'Maleficent,' 'Sleeping Beauty' and Rethinking Fairy Tale Rape

For all its flaws, 'Maleficent' turns the fairy tale's biggest flaw into the film's strongest asset.

Angelina Jolie plays an anti-hero in Disney's "Maleficent."

Angelina Jolie plays an anti-hero in Disney's 'Maleficent'.

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“Maleficent” isn’t the movie we were all hoping for when we first saw production stills of Angelina Jolie rocking horns or heard Lana Del Rey orchestrating the trailer. It isn’t great, with critics pointing out problems in its pacing, its plot holes, and its sloppy special effects, among other things.

But the film, a live action “reinvention” of the "Sleeping Beauty" tale told from the perspective of its villain, does reach a moment of greatness in a pivotal scene to explain Maleficent’s turn to darkness. Maleficent, once a warmhearted fairy with strong wings, has those wings taken from her – ripped off her body in a drug-induced sleep – by a man she trusted. This may be a PG-rated children’s film, but the scenario’s parallels to sexual assault are not lost on its adult viewers.

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The choice is interesting, for reasons perhaps entirely coincidental, considering the problems with the "Sleeping Beauty" story in the first place. According to Jack Zipes, author of "Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion," and numerous other books about fairy tales, in the story, “the patriarchal notion is that all women should remain comatose until their rescued by a prince.”

Earliest written records of the tale – which originated from an oral tradition – date back to the 15th century.

“In the early Spanish and Italian versions of the 16th and 17th centuries, generally speaking the prince who comes upon a naked, sleeping princess – what do you think he will do?" Zipes says. "He rapes her.”

The 17th century version in Giambattista Basile’s collection at least puts clothes on the sleeping woman, but the prince still impregnates her when he finds her in a mysterious slumber in the forest (and even forgets about the whole incident because of “pressing issues” in the kingdom.)

“The problem that original [version] going through to the medieval period raises is, what happens to a woman when she is raped and how does she manage after this trauma?” Zipes says. “The writers or people who told these tales – how did they address this issue? How did they mollify it, adapt it, sanitize it?”

Charles Perrault’s 1696 version might have toned down the sex to kissing, a change held on to by the 1812 Brothers Grimm version, which provides the model best known today. But even the Disney animated version – where the princess has at least met the prince briefly before he kisses her in her sleep – raises the question of consent, no matter how happy the princess is when she wakes up to it. Either way, the entire message is problematic.

“The domination of the male remains true. And of course the whole notion that it wouldn’t be rape by the prince is done away with in civilized society,” Zipes says. “You either allude to it or you just don’t picture it. You picture that she is just going to be gratified that through a man she is just going to live her life.”

Even if it is not the rape of the young woman in the medieval version, ”Maleficent” includes a physical violation that subverts the assumptions of the original. The amputation of Maleficent's wings may be a metaphor that soars over the heads of the film's young viewers. But in its lead-up and more importantly, its consequences, the subtext is devastatingly clear. Maleficent’s aggressor is a man named Stefan, a poor but ambitious boy from her rival kingdom she meets when they're both children. The two fall in love, but Stefan abandons her to pursue a climb up his kingdom's political ladder and the king promises him the throne if he kills Maleficent. Stefan returns to Maleficent under the guise of a friendly reunion, slips her a sleeping potion and unable to drum up the nerve to murder her, cuts off her beloved wings as proof of her conquest instead. The mutilation takes place off screen, but when Maleficent wakes up – crying in agony that this beloved aspect of her being has been taken from her – the trauma is incredibly raw.

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Maleficent waking up to Stefan's assault is perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, and – for better or for worse – it drives the changes in tone and theme “Maleficent” takes from the conventional tale. The crucial christening scene in which Maleficent curses (the now King) Stefan’s daughter Aurora plays out almost identically in staging and dialogue to Disney's 1959 animated version. But now her curse takes on a new meaning knowing the horrible act that motivated it.

Without spoiling too much, the rest of the film revolves around the relationship that grows between Maleficent and Aurora, as Aurora matures closer to her 16th birthday when the curse is set to take place. The twist that provides for the film’s fairy tale ending rests on Maleficent's redemption and the devotion she develops to Aurora. Aurora is even granted a little agency of her own when a moment arises that she in turn must save Maleficent.

This approach is in line with Disney’s recent animated fare, like “Brave” and “Frozen,” that has triumphed female empowerment-focused storylines. And that approach has proved a successful one, particularly in the case of “Frozen” -- a twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” -- which has broken box office records and enamored children, male and female alike. Nevertheless, the feminist accolades of “Frozen” have been heavily debated, and so too, most likely, will those of “Maleficent.”

But “Maleficent” also cements the fact that Disney knows it can no longer regurgitate old fairy tale tropes without updating them – drastically, in this case – for modern times. Furthermore, with a budget estimated to be as much as $200 million, "Maleficent" is getting the full summer blockbuster treatment, serving as much-needed counterprogramming to the male-dominated superhero fare. Once upon a time Disney took dark and scary fairy tales, and made them cheery, G-rated candy. It is better off making them dark and scary for the right reasons.