Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty, and Female Empowerment

Sleeping Beauty has long been considered a tale of female oppression, disempowerment, and passivity. Charles Perrault published his version of Sleeping Beauty in 1697. It touched on themes of female chastity and virtuosity and dealt with issues of problematic women. The 2014 film adaptation of Maleficent, directed by Robert Stromberg, attempted to convey a version of Sleeping Beauty that empowered and gave depth to the tales villain Maleficent and thus embodied female empowerment. There is some contention surrounding the ability of Maleficent to facilitate female empowerment due to the nature of its plot; however, the film actively corrects some of the deficiencies in Perrault’s version of the tale.

Perrault’s canonical version of sleeping beauty lacks empowered women; those females who express power are old, grotesque, vindictive, and murderous. Perrault introduces his Maleficent figure as “an old fairy” (Perrault 689), whereas his Sleeping Beauty figure is said to have an “appearance that was luminous and supernatural” (Perrault 691). However, Maleficent gains depth, agency, and equity in the 2014 film; opportunities that her character was denied in Perrault’s text. This empowerment elevates her to the villainous heroine; she not only obtains power but figuratively supplants the men in the film. The physical appearance of Maleficent throughout the film changes with this ascension to power. Initially depicted as kind, youthful, and exuberant, she ultimately becomes bitter, vengeful, and malicious.  Figure one shows the notable feminine brightness of Maleficent’s youth, highlighted by her flowing hair, uncovered arms, and light-coloured clothing. Figure two comes after her betrayal, Maleficent has bound her hair, wears a dark full-length dress, and creates a staff for herself. Maleficent’s metamorphosis removes feminine attributes, and through the staff, creates a phallic representation of masculinity as a means of empowerment. Dundes et al. discusses the idea that “female villains tend to possess traits deemed traditionally masculine” (2). Maleficent not only possess traits that are traditionally considered masculine, but she also symbolically disenfranchises the projected power claimed by male characters of the film.

Symbolic representation in Maleficent enabled her to become empowered; Perrault’s iterations of feminine roles were aligned firmly within their tropes. Good versus evil, as expressed by beauty and youth versus ugliness and age, with no grey area to be found. The reinforcement of Maleficent’s empowerment is rooted in the turmoil of her power; that is, her magical powers associated with rage and those similarly associated with kindness. Aranjuez presents the idea that “visual representation alludes to Maleficent’s transformation: […] rage and vengeance (green) and loving calm (gold)” (7). Figure three shows Maleficent’s turning point, her love for Aurora has grown, and she attempts to remove the curse. Her powers fluctuate, pouring from her is a golden essence of love, and repelling is the green power of the curses rage. This choice of visual representation underscores the theory of Schlögl and Zagalo that “colour is an integral part of audio-visual language and is extremely important for the construction of messages” (64). The complexity of Maleficent affords her the kind of female empowerment Perrault was unable to provide any of his female characters. Not only is she profoundly betrayed and rightfully scorned, but she is also profoundly loving and remorseful.

When considering the role of Maleficent in the empowerment of the female heroine, her journey is one of a victim. Maleficent, while drugged and in the arms of one she trusted, is betrayed, metaphorically raped, and robbed of her wings. Maleficent laments, “I had wings once, they were stolen from me. […] they were strong. […] I could trust them” (Stromberg). Stefan’s betrayal precipitates all that is to follow. It begins her villainous journey and changes the viewer’s perception of what motivates villainy. Aranjuez bolsters this argument stating, “Maleficent shifts its conception of evil […] into something that is precipitated by events in a person’s life” (7). Maleficent’s victimisation becomes the vessel by which she becomes empowered; despite being the strong, intelligent, character moulded throughout the plot, she becomes empowered at the behest of a man’s horrific acts against her person. Maleficent is empowered; she changes the role of the old fairy into something far more profound.

Nevertheless, the foundation of her power comes from the patriarchy as the direct outcome of Stefans cruelty. In contrast, Perrault’s old fairy curses Sleeping Beauty; “the princess was to pierce her hand with a spindle and die of the wound”, for merely being forgotten off the invitation list (Perrault 689). Perrault’s representation of Maleficent as an old fairy that is “[…] either dead or enchanted” (Perrault 689), negates any assertion of power she may have been afforded. Without youth, beauty, or a voice, the old fairy becomes a metaphor for feminine traits that seventeenth-century society rejected. Comparatively, Perrault’s old fairy is insulted only moderately within the tale, Maleficent’s story arc attempts to give reason to the rhyme of the curse.

