Does ‘Maleficent’ depict matriarchy vs patriarchy or world where gender isn’t destiny?

This is my fifth post on the fabulous ‘Maleficent’ movie which I saw with my three daughters and my husband last Friday. I’m obviously a little obsessed.


If you’ve been following my blogs, I keep arguing, contrary to what almost everyone else seems to believe, that when Stefan cuts off Maleficent’s wings, it’s not necessarily a rape metaphor. I’d like to set one thing straight given the comments I’ve received. Yes, everyone is allowed their own interpretation. My blogs, about how this scene is not rape, I am quite aware come from my own bias that I want to lay out for you here:

(1) I am 45 years old and exhausted with seeing women raped on screen. I just wrote about my fatigue regarding bell hooks’s forum: Are You Still a Slave ? Liberating the Black Female Body with a blog title borrowed from a hooks quote: “If I never see another naked, enslaved, black woman on screen, I’ll be happy.”

(2) I have 3 daughters ages 5, 7, and 10, and I am desperate for them to experience fantasy worlds where gender equality exists. This wish of mine probably goes back to my first point, that I am 45 and sick of seeing the “feminist” trope where the female struggles against the patriarchy. It’s not just that I’ve seen it one million times before, but that in order for my children to see a girl struggling to be taken seriously or be strong or powerful even though she’s a girl, first my kids have to understand sexism. In order to “get” the story, first they have to understand that the world believes girls are less than boys. I would prefer, certainly for little kids, that they be exposed to fantasy worlds where girls and boys are depicted as equal, where girls are not made fun of, put down, or limited because of their gender. I understand how important the narrative of the girl proving she’s “just as good as a boy”  is historically, I’m not asking for it to be obliterated, I’m just asking for more stories where there is gender equality. If we can’t imagine gender equality, we cant create it. At this point, The Hunger Games may be the only fantasy world I’ve read where gender is not an issue.

(3) There are several reasons I believed “Maleficent” depicts a fantasy world where gender isn’t destiny rather than matriarchy vs patriarchy. Everyone is allowed their own interpretation, author’s intention is dead, but it can still be a factor in understanding the movie. I believed that it was both the screenwriter’s and Angelina Jolie’s intention that the conflict in the movie was not male vs female but human vs Fairy. Here are the reasons why:

A. The narrator introduces the movie as one about two worlds, one human and one magical.

B. When Stefan is first introduced, Maleficent is curious about him because he is a human, not because he is a boy.

C. With most of the scenes between them being childhood ones, I experienced the relationship between Stefan and Maleficent as special because it was a friendship between two warring species.

D. This quote from the writer, Linda Woolverton:

I had to figure out what possibly could have happened to her to make her want to hurt an innocent baby. Something that would equal that act. In the animated movie, she had no wings. She just threw her robes open like wings. I thought, ‘Is that it? Did someone take her wings?

Maleficent’s wings defined her as a Fairy. These wings were cut. This violence had nothing to do with her genitals/ rape. Why must we assume that when violence is done to a woman, it must involve her genitals? When Delilah put Samson to sleep in her lap and his hair was cut, was that a rape metaphor? As someone on Reel Girl’s Facebook page commented, the Maleficent scene could be compared to cutting off the hand of a concert pianist or, I might add, cutting off the wings off a Fairy!

E. This quote from Angelina Jolie made me think she wanted “Maleficent” to depict a world where gender isn’t destiny instead of matriarchy vs patriarchy.

“Our movie has all this strength and all this feminism, but, what I think is so nice is that, sometimes, in order to do that you have to make the man an idiot. Instead, we have this very elegant, wonderfully handsome, prince who, in the end, is great. He doesn’t need to be less than to make us more than. We don’t have to simplify or cheapen the men, or to detract from one to make the other better. I think that’s a mistake that’s often made in movies.


But, here’s my new news. It’s been one week since I saw “Maleficent,” and now I realize, to my dismay, though I still love this movie, I agree with so many others: “Maleficent” is not a world where gender isn’t destiny but depicts the conflict of matriarchy versus patriarchy. So why my change of heart? Is it that I now agree the wing cutting is clearly a rape metaphor? That the relationship between Stefan and Maleficent is primarily romantic?

No. What’s made me change my perception is I’ve been dwelling on my one earlier disappointment with the movie. The human crowd scenes are populated by all male characters. Please, tell me I missed something, but from my recollection, the king’s army is comprised of all male soldiers. When the king sends his followers to kill Maleficent, wishing for an heir, the circle around him is all male. And when Stefan returns with Maleficent’s wings, the king says something to the effect of, “Take my daughter.” If the king had been surrounded by half women when he sends his minions off to kill, if the army had been half women fighters, if we’d seen Maleficent use her power to strike down women soldiers as well as male ones, this fantasy world would’ve been one where gender doesn’t matter. But we did not see this. Therefore, the movie is clearly about patriarchy vs matriarchy, thus, the rape scene makes perfect sense.

