful and cruel. And so we are taught to revere youth, beauty, and passivity among women, and to be suspicious — hateful even — of women who are older, powerful, and opinionated. Women who stand up for themselves are equated with murderous child-killers, witches, and ogres, while women who literally lay back and take what men give them are rewarded for their ‘virtue.’

    The Grimm Brothers borrowed Perrault’s narrative, but left out the ogress. In fact, the whole serving-people-for-dinner scenario is omitted, and we are left, more or less, with Sleeping Beauty as retold by Disney in 1959. It is here that our villainess first gets the name Maleficent; until that point she is nameless and known only in derogatory terms. It is not until the 2014 film Maleficent, however, that she sheds her two-dimensional reputation for evil and fights the longstanding negative stereotyping of women that has haunted this story through the ages.

    If villainizing powerful women is not enough, the original tale has another dark secret: rape. Remember the married king who cheated on his rightful queen and started a new family with Princess Talia? Yeah, that all happened while Talia was sleeping. That’s right. In the original story the king rapes and impregnates the princess, fathering two children upon her in her sleep. Disney’s 2014 Maleficent pays homage to this buried secret [SPOILER ALERT] when the fairy’s former love cuts her wings off of her body in her sleep. The rest of the film becomes about reclamation of women’s bodies and women’s power.

    "Prince Florimund Finds the Sleeping Beauty." Project Gutenberg etext 19993, Public Domain image.

    “Prince Florimund Finds the Sleeping Beauty.” Project Gutenberg etext 19993, Public Domain image.

    Another key reversal in 2014’s Maleficent is a strong emphasis on women’s friendship and collaboration. In every previous incarnation of the tale, two types of women are pitted against one another: the beautiful, passive young princess versus evil older women. But in the 2014 film, Maleficent and Princess Aurora team up against injustice with two goals in mind: honoring their love for one another and making Maleficent whole again after she is raped.

    Luckily, we live in a time where more and more filmmakers are striving to create strong female role models, and where revisionist authors are re-writing the back stories of formerly evil female villains. There are important lessons about autonomy, female empowerment, and positive female relationships in films such as Brave and Frozen and in books and musicals such as Wicked. This fantastic TED Talk by Colin Stokes breaks down the shifting landscape of female role models in children’s stories and argues that “cooperation is heroic, and respecting women is as manly as defeating the villain.”

    Maleficent, not unlike our beloved Lilith, came into this world lowly and demonized. She was powerful, but her power — women’s power — caused fear in the hearts of men. And so she had to be done away with, time and again, and replaced with a quiet, powerless woman whose virtue lay not in her strength, but in her passivity and beauty. But Maleficent did not take her treatment lying down. With each version of the tale her power grew, until, like Lilith, she joined the ranks of feminist icon. Maleficent now reigns over the dawn of a new era, an era where women stand up, together, for justice, equality, and a new definition of happily ever after.

    Fairy tales have an incalculable impact on the ways our culture views women. By taking a closer look at the way women have been cast in the fairy tales of yore, and by demanding a higher standard from the new stories being told today, we can give our children — and ourselves — real heroines.

    Who are your favorite fairy tale villains, and do they fit the mold of strong-woman-despised? Who are your favorite fairy tale princesses, and, when you look beneath their shiny exterior, what kind of women do you find?

    • I LOVE that you drew the line between Malificent and Henry VIII’s wives… but I also see parallels with Lilith! Could you do a Malificent/Lilith/Anne Boleyne matrix?
      And… LOVE your work to revive Herstory!

      • Helen/Hawk

      • November 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm
      • Reply

      Interesting read on Malificient. In the film, however, mine was quite different concerning women’s power. In that film….M wasn’t whole because of no child. She stalked Princess Aurora until she kidnapped her. She didn’t become whole until she kissed her (brought her to life). As a feminist I found the film really disturbing perpetuating old tales of women needing children to be whole.

      • An interesting read, Helen/Hawk! I certainly had my share of problems with the film, but I did feel they attempted a feminist reclamation, at least in some ways. But that angle you see, on women needing children to be whole, is so topical as feminist discourse. So interesting to re-read the Maleficent film in that light.

        • Veronica

        • December 1, 2014 at 5:47 pm
        • Reply

        I did not read it as her “need” for a child…in fact, she meant to simply deprive the father of his child out of retribution for being deprived of her wings and his love. Against her own desires, she came to love the child, and the child her. I understood this as a healing for her..embracing, as we all must, all of the selves of woman…from child self, to virginal self, to first-love self, to wounded self, to healed self to crone….not a one is less important than another….

      • Maya Elashi

      • November 14, 2014 at 9:21 am
      • Reply

      i can relate ~~~ oh! the cast-out: Women without Men: stories too numerous to tell

      • David Lacy

      • November 14, 2014 at 10:36 am
      • Reply

      @ Maya: Stories too numerous to tell, indeed! And yet Reviving Herstory is working passionately to unearth/re-tell as many as possible.

    • I love these re-tellings. Have you ever read Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur? Still a profoundly compelling analysis of what it is that men and also women fear about women.

    • For one films aren’t making strong women role models they’re making women more queer than queer to sell the film on top of more nudity! Evil in the mix is just more of a dominatrix spin off, basically women are being coerced by film and media to succumb to the more demented needs and desire of men more than ever! People are so fukn blind and oblivious to what’s really going on! Women are weaker than ever and have never in history stood on their own two feet! Until a woman and a man detach from each other and themselves, null and void pleasure seeking, the human race will never evolve as much as they will grow in spite of technology above and beyond the interstellar grid!

      • everything is how we interpret it. I don’t see the dominatrix thing at all. or the queer thing. It was TRUE love, not sexual at all. I didn’t even see it as women needing children. But that we need to support and love and not be in competition. The union of male and female is beautiful and necessary. the yin and the yang are to compliment and enjoy and mingle. I don’t feel weaker than ever… that’s insane. If we see things in a dark light that is what we will see. I loved the movie. I found it beautiful. The only thing I would say is we need to be careful not to totally denigrate men as we find our equal footing, swinging too wildly the other way isn’t what we need either.

        • That was my take too, Aminda. Well said. I was very pleasantly surprised when I watched this movie and thought the same as you. I can’t wait till my granddaughters are older to show it to them. Thank you, Angelina.

      • Brieanna

      • November 15, 2014 at 6:50 am
      • Reply

      Disney’s Ursula…depicted as being the total opposite of Ariel and her sisters, and also evil. She’s fat. She’s not white. She has short hair. Her hair is grey.

      • Stephanie

      • November 15, 2014 at 9:38 am
      • Reply

      What about Medea in the Greek mythology? She also fed her children to her husband.

      • mandacookie13

      • November 15, 2014 at 9:56 am
      • Reply

      The red queen in Alice in wonderland always got my investment. She was to the point, short and divinely mad.

    • I have always felt that the origins of these tales were actually warnings to young women.

      Fairy Tales by MiladyElfn

      our will
      with Disney lies
      sanitized for protection
      of innocence
      so they say

      truth dismissed
      as too dark
      replaced by rigidity
      of sex
      benefiting patriarchy

      by Hollywood
      for perverse old men
      young girls for
      the slaughter
      of self
      and soul rape

      the message
      true Fairy Tales
      Old Women wise
      to their ways
      beware offerings
      from dubious sources

      take power
      from darkness
      dragon bone, phoenix fire
      who we are
      the warrior

        • David Lacy

        • November 16, 2014 at 8:24 am
        • Reply

        That was awesome!

      • Carolyne 'Chevy' Pickup

      • November 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm
      • Reply

      It is interesting how women have gone from slave/property, to servant, and finally partner. Fairy Tales were at one time stories told to grownups not children, just as the myths of Rome and Greece were stories for adults. Cultures which fear empowered women foster abuse and limited opportunities for education. Fairy Tales condition our children to believe in certain ideals which may not support them ie: Some day someone will rescue you and give you everything you desire. In the middle ages it was the ‘wise women’ who were widowed and held property and were not upstanding members of the church who became victims of slander, accused of witchcraft and murdered legally. Behind the accusations and trials the church gathered property and became very rich murdering elderly women who were usually herbalists or midwives. But we are left with the ‘wicked witch’ construct so if you age and become wise then you are wicked.

      • Marina

      • November 16, 2014 at 2:50 am
      • Reply

      Well said ^^^ poetically correct

      • Lori DeLeon

      • November 16, 2014 at 11:28 am
      • Reply

      I don’t believe it’s really all that complicated. Perhaps it’s more about looking at and embracing our own dark side and shining the light of love for our own self…..

      • Maya North

      • November 16, 2014 at 10:37 pm
      • Reply

      This had me levitating with joy. I had just watched the Disney movie when this gorgeous magnum opus appeared (as if by magic!) and lo! All the things I’d seen in the movie (Disney? Really? Disney did this? I’m staggered!) you so perfectly and eloquently expressed. And when the source of the “true love’s kiss” was revealed, I thought I would sink to the floor weeping (as I had throughout the movie as the wonderful Maleficent is put through hell by the greedy, violent man she’d trusted). The fact is, 90% of women are straight (or mostly) and that means we’re going to want to love men, to trust them, which can be a fatal decision — or can cost us our wings, literally or figuratively. There *were* worthy men in this portrayal — Maleficent’s faithful, winged companion and the young prince at movie’s end. It wasn’t about male-bashing. It was a portrayal of women’s reality for millenia — including now — and the idea that true love isn’t necessarily where you’ve been culturally conditioned to think you’ll find it. 😀

    • A similar dynamic occurred during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. At the time, one of the few ways a woman could own property was by inheriting it from a deceased husband. An inordinately large proportion of the 29 people accused of witchcraft were women who had wealth or property, ownership of which reverted, in many cases, to their accusers.

      In at least some of the witchcraft accusations, the suspect’s crime was a religious offense only in that it involved a woman who had gained wealth and power.

      • bryan

      • November 17, 2014 at 3:59 pm
      • Reply

      I see little to no need to revise the Celtic fairy tails. They are already told from a perspective of balance in male and female state of being. One of the great crimes that Palor the evil god and leader of the Fomoryians is that he was a rapist and had no respect for women. Furthermore where Gia or the mother of the gods in Greek myth takes a back seat to her son Celtic myth makes Danu the most important of the gods by calling the Celtic Pantheon the Children of the Goddess Danu. They have no indemnity with out her. Also ironic even though all the Gods or male deities are so bad ass in battle it is the Moragin who is their martial arts instructor. So if you are looking for fairy tails that do not denigrate women try the originals. I like ’em blessed be.

      • an.ri

      • December 1, 2014 at 2:47 am
      • Reply

      Great piece! I don’t think much about the fairy tales probably because I hate the whole setup of looking for a prince and happily ever after. My daughter’s favourite story is Hansel and Gretel. It annoys me that it’s always Hansel who comes up with solutions and Gretel is always the scared one. In fairness,she did push the with into the pot with boiling water and saved Hansel! Another thing that gets to me is that step mother controls the father so much he takes his own children into the middle of the dark forest to leave them there to die twice (!!!) and at the end he gets rid of evil step mother and again happily ever after. He is just as guilty as her if not more!

    • Love how you put that Bryan! I also have read the stories of the Norse Goddesses to my daughter. Odin, Thor Freyr, etc may have been powerful, but read about Frigga and Freya! Look at the power they held. Let’s not forget Hel… they were all a little intimidated by her. The Norse men depended on women to keep them sane. A norse woman could vote, hold property, etc. They did have the “if your husband dies, his brother will take care of you”, but that was out of respect. Women trained to fight if they so wished- they had to, the men left for the sea leaving their wives at home with children to protect. I am not saying they probably did not have their bad points, but I like Bryan say look to the Celts and Norse. Powerful women were celebrated…..

      As I say to my daughter, it is okay to be a damsel that can slay her own damn dragon!

      • Juniper Pearl

      • November 16, 2017 at 9:52 am
      • Reply

      Ani Difranco said it best in her song Not A Pretty Girl.
      “I am not a pretty girl
      That is not what I do
      I ain’t no damsel in distress
      And I don’t need to be rescued, so
      So put me down, punk
      Wouldn’t you prefer a maiden fair?
      Isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?
      I am not an angry girl
      But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
      Every time I say something they find hard to hear
      They chalk it up to my anger
      And never to their own fear, imagine you’re a girl
      Just trying to finally come clean
      Knowing full well they’d prefer you were dirty
      And smiling, and I am sorry
      But I am not a maiden fair
      And I am not a kitten
      Stuck up a tree somewhere
      And generally my generation
      Wouldn’t be caught dead working for the man
      And generally I agree with them
      Trouble is you got to have yourself
      An alternate plan, and I have earned my disillusionment
      I have been working
      All of my life
      And I am a patriot
      I have been fighting the good fight
      And what if there are no damsels in distress?
      What if I knew that, and I called your bluff?
      Don’t you think every kitten
      Figures out how to get down
      Whether or not you ever show up?
      I am not a pretty girl
      I don’t really want to be a pretty girl
      I wanna be more than a pretty girl…”

    Leave a Reply to David Lacy Cancel reply