Angelina Jolie made headlines around the world when she co-chaired a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June this year. Simultaneously, she has championed her role in Hollywood’s latest fairytale blockbuster Maleficent as being part of a broader mission to tackle violence against women. However, I find the juxtaposition between Jolie’s clarion call against the evil of rape and the sexual politics within Maleficent to be at odds. There is a large gulf between them that is disconcerting to bridge.
Offscreen Jolie is a celebrity / leader spearheading a fundamental feminist issue. She is speaking out against rape as a tool of war, encouraging women who have been sexually violated to give testimony to help end the culture of shaming and blaming women for sexual violence against them. Confronting the right to rape – masculine power in its most brutal form – is a job for the brave. Brava Angelina! Onscreen in Maleficent, I also admire Jolie’s audacity in grappling with the mythology of evil, but think her title role detracts from, rather than enhances, her more overt political efforts.
Maleficent means ‘evil-doing’ or ‘malice’. It’s a magnificent title Walt Disney gave to the Bad Fairy in his 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent (2014) is a revisionist version of the Sleeping Beauty story that repositions the strong, older woman centre stage. However, in explaining her villainy the movie also exploits it – no doubt to appeal to a public used to feeding off the violation and mutilation of women as a matter of course in their entertainment.
Marketing Angelina Jolie in the lead role, billboards for the film focus on her beautiful malignancy. They show her sprouting devil horns and giant wings – effectively a female version of the Christian Devil. Goat horns and bat wings; all she’s missing are the cloven hooves. Predatory and sensual in black with a starkly white face, she’s startlingly similar to Snow White’s nemesis, Disney’s 1937 evil Queen.
As Maleficent Jolie is a mythmaker, blurring boundaries and shifting cultural assumptions that swirl and collect around the symbol of the wicked witch. She’s calling up older, collective fears of devils and witches, in the hope of rehabilitating an age-old stereotype of feminine power.
The film is not alone in this feminist redress. The stage musical Wicked presents us with the backstory of characters from the much-loved classic The Wizard of Oz. Ideas about the terrible, green witch that scared so many children generations earlier are cleverly and irrepressibly reformulated. I applaud any and every attempt to combat embedded misogyny, but feel Jolie’s Maleficent is not in the same league as the triumphant sisterhood of Wicked. Whether she succeeds in revamping the concept of the evil female is yet to be seen.
Certainly, fairytales and movies are a good place to start pushing for cultural change. Hollywood churn out gender stereotypes under the guise of entertainment for the global masses. Hollywood lies at the very heart of the current beast that heroines like Jolie are tackling.
This is part one of a three-part series by Fern. Read more here.