Still, Angelina Jolie may have intended for her movie to depict a world where gender isn’t destiny rather than matriarchy vs patriarchy. But, if this is the case, she should’ve made sure the crowd scenes showed men and women equally. The scene could be primarily males just because of Jolie’s– and the producer’s, writer’s, director’s obviously–  unconscious bias. But this is why author’s intention doesn’t matter, because viewers see things in the story that are there whether the creator “chose” to put them there or not.

The Geena Davis Institute does extensive research on gender bias in children’s films, coming up with two– just two– main ways to make kids’ films show gender equality:


Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.


It’s sort of like how someone said, I forget who it was, that we won’t have gender equality when female geniuses make it through the glass ceiling, when exceptional women break barriers, but when the mediocre, average ones make it into the power structure, just like all the average white men are up there. It’s all about the crowd scenes.

Alternative title for this post: What happens when an over-educated woman has three daughters and gets stuck watching way too many Disney movies? She blogs.

Update:  I’m getting comments on Reel Girl’s Facebook page asking if I still recommend Maleficent for kids. Yes, absolutely take your children to see this movie, rape metaphor or no. They will not get the metaphor. It’s only disappointing to me because, as I wrote, I would like children to experience fantasy worlds where gender equality exists, and I’ve come to believe that “Maleficent” isn’t one of those worlds. Still, the movie has a great female protagonist (rare in kids’s films) and shows other strong, complex female characters as well. All three of my kids and my husband enjoyed the movie. Read the last post listed below for my full review.

Reel Girl’s posts on “Maleficent:”

What if ‘Maleficent’s’ Stefan had been Stefanie?

‘Maleficent’ beats MacFarlane at the box office (and she didn’t even show her boobs)

‘Maleficent’ is not ‘a woman scorned’ so stop calling her that

Magnificent ‘Maleficent’ is for all the girls who always wanted to fly


15 thoughts on “Does ‘Maleficent’ depict matriarchy vs patriarchy or world where gender isn’t destiny?

  1. It’s been a year since this article, and the movie which inspired it. Hopefully, that’s been enough time for me to speak rationally about this.

    I’d like to point out that I too, believe the movie can be seen as a metaphor for rape. Just not in the way most other posters are intending. Or perhaps I should say, not “only” in the way other posters are intending.

    What I see in this movie is almost a perfect metaphor for sexual assault from the ‘Predisposed’ typology – of female offender.

    To quote the author: “I had to figure out what possibly could have happened to her to make her want to hurt an innocent baby.” In the movie, not only did Maleficent want to hurt an innocent baby – she DID hurt an innocent baby. My faith in humanity has been somewhat shaken, since very few commenters (none that I’ve seen) answered “NOTHING JUSTIFIES HURTING AN INNOCENT BABY.”

    This shouldn’t need to be said, but neither does it justify setting “everyone on fire around you”:

    And therein lies, imo, a troubling example of the challenges of our modern society, so full of our own personal hurts and ‘rights’ that we fail to recognize that when we act out our hurts on innocent people WE ARE COMMITING A CRIME.

    By the language used, the author, and those who repeat it admiringly, have – perhaps unwittingly – just endorsed the very attitude and justification used by criminals everywhere: rapists, murderers, serial killers, domestic batterers, child abusers. Most of them feel hard done by in life (which is true, like Maleficent most of them were victims first) and use that to justify their violation of innocent others, without giving it a second thought. To think that way in the heat of passion and overwhelming pain is only human; to actually follow through to commit the act, and furthermore upon further reflection to fully endorse the act, speaks to much darker and nihilistic aspects of our characters.

    But I don’t believe this about most people commenting this way. IMO (this is only my opinion please remember) this movie is also an example of grooming. Grooming uses ‘sleight-of-hand’ logic and emotional manipulation to influence people to adopt a mindset they would never do on their own – to get them to commit acts which are counter to their own moral and ethical conscience, by slipping those unethical and immoral actions/responses in under the radar while people are distracted by strong emotions. I believe that most people, if they thought about it outside of that influence, would never for a second countenance harming a baby.

    However, those who commit sex offences (yes, even women) not only do, but want you to as well. If not to do it yourself, at least to provide cover for them.

