A recent column by Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post blames Hollywood, specifically comedies that celebrate misogynistic males, for the killings in Santa Barbara. Even if you buy her premise that movies affect rather than reflect behavior and social attitudes (I’m not convinced), why pick on such feeble scapegoats? Aren’t films that portray women as malignant creatures capable of black magic and perverse seduction just as pernicious? Such films convey both a twisted male image of women and the distorted image that women have of themselves.
Such would seem the case with “Maleficent,” Disney’s remake of its 1959 “Sleeping Beauty.” After all, in the original film, Maleficent, a fairy gone bad, embodies utter evil. Snubbed when not invited to a party, she curses a baby, Princess Aurora, decreeing that on her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spindle and die (a good fairy manages to commute the sentence to endless sleep). I won’t venture into Freudian interpretations, but the spell spoils the king’s plans to marry off Aurora to the son of another monarch and thus secure their patriarchy.
Wicked and loving it, Maleficent is the most entertaining part of the movie, which makes her both seductive and fun to hate, a character to which both girls and boys can relate.
More than half a century later, and after a decade of “Harry Potter” movies, witches and the like have lost their stigma, and movies have softened their categorizations of women as simply good or evil. Thus the new version of “Sleeping Beauty” is told from Maleficent’s point of view and has succumbed to the bane of modern moviemaking: the origin story. In this version, according to a recent review in the Globe, Maleficent (played by Angelina Jolie) starts out good. However, bad men despoil her wild domain, so she puts a curse on the king’s daughter, but then has second thoughts, and so on.
Sounds like other recent movies that have been trying to have it both ways. Like the prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013), in which the Wicked Witch of the West begins as an innocent but turns bad when deceived by her evil sister. Or “Beautiful Creatures” (2013), in which a girl who is from a long line of “Casters” (i.e. witches) will determine on her 16th birthday (like Aurora) whether she’ll be drawn to the dark side, like her diabolic sister and mother, or to the light, like her saintly uncle. Or the mother in “The Conjuring” (2013), who wants to kill her children because she’s been possessed by the spirit of a witch who haunts her house.
Though initially innocent, these women face damnation for the same reason — deviation from traditional female roles as mates and mothers into an assertion of autonomy. They’re drawn to the “dark” side, and if they can’t exorcise that dark side they’ll suffer the fate of all wicked women before them.
These films, just like those called out by Hornaday, reflect attitudes embedded in our culture, attitudes that generate misogyny, inequality, and violence against women. It will take work to reform such evils. Condemning the mirror that reveals them is not the way forward.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.