The R-Word

This post is about rape.  This post is about the plot of Maleficent.  While there are few excuses for avoiding constructive conversation about the former, I can totally understand wanting to stay clear of spoilers for the latter.  So you can skip this, but only if you have a valid reason.  Tomorrow, we will return to brevity and sarcasm.   Also, it’s long so you may want to start the coffee pot brewing now. Disclaimer complete.

The internet  has hummed for weeks about a controversial moment in Disney’s Maleficent, which we’re just going to call the rape scene.  Feminists, activists, movie critics, cultural commentators, Hollywood pulse-pumpers, and the usual cadre of trolls, deniers, and misogynists have been firing back and forth at each other trying to make sense of this scene in context of both the story arc and current events.  The problem in contention was first whether the directing, scriptwriting, and acting were consciously drawing a parallel to rape, and then to consider whether it was appropriate in a Disney movie.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent considering

How very interesting

In Maleficent‘s post-colonial retelling of the classic Mistress of All Evil, the title character begins as a benevolent fairie in the Moors, an idyllic and magical land separate from the human kingdom of treachery and greed.  (Presumably, there was some good there, too, but we never see any of that in this movie.)  As a young fairie, Maleficent befriends a human orphan who snuck into the Moors, Stefan, with whom she falls predictably in love, and shares true love’s kiss.  (It’s a really awkward, chaste first kiss.  No really, this one goes into the record book of most boring Disney kisses ever, topping even “I feel like I kissed my sister/brother.”)  But, Stefan leaves to make his fortune at the castle.

As a servant, he learns that the meany old king has promised his daughter and kingdom to whoever can kill the winged witch who stopped his army from taking over the Moors.  (It’s kind of like that time the U.S. government tried to push all the American Indians off their land and then couldn’t believe the gall of these people trying to fight back.)  Stefan returns to his old girlfriend who, you guessed it, is the one the king is angry with.   He sweet-talks Maleficent, drugs her, hacks off her wings, and hauls them back to the castle to prove that she is dead.  The king is all “All right,  kid, not bad…not exactly what I had in mind, but not bad!” and makes Stefan king.  Maleficent wakes up in pain, finds herself mutilated, and wails for a long time.  Considering how little exposition the audience got up until this moment, Angelina Jolie cries for a really long time.

The fairie eventually struggles to stand up, creates a walking stick, and hobbles along to find help.  The betrayal, personal loss, and disability affect her so deeply that she goes all goth, cuts herself off from  her former friends, curses a baby, and declares war on humanity.  You know the rest.  (Or you THINK you do.)

So, to review: Maleficent trusted someone who abused that trust to drug her and take something from her without consent, in order to get power.  This experience left her in physical and psychological pain, but she is villainized for the fall-out of this action.

I hardly think we need to build a case for this being a rape metaphor.  Somehow, in comments on the flurry of articles on this subject, people have nevertheless been complaining “Why can’t it just be about her losing her wings?”  I guess it’s the way Song of the South can’t just be a movie about an old man teaching his neighbor’s kid some silly animal songs.  It’s still too real.

But the objections haven’t just come from people who somehow missed the neon sign “Abuse Survivor” hanging over Jolie’s head the entire movie.  Feminists themselves have protested  that paralleling disfiguration with rape is a misrepresentation that “dilutes” the reality of sexual assault.  Some might be offended that Maleficent is assumed to have lost her true feminine softness and kindness, and then regained it through a child.  Then again, the queer community can have a different reading of this scene that speaks to their challenges.  Instead of trying to engage those who can’t understand why people keep talking about rape, I’d rather defend the position that Maleficent provides an accurate and important lens for viewing and talking about rape in today’s culture, with a few caveats.

I briefly entertained the possibility (for, like, a minute and a half) that Stefan would strip Maleficent of her wings as an act of love, trying to trick the king into believing she was dead so no one else would go after her.  That idea was squashed flat when Stefan first held a knife over her chest for a long few seconds, then opted for wings instead.  He realized he couldn’t actually kill her, which shows some (a little…and I mean a very little) affection for her.   But rape/mutliation is not a sign of love.  No matter how much Robin Thicke thinks she wants it, or how much a rapist THINKS he or she loves someone, it isn’t.  Because love means not raping someone or cutting off their body parts.  While I think my original idea had potential for a more dynamic character arc for Stefan (“But I really loved you!” “Gee, I never realized. *chomp*”), the film instead gave us a character that we could thoroughly despise.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent at the christening

No, King of the Douchebags, you don’t get to talk right now.