    Much female sexual abuse is disguised in what looks like affection and ‘mothering’ to the outside world (although there is usually a high severity of violence, psychological domination, and threat behind the scenes). Most survivors of maternal incest &/or sexual abuse will tell you that their mother/caregiver’s overwhelming ‘affection’ was really an attempt to ‘own’ them. Most often, when very young, the ‘relationship’ was one of subjugation and personality annihilation (the curse). Overt sexual abuse sometimes comes later. If the severing of Maleficent’s wings is a metaphor for male on female rape, the ‘lover’s kiss’ which has the power to bestow life or death is a pretty accurate metaphor for maternal incest.

    For those of you unfamiliar with FSA & and the ‘Predisposed’ typology, I’ve provided a few links. I hope that readers will keep an open mind in light of what is obviously information that many will find discomfiting. I hope you’ll read this and reconsider the messages of this movie.

    “The predisposed offenders are those who victimize their own children or children in their care in the absence of a male accomplice. Many of the predisposed offenders were sexually abused as children, have serious psychological disorders, and find it difficult to establish healthy sexual relationships as adults (Matthews et al., 1991). These offenders might have sadistic fantasies triggered by anger, are chronically suicidal, and are more likely to cause pain and harm to their victims who are often children younger than age six (Matthews et al., 1991 and Matthews, 1993).”

    “The motivation to sexually offend may be driven by a longing for emotional
    closeness and physical affection”

    “The mother often wishes to dominate and control her daughter, while also seeking emotional support from her, sometimes resulting in a reversal of roles.

    – child and adult survivors may not recognize their experiences as abusive because:
    ◾their experiences may be perceived as “normal” to them
    ◾there is a general lack of acknowledgement or validation for this form of abuse
    ◾as compared to male-female abuse, mother-daughter abuse tends to begin younger, last longer, and be more pervasive, yet covert”

  2. Regarding the rape metaphor, I think, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether it is a rape metaphor or not. Stefan betrays Maleficent’s trust because he cares more about his own desires than about her wellbeing. That could be a metaphor for a lot of things, including rape.
    Whatever it is meant to be read as, the fantasy world wherein the story takes place is certainly not one where gender doesn’t matter. However, as children don’t live in such a world, either, the knowledge that “There is evil in this world” will be useful to them.

  3. Hi Margot,

    Have you seen the Maleficent dolls? At our local Barnes and Noble, I saw a huge display of Aurora dolls, complete with gowns, crowns and jewelry. but only one smallish Maleficent figure, packaged with the Aurora doll, not sold on her own. They are sold at Toys R Us however. I wonder how well Aurora is selling vs Maleficent?

  4. Rape is not defined as an exclusively sexual act perpetrated by men against women. With the full definition in mind, ripping off Maleficent’s wings is an act of rape.
    rape1 [reyp] Show IPA
    the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse.
    any act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.
    statutory rape.
    an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation: the rape of the countryside.
    Archaic. the act of seizing and carrying off by force.
    verb (used with object), raped, rap·ing.
    to force to have sexual intercourse.
    to plunder (a place); despoil.
    to seize, take, or carry off by force.
    verb (used without object), raped, rap·ing.
    to commit rape.

    As a person who has both been raped in a sexual manner and raped in the sense that I was non-sexually violated and mutilated; I can tell you that the latter was even worse than the former. The scene struck a cord with me and made Maleficent’s hateful acts entirely understandable. She was brutally raped.

  5. Contrary to what you believe, most people do NOT think that the scene is a metaphor for rape. And people like @HayleyKrischer do not know the difference between claiming something MUST mean something–i.e., rape–versus acknowledging that something was a trigger for HER and could also be a trigger for some other people. Then again, she is too self-important and selfish and lacking in insight or honesty to admit that her piece on this topic was highly manipulative and self-serving, all the way from the title to the many dubious claims she made.

    • Hi Dr. Oren Amitay,

      Almost all of the analysis I’ve read on the feminist internet interprets the scene as rape. Yes, that’s not everyone, but it’s the cyberspace world that I exist in, where my view was different.

      Haley never claimed it MUST mean something, she is arguing for an interpretation. Experiencing art and sharing/ communicating you experience is the purpose of art,a nd she has every right to express her view.


      • Hi Margot,

        I try to be precise in language so when I saw your “contrary to what almost everyone else seems to believe” line, I had to comment because, as I’m sure you know, the majority of people who read Hayley Krischer’s article disagree with her interpretation. If I had known you were limiting your “population” to feminist forums, I might not have commented.