The platform for Maleficent’s empowerment is concerning. While there has been a reinterpretation of the female villain, there has also been a return to patriarchal depictions that oppress women. In the juxtaposition of Perrault’s depiction of patriarchal oppression, Maleficent certainly makes long strides towards improvement, but there is still a long way to go. In Perrault’s canonical version of Sleeping Beauty, the prince wakes her and falls immediately in love with her beauty and grace. That same day they are married and share the marital bed, “and the maid of honour pulled the curtains of their bed closed” (Perrault 693). The inference of these scenes eludes to the notion that by beauty and grace alone may a woman find her prince and become elevated from the curse that is holding her back. Despite the prince saving Sleeping Beauty from her curse he continues to secret her away from the world, keeping her for himself; as in her slumber, Sleeping Beauty has similarly lost all agency through marriage. She becomes disempowered through her victimisation and remains that way unlike Maleficent, who, in the words of Schlögl and Zagalo, “tells the story of a recovering victim rather than the tale of a passive innocent” (168). However, the contrasted passivity of Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty is indicative of the societal norms of its time; the end of the seventeenth-century. Just as Maleficent’s empowerment is indicative of the shift in societal norms and expectations of our own time.

The seven faeries of Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty are representative of far more than the gifts they bear. They serve as a connection to the seven virtues of Christian theology, a reminder of which the seventeenth-century woman should be beholden. They each give the babe a gift, beauty, intelligence, grace; they ordain the exact type of woman she should become to take her place in the kingdom. Thus, disenfranchising her ability to have agency and therefore become empowered. In her historical analysis of female virtuosity in Christian theology, Kelso writes, “the moral ideal for the lady is essentially Christian […] The eminently Christian virtues of chastity, humility, piety, and patience under suffering and wrong, are the necessary virtues” (52). Perrault’s intention is best framed within the historical ideals that women adhered to in the seventeenth-century, where women were expected to act in chastity, piety and grace, or risk the loss of reputation and their subsequent place in society. The curse upon Sleeping Beauty reaffirms the seventeenth-century idea that the kind and graceful child shall become the blessed and angelic mother all women should strive to become. An outcome only achieved through patience and humility, if the “deep slumber that will last one hundred years” is interpreted as a metaphor for chastity until marriage (Perrault 689). The framework created by Perrault is in stark contrast to the on-screen metamorphosis of Maleficent.

Perrault’s Maleficent does not express mercy when bestowing her curse upon Sleeping Beauty; she is supplanted by a “young” (and by definition good) fairy who uses her christening gift to allow Sleeping Beauty to fall asleep for one hundred years. Fay argues that the old fairy “functions as an anterior double to […] Sleeping Beauty” in Perrault (271); this may indeed be the case, having been unseen for fifty years, presumed dead. The old fairy serves as a metaphorical depiction of what will become of a difficult woman in the seventeenth-century. However, the old fairy’s troublesome nature becomes Maleficent’s defining feature. Maleficent is the problematic woman who overcomes and usurps power through the emasculation of the man who has wronged her. Smiling and laughing in the face of contempt, Maleficent revels in the moment: “I like you begging. Do it again” she taunts (Stromberg). This difference in reasoning, depiction, and symbolism between the old fairy and Maleficent allows for Maleficent’s metamorphosis into a female who is empowered and can dictate her life with agency, unlike the females of Perrault’s tale. There are, however, some failings on the part of the film Maleficent. These failings detract from the narrative of empowerment that drives the plot.

Passive female characters abound in Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, in fairy tale literature, and should be contextualised historically. However, there is far less reason for passive female depiction in modern retellings such as Maleficent. The peripheral female characters of Maleficent fit into the passive and mild female trope purported by Perrault. This passivity is emphasised markedly by what can only be called the simplicity of the three fairies/pixies, Knotgrass, Flittle, and Thistletwit. Aranjuez notes, “the film takes pains to show us how ill-equipped the fairies are to rear a human child” (8). The incompetence Aranjuez speaks of is represented here:

I think she might be hungry.

Then feed her!

[as Flittle goes to get her some food we see Diaval spying on them in his bird form]

Hungry baby.
[Flittle places some carrots across baby Aurora’s basket]

There you are. There you go. (Stromberg)

Meanwhile, Maleficent embodies everything that a modern woman could strive to become—empowered, independent, strong, and loving. Implanting Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistletwit into the movie in this capacity exacerbates the misconception that motherly types, or those who do not strive to excel, are doddery and simple. These generalisations are harmful to females collectively, whether they are juxtaposed with Maleficent’s strength or not. The depiction of Maleficent signals a shift in modern perceptions of female empowerment, but the cohort of female characters in the film detracts from the progress shown in her characterisation.

There is a continuance of passivity in Maleficent that extends beyond the simplicity of the fairies, Aurora, and her mother Queen Leila, who are passive in their roles and lack agency. Queen Leila exemplifies this lack of agency. She barely features in the film and is absent even in her death. The only time she is allowed a voice serves to placate Maleficent; “That’s a lovely gift” she says, as Maleficent begins her christening tirade (Stromberg). Queen Leila serves as a prop that brings life to the child Aurora. Aurora has her opportunity for agency taken from her, in the same way as Sleeping Beauty does in Perrault’s tale.

