Jeanna Kadlec| Longreads | October 2020 | 3,234 words (12 minutes)
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How do you tame a witch? Historically, you don’t: You kill her. Burn her. Hang her. In tales, the witch is often a her. A she-devil, if you will, a woman who sleeps with Lucifer, who is Satan’s mistress, who bears a demonic mark. Read the 15th-century witch-hunters’ Malleus Maleficarum, it’ll tell you. Her very existence, her body itself, is a portal from this world to others, and she must be put down, lest she tears a rip in reality itself.
Wicked witches, the stuff of historical legend and nightmarish fairy tales, inspire a terror that verges on the sublime, that feeling Edmund Burke articulated so long ago — of standing on the edge of a cliff where you feel the simultaneity of danger and spectacular awe. Mountains are sublime. Milton’s Satan is sublime. Sublimity only exists in things that could kill you, which bring you to the edge of yourself. The untamed feminine, then, surely falls into this category: Witches exist on the margins, in the shadows, ever threatening to invade and disrupt the sanctity of the social order.
These days, Disney doesn’t kill witches — at least, not as often as they used to. These days, Disney is interested in the ultimate rehabilitation project: How do you make these archetypal wonders, this sublime femininity, less frightening? Less powerful — particularly to people invested in women and queers behaving in normatively gendered ways?
You make the witch a mother.
Maleficent is the most sublime of Disney’s witches. Disney — one of America’s prime cultural exports of social norms, the unofficial mythographer of western childhood — has been remaking their most well-known classics for years in response to decades of feminist criticism. It was only a matter of time before they took on one of their villains. In the original Sleeping Beauty (1959), Maleficent is a horned witch-monster who can fly, apparate out of nowhere, shape-shift into a dragon, command the thunderous sky to do her bidding, and, of course, issue death curses at an infant christening she wasn’t invited to. She is extraordinarily powerful, more so than any good fairy or benevolent god. The 2014 live-action Maleficent stars Angelina Jolie, whose personal brand is synonymous with edgy motherhood. In the reboot, Maleficent is the most powerful fairy in the Moors — an egalitarian, femme- and queer-coded society rich in natural resources — with Maleficent’s role a trusting, de facto community leader of sorts, helping to defend the Moors from the neighboring human kingdom who would seek to take it. This Maleficent is childhood friends and, later, teenage lovers with Stefan, the human who eventually becomes king. Her curse on his firstborn child, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), is revenge for the most brutal of betrayals — for him drugging her and cutting off her wings.
In the reboot, Aurora, raised near the Moors, develops a strong relationship with Maleficent, who she understands to be her Fairy Godmother. That Maleficent eventually experiences a kind of compassionate softening and internal transformation through her relationship with Aurora is not, in and of itself, problematic. However, this is a Disney film, and it is no accident that a maternity narrative is represented as the primary way for a woman to experience self-realization. The 2019 Maleficent sequel, Mistress of Evil, only affirms that a mother’s abilities are not ultimately for herself, but for her children. Although a witch is an autonomous, unchecked power, when she becomes a fairy-tale mother — especially the mother of a princess — she still devolves into a plot device with no individuality to speak of. She is beholden to the continuation of the nation-state. Her success lies in self-sacrifice.
This is Disney’s ultimate magic trick: Rebooting “feminist” stories where women, even if they are witches, obliterate themselves.
However, if Disney has a historical penchant for dramatically, symbolically killing witches, and thus excising feminine power from the narrative, they have an equally well-known history of writing stories with entirely absent biological mothers. The list of princesses with dead moms is long: Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Pocahontas, Elsa, and Anna. Rapunzel and Aurora are separated from their biological mothers for their entire childhoods. These absences are a source of tension that is largely unaddressed, even when the mother’s death is an obvious catalyst to the plot. French philosopher Luce Irigaray claims, “The whole of our Western culture is based upon the murder of the mother.” Easier for Disney to elide the mother, to disappear her, than to introduce her to the narrative and be forced to reckon with the interiority of the child, let alone a grieving husband. But this also further emphasizes the identification of the princess-daughter with the father and his legacy and goals for her life — both individually and on a collective, patriarchal level. Writing specifically about Disney, scholar Lynda Haas has said, “There is no maternal genealogy, no importance attached to a mother’s heritage.” Before Elsa and Anna, whose parents’ death is the unlikely subject of Frozen 2, none of the dead mothers are even named in the films, including Pocahontas’ mother, whose spirit is visually present, guiding her and other characters throughout the entire story. Contrast these unnamed mothers with Tiana’s late father James in The Princess and the Frog, who is explicitly named in a flashback. This difference highlights the importance of the mother as a plot catalyst, as a vital role that all of these heroines are purportedly hurtling toward — and yet, they will ultimately be nameless, faceless.
