'Maleficent': The feminist retelling of a Disney villain
Disney used to bank on its typical plot driver of romantic love overcoming any and all obstacles but announced in 2010 that it would say goodbye to fairy tales in favor of gaining "wider appeal."
What audiences got instead of stereotypical damsels in distress were protagonists like Elsa of "Frozen" and Merida of "Brave": girls who might be princesses but stray far from the typical fairy-tale script.
"(The 'Frozen' characters) are significant departures from tradition in a film that shakes up the hyper-romantic 'princess' formula that has stood Disney in good stead for decades and that has grown stale," Stephanie Holden wrote in the New York Times.
"Frozen" and "Brave" have no clear-cut villains, for example. Rather, the conflict of the films comes from their central characters' struggle to compromise between what they want and what they're told is best for them. In Merida's case, the conflict is avoiding an arranged marriage; for Elsa, it's overcoming adversity to embrace who she is.
When Merida bristled at the idea of an arranged marriage in "Brave" and was a talented archer and tomboy, some critics questioned whether the redheaded heroine could be gay.
However, the Atlantic's Chris Heller applauded "Brave" not as a pro-gay movie, but as a compassionate film that broke from Disney's princess tradition of love plus marriage equals the ultimate happy ending.
"It's about the compassion it takes to, as Merida and Elinor put it, 'break tradition,' to change both society's rules and the prejudices within ones' own mind," Heller wrote.
'Frozen' gender roles?
Newer films like "Frozen" and "Brave" aren't above criticism or disappointment from viewers expecting a more complete departure from traditional gender roles.
Slate critic Dana Stevens wrote on the heels of "Frozen's" release that she worried about the effect one scene in particular would have on her young daughter: the moment when Elsa sings "Let it Go" and turns from a conservatively dressed princess to a spruced-up ice queen.
"By the time she sashays out onto that balcony to greet the dawn, Elsa is clad in a slinky, slit-to-the-thigh dress with a transparent snowflake-patterned train and a pair of silver-white high heels, her braid shaken loose and switched over one shoulder in what’s subtly, but unmistakably, a gesture of come-hither bad-girl seduction," Stevens wrote. "I’m not the only one who feels a familiar sense of deflation every time that pulse-racing song culminates in a vision of female self-actualization as narrow and horizon-diminishing as a makeover."
While praising "Frozen" as a digression from the princess standard, Holden also argued that Elsa and company could have gone further in the interest of gender equality.
"Its princesses may gaze at a glass ceiling, but most are not ready to shatter it," Holden wrote.
Will a 21st-century Maleficent do what the iconic Elsa could not? Yes, says Mandell, and that could also translate into a bigger audience for Disney.
"This is women doing their own thing and taking their power back. Because it's dark and there are battle scenes, I think little boys will watch it also," Mandell said. "It sends an important message to boys: Women are equal and powerful, too."
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