Although the metaphorical representation of withdrawing from society is necessary to the plot’s outcome, there is criticism as to whether this metaphor for chastity, through the removal of agency, can be empowering. Frankel discusses the nature of withdrawal in Sleeping Beauty “Sleep allows her to withdraw, to come to terms with her changing self and then to reappear when she’s ready to try adulthood and the sexuality it entails” (33).  This theory of female maturation supports the idea that, despite the nature of the curse, perhaps the sleep and passivity of Sleeping Beauty is a form of empowerment, in which the girl can come to terms with womanhood. Lieberman argues against this theory stating, “Most of the heroines […], however, are entirely passive, submissive, and helpless. This is most obviously true of the Sleeping Beauty, who lies asleep, in the ultimate state of passivity, waiting for a brave prince to awaken and save her” (388). Both arguments have merit, but they are less applicable to modern retellings of Sleeping Beauty and the idea of female empowerment because female passivity is counterintuitive to female empowerment.

While Sleeping Beauty is experiencing her coming of age through Perrault’s canonical iteration, it is Maleficent whom we see genuinely come of age in the film adaptation; she grows from an innocent child into lover, victim, villain and finally a mother. While we see Maleficent’s warming toward Aurora over the years of her limited guardianship, the symbolism of these on-screen moments is often unnecessarily underpinned by her apparent disdain for children and inferred lack of maternal instinct. This scene exemplifies Maleficent’s disinterest in children:

Go. Go away.
[Aurora puts her around Maleficent and holds onto her]
I don’t like children. (Stromberg)

Maleficent is a powerful woman, in a dominant role; therefore, it is necessary to remove all maternal inclinations from nature. The concept that women in power are innately disinterested in motherhood is as damaging as the generalisation that maternal types are simple. Maleficent eventually holds motherly love for Aurora. Schlögl and Zagalo state that “the loving emphasis is not between prince and princess, but between Aurora and Maleficent, and has a distinctly mother/daughter character” (167). Maleficent’s maternal side could have expressed without conveying an obvious disdain for children that detracts from the empowerment of women. It is short-sighted to assume that Maleficent’s nature and position would not be accommodating of children.

The introduction of the non-maternal woman in power infers that in order to have power, a woman cannot also have, and enjoy family. This inference is not an ideal born only of modernity; Perrault similarly portrays the powerful non-maternal female trope through the Queen mother or ogress character in his Sleeping Beauty tale. Perrault seeks to reinforce the idea that motherhood and marriage is the most crucial role in which a woman can participate. An idea reinforced by Schlögl and Zagalo, “historically, women have received repeated messages with a central theme that mothering is the most crucial social function a woman can perform” (167). Perrault’s text provides both good and bad examples of motherhood. Though Maleficent displays traits of an overbearing protector, she doesn’t hold Aurora in contempt. The ogress of Perrault’s tale was “intending to fling the queen and her children” into a vat of vipers and toads (Perrault 695). The disdain the Ogress Queen holds against Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty figure is murderous. The ogress mother-in-law, under threat of usurpation, derides Sleeping Beauty and her children towards, who threaten her position. Historically, motherhood may be viewed as a means of oppression, marriage, and subsequent motherhood were also one the very few ways a female may gain any form of agency in the seventeenth-century. Female empowerment is not straightforward in concept, or expression; Maleficent does an excellent job of empowering a tale that has been considered markedly passive but does not reach the full potential of female empowerment.

Maleficent is a unique expression of female empowerment; it turns the canonical tale of Sleeping Beauty somewhat on its head while remaining true to form. In comparison, Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty tale shows how far female narratives had come from a time when they served mostly to instruct women on who they should be rather than who they could be. However, there are shortcomings of the film that are bi-products of entrenched patriarchal culture, such as Maleficent’s foundation for transformation. While we allow male violence to be platforms for female empowerment, we disenfranchise any opportunity for accomplishing actual female empowerment.

Works Cited

Aranjuez, Adolfo. “A Different Shade of Evil: Questions of Ethics in “Maleficent”.” Screen Education, no. 76, 2015, pp. 8-16.

Dundes, L. et al. “Bad Witches: Gender and the Downfall of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Disney’s Maleficent.” Social Sciences, vol. 8, no. 6, 2019, doi:10.3390/socsci8060175.

Fay, Carolyn. “Sleeping Beauty Must Die: The Plots of Perrault’s “La Belle Au Bois Dormant”.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 259-276,210,353.

Frankel, Valerie. From Girl to Goddess : The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland and co., 2010. Corporation Ebooks.

Kelso, Ruth. “Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance.” By Ruth Kelso. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1956. Pp. Xi, 475. $6.50.).” The American Historical Review, 1957, doi:10.1086/ahr/62.2.381.

Lieberman, Marcia R. “”Some Day My Prince Will Come”: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, p. 383, doi:10.2307/375142.

Perrault, Charles. ” Sleeping Beauty.” The Great Fairy Tale Tradition : From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm : Texts, Criticism. Zipes, Jack, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2001, pp. 688-695.

Schlögl, Larissa and Nelson Zagalo. “From Animation to Live-Action: Reconstructing Maleficent.” Body and Text: Cultural Transformations in New Media Environments, Springer, 2019, pp. 157-171.   

Stromberg, Robert, director. Maleficent. 2014. Performance by Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning, Walt Disney Studios.