It Doesn’t Hurt When I Watch Maleficent: Feminism & Film-Making

‘Oh,’ she said , in a surprised voice. ‘It doesn’t hurt.’

‘No, fast-penta doesn’t hurt,’ said Tuomonen.

That isn’t what she means, Tuomonen. If a person lived in hurt like a mermaid in water, til hurt became as invisible as breath, its sudden removal…must come as a stunning event…

~from Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

This quote is from the superlative Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold (read these books if you haven’t yet!). I’m re-purposing it for this essay because it was the one that got stuck in my head after I saw Maleficent.

Why?

Because it doesn’t hurt when I watch Maleficent.

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OK, what do I mean by that? Well, I talked in my review of the film about what a good start Maleficent is for Hollywood going forward as far as strong female leads and girl positive movies. And you know why that is? Because it doesn’t hurt to watch it. These days I go to most mainstream Hollywood movies and, odds are, there is going to be something in them that will make me angry. A big part of why I quit a screenwriting group I was in was because of the rampant misogyny and dismissal of women that I saw in 99% of the scripts. Even movies that have a strong female lead will oftentimes feel the need to still “male gaze” her; like Ripley in Alien and the totally unnecessary part where she strips to her underwear then fights the monster. Or Leia and the gold bikini in Return of the Jedi.

blog 3Totally necessary to the plot of the movie, right?

When I went to see Riddick last year I was physically shaking with anger in the theater about how that film treated it’s women characters. (And by characters I mean literally 2. One who has a gratuitous topless scene, and one who is killed five minutes in after it is heavily implied she was used as a sex slave. God that movie gives me rage!)

That’s an extreme example, of course, but it’s prevalent in the majority of mainstream films. Like let’s talk about Star Trek Into Darkness and the scene where Carol strips to her underwear for no good reason. Then, even though she explicitly asked him not to, Kirk stands there staring at her like a fucking creeper and grinning. And the film thinks this is OK. The film clearly thinks this is funny.

Or let’s talk about the fact that a Black Widow movie still hasn’t been officially announced.

Let’s talk about how they just announced that yet another cishet white guy is directing the Star Wars spinoff–

Let’s talk about the fact the film industry is misogynistic as hell and most of their output is perpetuating really harmful gender dynamics for women and men.

This is the “hurt” that we are all swimming in. This is the thing that I have become so acclimated to that it took me almost two days to figure out why I had such a pleasant experience watching Maleficent, even though it’s honestly not the greatest film. I had a pleasant experience because the misogyny that I spend so much time wading through when I usually see a movie wasn’t there. Because there was nothing in there to make me wince, nothing to apologize for or excuse when it came to how the women were portrayed (even Frozen, which I love, has the questionable sexy Elsa dress).

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There was nothing in Maleficent that I had to mentally erase in my head canon to make the film more acceptable. Maleficent was a safe space for me; I didn’t have to constantly brace myself for women to be sexualized, demeaned, injured. They weren’t there to be looked at–as female characters, even the great ones, too often are. The women in Maleficent were there to be people. And, hot damn, was that refreshing to watch.

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if every film could be like that for me? For all women?

 

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