This is important because, just to be clear, rapists are not heroes.  Phillip is one of my favorite princes, too. (The animated one, not the new one because he may be 24, but he looks 17 and that’s a different-though-related kind of wrong.)  But being asleep completely preempts any possibility of consent.  (Maleficent skirts this issue by bringing back the overzealous matchmaking fairie trio.) As much as I love Disney, it has a bad track record with consent.  One of the otherwise greatest Disney movies ever made, The Sandlot, features five straight minutes of she-asked-for-it, I-took-it, she-actually-liked-it, and then blows my mind with the girl marrying the twerp at the end.  The narrator even tells the audience, in case we might have been worried, that Squints tricking the lifeguard into getting close enough to kiss her was “sneaky, rotten, and low…and cool” and that the perpetrator was respected and rewarded for his bravery/supreme douchebaggery.

Until very recently, this was the narrative that Disney and other Hollywood studios continued.  This is the story that Stefan thinks he’s been cast in, one where his initiative and quick thinking gets him the throne.  As film mimics life, spirited and popular young men who happen to rape girlfriends/ party attendees / random chicks at school are often rewarded like Squints in The Sandlot.   As a female, I admit I still cannot understand this phenomenon, but inclusion with “the guys” requires sexual prowess, and forceful sexual prowess gets a special status.  Even when they individually know it’s wrong, gang rape, date-drug rape, and a whole slew of other kinds of non-consensual sex become the legends and stories of men’s dorm rooms and poker parties.  Even in the middle of a criminal investigation, media, school officials, and community members during the Steubenville trial continue to hero-worship the rapists, sympathizing with their crushed dreams of playing college football.  (If you read only one link in this post, let it be that one.)

Maleficent exposes the social dimensions of rape. Stefan’s decision becomes obvious for what it really is – a cowardly and selfish act to hurt someone else for his own gratification and prestige. And although rapists may be male or female, the social mollycoddling and apologist defense of rapists is reserved for popular and successful men.

In fact, Maleficent’s assault is a good metaphor for rape precisely because it is not sexual.  It illustrates all the other factors that influence and corrupt people into thinking that rape is an entitlement or a solution to their needs.  In many cases, it is about power, not sex.  And while gender relations are part of the power dynamic, sex is a filter or a lens through which rapists feel they have been denied power, and may reclaim it.  When female sexuality is threatening, there are always a storm of men lead by Rush Limbaugh ready to tear it down.

That’s not to say that women don’t use sex to fight against male power.  But the last time a story of a violent female harming a man sexually made national news was Lorena Bobbitt in 1993.  Serial rapists, violence against women, slut-shaming, and their other ugly cousins are consistent visitors to the nightly news and media culture.  These keep getting presented as sexual incidents, when they say more about our culture of power than our culture of sex.

Maleficent opened in theaters while the shadow of the Isla Vista tragedy blanketed the U.S. in (Holy Mother of Pretzels, another!?!) mass shooting in May. The truly sad thing about Elliot Rodgers’ Retribution video is that the media actually believes his killing spree was about sex, when it was about a number of other factors in his life that had nothing to do with the fact that the victims wouldn’t have sex with him.  Not getting laid can make someone grumpy, but it doesn’t make someone shoot people.  Sex is the tool that Rodgers used to measure himself according to the world. In other words, the narrative that the murder concocted for himself has been taken as fact by the nation.

Maybe this is the simplest explanation because so many people do use sex (either how much they’ve gotten or how pristine they are) as their measuring stick for themselves and other people.  Some people  use money to judge, and Stefan used the castle as his measure of worth.  An extreme case like Isla Vista happens when someone goes off the deep end (way wayyyyyy off the deep end).  But fellow geek and Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu points out that rape culture is saturated in video games and pop culture, treating women as prizes that can be earned with enough points or tokens or fights. (I take back that comment earlier – this is the link you really should read.)  He agrees that one lonely, ill man does not speak or act on behalf of every nerd or every man, but he defends the #YesAllWomen campaign in insisting that the gaming community fosters the societal malaise of treating other people as prizes.  Even conversation about Friendzoning and Nice Guys Finish Last and girls singing Save the Best for Last about their unrequited love reflect this weird idea that being kind is something that you only do when you want someone to date you.

