Empowering Female Empathy: A Retelling of Disney's Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent's Eyes

July 19, 2023
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In this rendition of the Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent finds herself betrayed by her "true love," a man named Stefan, who heartlessly severs her wings to win favor with the king and secure his position as the heir. Maleficent is overwhelmed with despair when she realizes the magnitude of the betrayal. Consequently, when Stefan and his queen have their daughter, Aurora, Maleficent seeks vengeance by casting a curse that will plunge her into a death-like slumber on her sixteenth birthday, only to be awakened by true love's kiss.

As time passes and Maleficent gets to know Aurora, she begins to regret her hasty decision. Despite her attempts to break the curse with magic, it is a simple kiss on the forehead that surprisingly fulfills the "true love's kiss" stipulation and awakens Aurora. As Aurora narrates, Maleficent emerges as both the villain and the hero of the tale. Nevertheless, while this retelling is more empowering for young children, Disney's Maleficent falls short of being truly progressive. For too long, Disney films have instilled in children the notion that validation and happiness solely come from the love of a man. While Maleficent places greater emphasis on familial bonds and female empowerment, it still adheres to the traditional princess/prince romantic arc, maintaining the core of Sleeping Beauty's story.

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One of the primary concerns addressed in Mickey Mouse Monopoly by scholars revolves around the gender stereotypes and ideas propagated by Disney, influencing society's perception of women. Maleficent endeavors to incorporate a progressive female empowerment theme into the original narrative, challenging its gender limitations. However, Disney's willingness to push the boundaries of the Sleeping Beauty story is limited. As a result, in its attempt to create a positive feminine aesthetic that coexists with the original tale, Maleficent undervalues and harms its female characters.

For example, at the beginning of Maleficent's curse on Aurora, it states, "The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who meet her" (Maleficent). While Aurora is blessed with beauty and happiness, she is never bestowed with attributes such as intelligence or strength that would place value on qualities beyond her outward appearance. Like other Disney princess movies, Maleficent places more emphasis on the characters' looks rather than their substance. As stated in the article "Fairytale’s Most Wanted: The Five Most Well-Known Character Types," "Ultimately, this is the universal truth of the princess character: her virtue must be reflected by her outward appearance—she must be beautiful" (Heckel). These unrealistic ideals presented to young children cement negative body images and perceptions during their formative years, reinforcing the message that a woman's worth is primarily linked to her looks, thereby perpetuating traditional gender stereotypes.

Moreover, while Maleficent takes a stand against endorsing violence against women, as seen in some of Disney's earlier movies, it still portrays images of aggression and violence directed towards women, arguably promoting patriarchal attitudes. One of the most disturbing scenes depicts Stefan mutilating Maleficent's unconscious body by cutting off her wings, leaving her bleeding. This symbolism hints at the theme of violation, adhering to patriarchal attitudes and violent behavior. Although Maleficent seeks revenge with a curse — a powerful moment of female agency — she eventually succumbs to guilt and regret, while Stefan never shows remorse or apologizes for his actions. Consequently, all male characters are portrayed negatively, resulting in a superficial and ineffective form of feminism.

The film tries to cater to a young audience, resulting in a story where Maleficent finds redemption through her newfound connection with the daughter of her assailant. Essentially, it teaches children that all men are power-hungry and foolish, while all abused women will inevitably become vengeful and evil. As indicated in the article "Elements Found in Fairy Tales," fairy tales often hold deeper meanings beyond their surface appeal to children (Elements Found in Fairy Tales). Maleficent attempts to be a power fantasy for women who have felt wronged by men and desire revenge, aligning with feminist theory, which aims to address inequality, power dynamics, and sexuality (Elements Found in Fairy Tales). However, due to the movie's limitations in deviating from the original narrative while maintaining child appeal, it becomes a jumble of poorly-conceived ideas that children cannot critically analyze. If Disney truly wanted to depict a strong woman at the center of the narrative, she should not be diminished or violated by male characters.

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Empowering Female Empathy: A Retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent’s Eyes. (2020, December 14). WritingBros. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-true-evil-or-hidden-kindness-of-maleficent/
“Empowering Female Empathy: A Retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent’s Eyes.” WritingBros, 14 Dec. 2020, writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-true-evil-or-hidden-kindness-of-maleficent/
Empowering Female Empathy: A Retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent’s Eyes. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-true-evil-or-hidden-kindness-of-maleficent/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2023].
Empowering Female Empathy: A Retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty through Maleficent’s Eyes [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Dec 14 [cited 2023 Dec 9]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/the-true-evil-or-hidden-kindness-of-maleficent/
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