Yes, the 'Maleficent' rape scene matters for all women

Angelina Jolie is talking about rape.

Last week the academy award-winning actress was all over the internet when she joined Foreign Secretary William Hague in leading the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The summit came just days after the opening of Jolie’s current film, Maleficent, which opened at #1 and has since grossed over $ 150M worldwide. The Disney production is a retelling of the 1959 animated classic from the villain’s point of view that has received mixed reviews among critics but garnered significant attention in circles for it’s provocative story line.

As Jezebel’s Dodai Steart describes:

“The moment that transforms Maleficent from a fun-loving, quirky woodland fairy into cruel, pissed-off sorceress is an act of violence. The man she thought was her friend drugs her, and while she is unconscious, he saws off her wings. She wakes up bleeding, in pain, a part of her destroyed. Sobbing. It feels like a sexual assault.”

Yes, it does and it was meant to, according to Jolie, also the film’s executive producer.  During an interview on the BBC Woman’s Hour, Jolie was explicit that the integral scene was intentionally written as a metaphor for rape.  This is no small feat in a feature film by one of America’s most prominent and beloved studios, known for it’s portrayal of women as lovesick, house-arrested eye-candy. Jolie’s participation in lobbying for legislative change on a global front is inspiring though it may be Maleficent that is challenging the most insidious of oppressors, the Hollywood Feature Film. As the LA Times’ Betsy Sharkey points out: “It’s one thing to speak in front of global dignitaries about the need to combat rape; it’s quite another to slip that message into a global blockbuster.”

It is no secret that there is tremendous gender disparity in Hollywood where the stories of men are told in the words of men, through the lenses of men, and are about the desires of men. In 2013, the MPAA reported that 52% of movie going audiences were women. Yet, of the year’s top 500 grossing films, women comprised only 30% of speaking roles only half of which were protagonists.  When women are present, mostly written by men,  they are often regulated to the usual roles of ingénue, mother, or wicked witch/queen/stepmother, a pattern so consistent that it has been argued Thelma & Louise (1991) was the last great movie about women.

Combating this is one of the ways Maleficent creates real change for creating a feminist film means more than just passing the Bechdel Test. Maleficent has two female protagonists and the majority of the film focuses on the relationship they develop with each other. It was written by a woman, Disney veteran Linda Woolverton, who credits the film with one of the most emotional moments of her career, the kiss scene between Maleficent and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty.

“You have to rewrite these things 100 times, and every single time I wrote it I could barely get through it. I did Homeward Bound, you know that dog movie? Every single time I wrote the moment over the hill when everyone comes back at the end, I would cry into my hand over the keyboard. The kiss scene was like that for me.”

Woolverton’s emotional attachment and her assertion that 20 years ago she couldn’t have written “as complex a lead character” is a reflection of the rampant sexism in Hollywood and echoes the growing frustration of  women moviegoers who yearn to see characters in their likeness and stories that mirror their own experiences.

Of course, the film has it’s flaws and allows ample opportunity for feminist critique. It is, in fact, a fairy tale created in the same old storybook of kingdoms and hierarchies and colonization. So lackluster in creativity Lindy West asks, “You could have built any world you wanted to—why choose one ruled by the same regressive, white-washed mid century morality as every other "modern" fairy tale? Aren't thou bored?” West goes on to note the glaring acceptance of gender normativity by the female characters who exist as “moldy feminine tropes—the sullied innocent, the abandoned lover lost without her man, the evil ex-girlfriend, the overreacting harpy, the broken woman redeemed by motherhood.”

It’s true. West’s analyses evokes the thesis of Audre Lorde’s must-read essay which asserts that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. But focusing on the ways Maleficent reinforces stereotypical images of women distracts from the vital moments when it does not, most notably the conscious choice by the writer and executive producer to create a national dialogue about rape and sexual assault, in a country where it largely goes unspoken. Fairy tale or not Maleficent is reflective of the experiences of #YesAllWomen.

“The Longest War” is what writer Rebecca Solnit calls America’s cultural relationship between sexual violence and gender:

“At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”

The feminist lessons in Maleficent may not have the same magnitude as those taught in college classrooms or published in scholarly journals but they are reflective of a common experience among American women and girls. Who, though they may not live in a categorical warzone, none the less live in a country where: 1 in 4 experience teen dating violence, 1 in 4 are abused by a partner in their lifetime, and 1 in 6 are survivors of rape or attempted rape (source).

The same women who cheered when Aurora saves Maleficent by rescuing her wings the way a generation of women before erupted in support when Louise shoots Thelma’s rapist. It more than just a climactic plot twist, it is more than just character redemption and it way more than revenge. It is a chance for real women to access and feel their right to a self determined life. Women who know the risks of standing up to the oppressor in the real world. Through these characters a silenced majority is given a voice that is resonating beyond the silver screen.

After all, the Global Summit to End Violence During Conflict didn’t take place in Fairy Land.