Thursday, July 10, 2014

Misunderstood vs. mistreated

Note: If you haven't yet seen the Disney film Maleficent, there are spoilers ahead. Also, this blog post contains reference to sex and violence and is thus super inappropriate for kids. This is your final warning!

Imagine that a boy and a girl meet each other as children. Although very different -- the boy, from a poor family, has a burning desire for greater social status; the girl is sheltered, sometimes difficult to understand, but has an undeniable, almost magical charisma -- they come to be close friends. As they grow from childhood to teenhood and then to young adulthood, friendship grows to fondness and finally, tenderly, blossoms into something more. But at the end of their teen years, life pulls them in opposite directions, into very different social circles, and several years pass before he comes to see her again. The young woman is delighted to be with her sweetheart, grown tall and handsome, after so long apart, and they talk and laugh and exult in each other's company just as they once did.

Then, as the evening wears on, he gives her something to drink -- and as the sedative he slipped into the drink takes effect and she trustingly falls asleep against his shoulder, he takes advantage of her, forcibly stealing both her virginity and her right to consent. Before she wakes, he flees the scene, having thus completed the terms of the pledge he took to enter a prestigious fraternity at his college. Only upon waking does the young woman realize what her erstwhile friend and love has done to her, and she screams and weeps in pain and loss.

Do you have a difficult time believing that a boy -- even one with such a strong desire for social prestige as the boy in this story -- would do something so incomprehensibly cruel to a girl who was his first love, who had never done or even wished him any harm? Because if so, you're going to have trouble getting on board with a major plot point in Maleficent. The scene wherein Stefan and Maleficent, friends since childhood and sweethearts since their teen years, are reunited as adults -- wherein he drugs her and, instead of killing her outright, slices off her beautiful wings as a trophy in order to prove his worth and become king -- plays as a very strong metaphor for rape.

Granted, most women are raped by someone they already know. Quite often it's when one or both people have had too much to drink, or other drugs are involved, and the decision-making parts of their brains have gone AWOL. Sometimes it takes place in a moment of anger. But most rapes are opportunistic, rather than premeditated. That may be what makes this particular scene so horrific. Stefan enters the moors knowing full well what he intends to do. That he goes in originally intending to kill his childhood sweetheart doesn't exactly score any points in his favor. (I won't belabor the point, but I've heard more than one rape victim say that for the first few months after the attack she wished she were simply dead, rather than having to suffer through the aftermath.) But choosing to take her wings from her -- the symbol of her beauty, her freedom, her innocence and her gentle spirit -- isn't just heartless. It's stupid. He's taken someone who could have been a friend and ally, a link between the two kingdoms, someone who loved and trusted him, and irreparably broken her trust; he's taken her wings, but not her abilities, and now he has a powerful, vengeful nemesis bent on hurting him back any way she can. (No wonder he goes a little crazy. How could anyone living under such circumstances become anything but paranoid?)

The thing I like about Maleficent is that, in the end, it is a story of redemption. It shows that people who have been cruelly mistreated and abused can rise above the anger, hatred and fear -- and that being on the receiving end of abuse doesn't mean one is fated to abuse others in turn. For that alone, it's worth seeing.

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