For most of its history, Disney fairy tales knew only two types of women: evil hags and innocent princesses, and for almost as long, feminists have taken issue with these depictions. These stories have indoctrinated entire generations of young women into thinking their sole purpose in life was to be saved from spinsterhood by a handsome young prince, but as gender equality has become more accepted in our society, the films themselves have begun to revise this trope. Adaptations of YA novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent tell stories about strong, independent teenaged heroines, while Brave and Frozen aimed at a younger crowd, depicting princesses who do not rely on men for self-actualization. Maleficent is the latest and perhaps most direct revision of this pre-feminist genre convention, turning Sleeping Beauty into a tale of complex, sympathetic women that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors (very few of the conversations between Maleficent and the young princess are about men).
It is a necessary correction to the years of poor depictions of women in fairy tales, but it may go a little too far. Recently, Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror had their heroes fighting alongside their princes, but Maleficent suggests that its men must be either defeated or put in their place. Suggesting that men and women cannot really live together as equals is bold and provocative. It could also be considered hypocritical since the film depicts its men with the very same simplicity and contempt that fairy tales have been depicting women for years.
Consider the film’s three most important male characters. There is Stefan (Sharito Copley), the evil, vengeful king who is enemy to Maleficent; Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), a young, poorly-developed love interest for Aurora, the soon-to-be-sleeping princess; and Diaval (Sam Riley), a crow that Malificent turns into a man and back again at her bidding. Essentially, the three types of men in the world of Maleficent are a villain, an innocent, and a pet.
Diaval and Philip are never developed as characters at all and exist only to help the female heroes move forward on their journeys. The former is used by Maleficent to get information and run errands. She occasionally allows him a bit of power – she does, after all, turn him into a dragon in the film’s finale – but only to protect herself. He is basically her prisoner, but the film justifies her behavior by making sure it appears that Diaval genuinely cares about her. Some might call that Stockholm Syndrome.
Prince Philip is mostly an afterthought. Essentially a “straw man,” he shows up as a potential love interest for Aurora, but his real purpose is to revise the trope that a handsome young prince is the answer to a young girl’s prayers. In a clever climactic scene, he tries to awaken Aurora with a kiss – noting comically, as he does, that he “only met her once” – but, in the world of Maleficent, it’s not up to a man to save a woman. This is the correct perspective for our times, of course, and revision of such a genre trope can be a powerful tool to provoke thought about social change. Still, it’s disappointing that he is given no motivation or backstory; his defining characteristics are only his looks and his bland, vague kindness. He is, in other words, the male version of the type of poorly-developed female love interest Hollywood films have relied on for far too long.
The depiction of Stefan, however, may be the most disappointing. Maleficent prides itself in uncovering the gray area in villainy; its backstory for Maleficent is meant to make her villainy understandable and lay the groundwork for her eventual turn towards goodness. The film only does so, however, by ignoring the moral complexity of its own male villain.
Stefan’s story is a tragic one, and his suffering is only partly of his own doing. He falls in love with Maleficent as a teenager. Then, as a man, when he hears of a bounty on her head, he cuts off her wings and presents them as (false) proof that he has killed her in order to save her life. Maleficent is understandably traumatized by his actions, and vows revenge out of her misunderstanding of his action. When he becomes King and has his first child – a singularly joyous occasion – she curses it to eternal sleep. Then he loses his mind and becomes obsessed with vengeance. Then his wife dies. Then, many years later, his daughter returns, and Maleficent follows her to the castle. Based on his last interaction with her, Stefan probably thinks she is there to kill his daughter, so he defends himself and his family. Then she kills him.
This is, of course, not the way the film presents it. Instead, it depicts Stefan as an cruel and evil despot who treats all women with disdain. He sheds nary a tear when his wife dies, and, when he sees his daughter for the first time after 16 years, he refuses to embrace her. From a narrative perspective, turning Stefan into a pure villain is understandable; Maleficent’s moral standing is ambiguous throughout, so the film needs a heavy. But it belies a deep and troubling double standard.
The perspective put forth by Maleficent is one that is often mistaken for feminism. Consider the words of actress Shailene Woodley, who angered feminists earlier this year with her comments to Time: “The idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work because you need balance,” she said. Feminist writers took the her to task for her misunderstanding of how feminism works, but maybe Woodley was just ahead of the curve. Maleficent can be considered a worthy course correction for the genre, but it is not a true feminist work because it fails to achieve gender equality. It only affords its trademark moral complexity to women, and the men are so poorly-drawn they might as well be cartoons. Maybe this is an acceptable over-correction since men have been doing this to women for years, but Maleficent would have been better off had it learned its own lessons: revenge, no matter how justified it may be, is not the way to peace.