Once upon a time, in a studio far, far away, there worked a few filmmakers, who finally figured out how to be progressive. In retelling Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” they broke records with the tale of “Frozen.” That success was shortly followed by the less beloved but no less relevant re-envisioning of “Sleeping Beauty” known as “Maleficent.” Both films present strong females and invert the traditional Disney narrative. Most important, though, each deconstructs “true love’s first kiss,” redefining the age-old trope and subverting the idea that all women need a man to save them.
It’s quite clear that “Maleficent” is not a cinematic darling like “Frozen.” But given its history, the restructuring of that story is more notable: Princess Aurora is, without question, the single most anti-feminist protagonist in the Disney canon. In the relatively cheery 1959 film, she is lacking in agency (and speaks no more than 263 words, according to Buzzfeed). Throughout her literary history, Aurora has an even lesser role in her fate (you’re welcome to look to the background of the story if you want your day ruined with a heaping pile of gruesome darkness).
To be fair, long before Elsa dolls exploded onto eBay, Disney had tried its hand at the strong female narrative. Examples include Mulan, Pochantas and — more recently — Tiana («The Princess and the Frog»). All follow their own passions with some priority, despite being accessorized with love interests. Yet, this idea of shattering “true love’s kiss” stands out above those stories, because it is a direct refusal of salvation-by-prince-charming. Indeed, «true love’s kiss» is the most concrete iteration of a female protagonist’s story centralizing around the search for love. Both «Frozen» and «Maleficent» prize sisterhood in a particularly powerful way, and in replacing that plot device with a different sort of love, a new, more progressive tale emerges.
Now, in “Maleficent,” Elle Fanning’s Aurora falls into a micro sleep shorter than most naps. The scene where Jolie kisses her awake is not particularly powerful, but what stands out is the juxtaposition of these two women. Elsa and Anna were literally sisters, but Maleficent and Aurora emphasize a more abstract understanding of sisterhood. Where Maleficent has darkness and rough edges, Aurora is characterized by softness. She’s the quintessential girly girl. Yet, they ultimately form a bond that pushes Maleficent to save her where the stupid prince, who looks like a cast off from “One Direction,” can’t. Ultimately, that sends a message not just about the archaic notion of chivalry, but the power of connection between all women.
To be clear, the blame for sexism in film doesn’t rest squarely on Mickey Mouse’s shoulders. These tropes are prevalent throughout the history of all storytelling, and it just so happens that Disney was retelling a lot of fairy tales in the late ‘50s. But after all these years, the acknowledgement of progress has at least emerged. And beyond that, it’s working. Sure, “Frozen” was fraught with logical inconsistencies and, aside from that kiss, “Maleficent” played like a CGI-heavy revenge fantasy, but Disney is one of the most traditional studios, and both stories constitute major progress. What matters most is that they maintain the feel good power of love, but with meaning defined by sisterhood, friendship and family. There’s certainly a long way to go when it comes to women in film, but at the end of the day, that’s a much more appealing version of happily ever after.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca