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