Which is to say, given Disney’s seeming lack of respect for the role of mothers and primary caregivers, one might wonder why they would try to marry the archetype of the witch with that of a Good Mother. But then, perhaps the answer is obvious. Fairy-tale mothers are easily discarded and erased in ways that witches, so deeply unforgettable even when ultimately murdered — physically or psychically — are not.
And this is the goal for a dangerous witch, these days: To not make them a martyr to their cause, but to render them powerless and unable to challenge, disrupt, and potentially dismantle the nation-state.
While 2014’s live-action Maleficent is ground zero for this new rehabilitation experiment, there are two previous films from the Disney vault that do, in fact, feature magical mothers. However, the mothers are also archetypally evil witches: Tangled (2010), which is based on the Rapunzel story, and, of course, the one that started it all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Tangled and Snow White both present us with adoptive witch-mothers who have different relationships with the heroines. In Snow White, jealousy drives the Evil Queen, who also has state power, to try to kill her stepdaughter; in Tangled, possessiveness drives Mother Gothel to kidnap the princess, who is the sole source of a Fountain of Youth-type magic. Both women are presented as extremely powerful, selfish, beauty-obsessed isolationists. Gothel’s emotional manipulation of Rapunzel, in particular, is a distinctly modern take on codependency as villainy. But there is something else at play in both of these stories.
Villains are characters who violate the normative rules set down by society, and witches like Gothel and the Evil Queen are violating the greatest rules of all. In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich introduced the notion that heterosexuality is not necessarily a natural state of being but, rather, that “heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women.” The idea is that cis-gendered women — specifically, their bodies — are needed to propagate the species. Thus, these women must believe that their bodies are accessible to men. Marilyn Frye defined this as the patriarchal imperative: “That [cis-gendered] men must have access to [cis-gendered] women.” These ideas permeate fairy-tales. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her cursed slumber and, still in a daze, seemingly consents to marriage, though in some versions of the story she wakes up literally giving birth to twins, having been raped by the prince. Rapunzel, locked in a tower, “falls” for the first man she ever meets. A traumatized and abused Cinderella agrees to marry the powerful man offering her freedom from her enslavement. Heterosexuality is compulsory, and marriage is a mandatory part of the game.
For Disney, these villains’ real evil is not their emotional abuse and outright physical endangerment of their daughters (though there is, of course, that); it is that they are keeping the girls from getting married. At the end of the day, Rapunzel and Snow White are horror stories. The villains invoke a primal kind of terror: The mother who raised you can just as easily kill you. The Queen and Gothel, represented as powerful magicians who either rule their own realm or who do not honor the sovereignty of a kingdom, are, consequently, decisively killed, although never by the young women represented as their antagonists.
Maleficent is an unlikely maternal figure. Like Snow White’s Evil Queen, this Maleficent is represented as having some kind of state power; even though the society of the Moors is introduced as a communal, egalitarian society (“they needed neither king nor queen, but trusted in one another”), she crowns herself Queen and raises up a thorned border after she curses Aurora, who she proceeds to spend most of her free time spying on. But she has seemingly little interest in either active rule or conquest. Mostly, she observes and quietly takes care of the world around her. This includes looking after “Beastie,” the nickname she gives the infant princess, who she saves from childhood death on at least one occasion. The chaotic triad of bumbling fairies is seemingly unable to rise to the task of raising Aurora, so Maleficent does it from afar.