I’m digressing a bit, but it was necessary to show Chu’s arguments in order to understand how unusual it is for fantasy and sci fi entertainment to show a rape from the victim’s perspective.  The movie forces the audience to pay attention (for a long, difficult scene, as I mentioned) to what the victim is going through as she recovers, and unlike sensational and exploitative rape scenes, it is painful.  Jolie is entirely covered with her character’s famous robes for the sequence, so it’s nearly impossible to objectify her as a body without a person.    While victims are trying to recover from assault, they are also subjected to police, school, and social judgment and doubt, and if they push for justice, they are vilified in the courtroom for decisions that defendants claim led up to the assault, such as what they were wearing, how much they drank, whether they were sexually active, or dating the assailant, etc. (See previous paragraphs)

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent looking from the corner

Hard to watch. Hard to look away.

One last reason that Maleficent’s loss and agony is so biting in audience hearts, and so important for rape survivors to see, is that it is an act of betrayal.  This scene demolishes the myth that rape is a random accident that happens to people by chance and can be avoided by not walking out late at night, not drinking, or wearing provocative clothes.  The truth is that the majority of rape is committed by someone the victim knows well.  Significant others, college professors, neighbors, family members. Although this post until now has focused on the type of rape that most frequently makes the news (the scary, random kind) sexual assault occurs everywhere, all the time, and often goes unreported.  These “blurred lines” are even more difficult for victims to prove to police, friends, the community, and even themselves.

Especially for children.

The honest truth is that sexual assault is already a children’s issue.

Now that Jolie has confirmed that the screenwriter, director, and actress were conscious and insistent on the allusion to rape, critics who can’t understand why the liberals have to see feminism in everything are forced to drop out of the game or step up to bat.  To debate whether a Disney film should include a scene/character that deals with issue of rape, we have to assume that Maleficent is actually a children’s film, or at least a family film.  I think if kids can  handle the darkness of Harry Potter movies 4-8, they would watch and enjoy this film, so why would Disney include a story element that is so difficult for families to discuss?

Because it’s so difficult for families to discuss.

Angelina Jolie with toddler Aurora.

Jolie’s daughter was cast as young Aurora for this scene. This movie was important to her as an actress, as an advocate, and as a mother.

Remember that this is the same animation company that has a terrible habit of killing off biological parents, sometimes even onscreen.  Maybe your child hasn’t had to deal with the death of a loved one or sexual abuse, but somewhere (maybe three rows down in the theater) is a kid who has.  Like Simba facing the truth, that victim has to see that death/assault is not his or her fault.  Recruiting a crow to help you turn the whole kingdom to darkness may not be the best therapy possible.  But in this scene and through the development of the story, children are able to see their own trauma, misplaced anger, internalized feelings, and the daily struggle of surviving.

Many critics have noted that Jolie’s presence lit up the screen and the story lagged whenever she wasn’t at the center; perhaps this is because she is the only one who understands which story she’s supposed to be in.  Jolie has traveled for several years to war-torn and violent regions of the world, and advocates to stop violence against women.   The anguish and isolation of a rape survivor is read on her face through most of the film.

Where the movie loses this assurance, and starts to lose its magic, is what Maleficent does with her feelings after the assault.  The rapid change to avenging spirit is jostling for both viewers and victims, as they rarely feel empowered enough to charge into a christening and start cursing people.  The fairie’s redemption through love corresponds with her recovery from the incident (I see what you did there, Disney!).  This is great for the story, but not so much for the viewers because assault victims are not the ones who are supposed to need forgiveness and redemption.  The need to return to the story that makes this film recognizable and marketable actually chokes one of the best qualities of the film.  The ending is a bit…. well, fairy-tale-ish for assault survivors.

But their story of triumph is as important as a scullery maid-turned-princess.  Disney has not shied away from topics like war, death, and tragedy before.  Instead of decrying Disney for daring to allude to “s-e-x” (um…have you seen Road to El Dorado?), fans are given an opportunity to open conversation with their family about these topics.  Boys and girls alike need to talk to their parents about what they should do if someone violates their body.  We should probably discourage the next generation from damning firstborns to sleep-like death, but they need to understand how to handle an incident and see that they aren’t alone in this situation.

To change rape culture, we have to talk about it.  If cutting off wings is the closest thing we have to talk about this with children right now, then let’s get them all to the theater and plan a back-to-back with Mulan.  Every kid needs to see that, too.

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