        With respect to HK’s piece, however, when someone writes in absolute terms, e.g., “Rape has so permeated our culture that it ended up in a Disney movie,” then she is implying that it means something; hence, she is indicating that it must mean rape. I stand by my original comment. If she wanted to argue for an interpretation, she should have used more accurate and precise language. So, she either intentionally used inflammatory language–likely to garner more interest in her piece–or she used a poor choice of words and did not have the integrity to clarify her intentions.

        Does she have every right to express her view? Of course.

        Must she respond to those who challenge her piece? No.

        However, I found her subsequent actions on Twitter quite transparent and manipulative. I highlighted, explained and called her out on them. She chose to ignore me. That is fine. But it is also cowardly and self-serving when one observes the comments to which she did choose to respond.

        More importantly, as an “organic feminist” who takes my role as educator very seriously, I am dismayed at the actions of people such as HK. Specifically, her manipulative, self-serving, intellectually dishonest and cowardly tactics ensure that she will appeal mostly to those who already share her viewpoint or who identify with what she’s saying due to their own personal histories. Unfortunately, she will turn off almost everyone else, thus contributing even further to the demise of feminism.

        I have taught tens of thousands of students at five different universities (four of which are in Canada’s largest city) and have seen the damage that has been done by people doing similar things to what HK did. Conversely, my honest, genuine and rational approach reaches far more people, including those who would ordinarily scoff at the issues that feminists are trying to promote.

        I could go on but I hope I have made my point. Feel free to pass this on to HK because she does not have the integrity to communicate with me directly. Instead, she chooses to respond to those who use a vulgar term for female genitalia to refer to her and then proclaims that she’s done for the day and wishes to retreat with her daughter. Very manipulative. Very obvious.

  6. The Legend of Korra is an animated show that presents a world where gender isn’t an issue and it is so refreshing. Korra and nobody cares that she is a young woman. Sports, Law enforcement, martial arts, all these things are presented as naturally co-ed.

    It is a spin-off of Avatar, The Last Airbender which is is good about that stuff too. Avatar starts with the eyerolling dichotomy of one boy and one girl supporting the boy hero, but by the end the team has become three girls and three boys (one of whom is the male hero yes.)

    I just cannot recommend these shows highly enough.

  7. I was confused by the scene with the old king’s advisors; I initially assumed his daughter was Aurora, and she was a child needing a guardian/regent. I was disappointed to find that his daughter was effectively a reward, and it really doesn’t fit well with what they were trying to do with the film.

    ” Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch.”

    I remember reading somewhere that all the characters in ‘Alien’ were originally written as men, and yet Ripley is frequently held up as a paragon of good female character writing. This is exactly because she wasn’t written as a woman; she was written as a person (because male characters are more often written as normal people first, not as their gender), then made a woman.

    I actually sometimes worry, because I’m so conscious of the lack of women in fiction, that I go the opposite way. “Hang on,” I think to myself, “this entire scene has the female protagonist, the female antagonist, and loads of female secondary characters. Oh, there’s one man.” Then I figure it’s okay because a) lots of stories don’t even have that one woman, so if boys are so bothered by the lack of men in my book there’s plenty more for them to read, and b) my fiancé and his entire family all used to watch Buffy together, even that season with a 2:1 female:male ratio, and none of the men in the family noticed/cared (and c) I’m writing for myself, not some hypothetical future male readers).

    • I thought the movie was trying to set up the fairy realm as the peaceful and gender-equal opposite of the patriarchal and cruel human realm. In this, they succeeded.
      If they tried to create a fantasy world that wasn’t dominated by patriarchy, it is a complete failure, of course, but I don’t think they tried to do that.

  8. Well, if you are obsessed with this movie, count me in :):):)

    I´ve read your other posts and agreed with you, that “Maleficent” is about gender isn´t destiny. To me it is obviously a story about growing love between a mother and a daughter.

    When watching the movie I also didn´t see rape when Stefan cut off her wings. I saw that he took something from her she valued very much and she desperately needed (like if someone would cut off your fingers …)

    But I did not see that it was an all male´s army – why not ? Because one is simply too used to see that.

    Nevertheless I recognised all his “advisers” as male. Although one is used to see that as well. So it didn´t strike me that odd.

    What irritated me was that one never is going to see Aurora´s mother again … Nothing about her feelings after loosing her child !

    After reading this post I must say that it really makes perfect sense. This IS a way to understand that scene.

    But although one can read it that way I still hear Maleficent´s cry in my ear and the hurt, anger, incredulity which to me expresses something else. Sheer frustration because of being so betrayed.

    I hope I made myself clear (English is not my native tongue).

    • Hi Titanica,

      Very clear, great comment, thank you for writing it (and confessing to obsession, maybe there’s a 12 Step group fir us?)


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