Even witches are caregivers, is the loaded suggestion. Early in the film, we are shown a younger Maleficent healing trees and encouraging her fellow fairies. These compassionate instincts, buried deep underneath a grown woman’s pain, are drawn out by the arrival of the baby girl she sentenced to a sleep-like death. Maleficent’s desire to care for Aurora ensures that she gradually develops a relationship with her, particularly once Aurora has grown to “tween” phase and finally meets Maleficent in person, instantly recognizing her as “my fairy godmother” whose distant presence she has sensed her entire life. The humorous misnomer is smart in how much it reveals; namely, that Aurora trusts Maleficent, who doesn’t know what to do with this earnestness, this desire for a relationship. She is caught off guard, forced to reckon, face to face, with how fond she is of this girl she has spent a lifetime nurturing. Maleficent and Aurora spend hours walking the Moors together. Maleficent stands over a sleeping Aurora in a moment of foreshadowing, desperately trying to revoke her unbreakable curse. In a twist reminiscent of Frozen, it is ultimately Maleficent, not the prince, who bestows True Love’s Kiss on Aurora’s forehead, unexpectedly waking her from her cursed slumber.
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Maleficent is, in many ways, a remarkable reboot in the Disney canon in that it accidentally posits a construction of a women-centered chosen family — one, perhaps, that only a witch could make. “I want to stay in the Moors with you,” Aurora tells Maleficent upon waking from her cursed sleep in Stefan’s castle. The identification with the maternal is singular, perhaps for the first time in a Disney film. It is a queer family structure in the sense that it deconstructs and deprioritizes the centering of heteronormativity: Men’s power over women has no relevance here. There is no need or desire for procreation. In fact, there is restoration: While the final battle is ongoing, Aurora stumbles upon Maleficent’s wings, locked up and displayed like some kind of sick trophy, and frees them — restoring Maleficent’s wings to her in the heat of battle. At the end of the film, Aurora gives her castle, inherited from the father she had no connection to, back to the people. There is, seemingly, no desire for conquest, for assimilation into the patriarchal, monarchical order that drove Stefan to brutalize Maleficent and pursue the destruction of the Moors and ownership of Aurora at all costs.
Or is there? When we first meet Maleficent, before she has ever had any relationships with humans, she is still living as a part of a communal society with no official leadership, let alone a monarchy. After Stefan betrays and assaults her, and after she subsequently enacts revenge on him by both cursing his child and having him kneel before her in front of his entire court, Maleficent crowns herself Queen of the Moors — a hostile takeover, essentially. But her love for Aurora, in the end, does not inspire her to restore the Moors to the egalitarian society they once were. No: Instead, Aurora is crowned collective ruler, “uniting the kingdoms,” so that she co-rules the Moors and the human kingdom that is her birthright. Maternity has incited, in Maleficent, both the desire to abdicate her own power, and also to provide for and ensure her daughter’s. The consolidation of Aurora’s power supersedes the restoration of the fully functional society that the Moors once had.
Even so, the end of the first film is still threatening: Aurora ruling two kingdoms, independently, untethered to any man, her all-powerful witch-mother at her side. These women must be tethered to biology, to bloodlines, to societies with men; the investment in the nation-state is ultimately worthless if they don’t have an investment in heterosexual procreation. Aurora, specifically, must marry and have children. What are women without an interest in furthering the bloodline, even if they do sit on a throne? Witches, hags, lesbians, selfish. We cannot let those words hang over Disney heroines, over Good Mothers.
Enter the sequel, Mistress of Evil. Like Frozen 2 did to Frozen, Mistress of Evil guts any of the potentially rich and wildly queer readings that are possible within Maleficent. The shortest possible summary of the post #MeToo 2019 sequel is that, upon the eve of Aurora’s marriage to Prince Philip, Maleficent is framed for a crime by Philip’s mother, who is revealed to be a very Evil Queen. The framing is only possible because of Maleficent’s proximity to monstrosity and Aurora’s surprising shame around it, a self-consciousness of Maleficent’s difference and their unique relationship that is not at all previously present. Aurora, on the verge of marriage to a man, has moved back into her father’s castle and discarded her identification with the maternal, but Maleficent is having trouble letting go. Shadows of the Rapunzel-esque witch-mother who desires that her daughter never leave lick at the edges of the screen.
The underlying problem is simple: Maleficent’s rehabilitation from an all-powerful, threatening witch is entirely predicated on her maternity. So what happens to her goodness when the child grows up? Without motherhood, what is she? A power-hungry, war-mongering monster witch, it turns out. “I have no daughter,” she declares. For Maleficent to actually detach from Aurora — which is, of course, demanded by a princess’ heterosexual marriage — Maleficent must move into another maternal position. In an extremely deus ex machina move, we meet her long-forgotten natal tribe of fairies, the Dark Fae, a group on the verge of extinction. Maleficent has the opportunity to take on the role of “Mother of the Nation.”
However, life outside of Aurora is only half of the story. Their fractured relationship must be reconciled: Not through an honest, heart-to-heart conversation, but through a mother’s ultimate sacrifice. In the final battle, Aurora pleads with Maleficent to stop fighting, saying “You’re my mother,” and in that moment, Maleficent takes an arrow aimed at her child, dying and scattering to ash.
To return to Irigaray, who once said that the whole of western culture is built upon the death of the mother: It is also true that the cult of motherhood is built upon the death of women’s selves. The Maleficent films are exemplative of this. Motherhood is rarely represented, in pop culture, as a role or identity that can exist in simultaneity alongside other roles and interests; it is all-consuming to the point of psychic or literal death. The most traditional culmination of a woman’s narrative is not what you can do or be, but ultimately, what you are willing to give up — a storyline still being peddled by Disney under their feminist reboot guise.
At her most powerful, Maleficent is also her least wrathful. Upon sacrificing her life for Aurora, she is reborn as a gigantic phoenix, a symbol of her people — herself now capable of shape-shifting, as the Maleficent of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty was. Maleficent is alchemized as a surrogate mother for an entire nation; her sublime, terrifying presence brings peace to a battlefield, where weapons are put down as everyone stares up in an awful wonder of her. Realistically, it’s the kind of peace that occurs because one is aware of the destruction that would be caused by provocation — but that isn’t how Disney represents it. Maleficent quickly reverts, shape-shifting into her human form, and embracing Aurora in front of everyone. This is the mother who took an arrow for her child. Who proceeds to cry at her daughter’s wedding. Really, there is nothing to fear from this incredibly relatable witch who has no interest in using her newfound state power for violence, let alone as a threat against human kingdoms. Her extraordinary magic has the greatest leash: Maternal love.
The idea that women and femmes will be neutered of any desire for violence or rage if they become caregivers is, of course, inaccurate. Mothers and caregivers are, in fact, people who get to experience the full range of human emotion. But it is a useful cultural narrative for perpetuating the idea of the Good Mother and, more broadly, the Good Woman: Look, here is the most powerful villain in the Disney pantheon, and even she can learn to quiet her wrath out of love for her daughter.
There is also the timing of the sequel to consider. Releasing a story about a witch-mother’s suppression of rage and prioritization of forgiveness after the rise of #MeToo feels irresponsible, at best. The fact that the canonical text at hand is Sleeping Beauty — a fairy tale which is, in its most traditional tellings, a rape story, and which even in the 2014 retelling contains a brutal assault — makes its not-so-subliminal messaging all the more egregious.
While the Maleficent reboots open up rich possibilities for maternity outside of biological reproduction — a rarity in any Disney property — these wells of potential are still fundamentally wedded to cis-hetero assumptions about women and caregiving, about the biological necessity of legacy. The mother is the unspoken, underappreciated linchpin on which the production of the nation-state rests. To integrate the Maleficents — the unruly women, the witches, the queers — into the state is to enroll them in the project of motherhood and parenting, and so tame their shrewish selves in the interest of raising the next generation.
But this is the greatest irony of all. A witch’s power, sublimated, is merely put to sleep. And sleeping witches can always be woken back up.
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Jeanna Kadlec is a culture writer living in NYC. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, O the Oprah Magazine, LitHub, NYLON, Allure, and more.
Editor: Carolyn Wells