Maleficent & Rape: Metaphors
Hayley Krischer recently wrote a post for the Huffington Post in which she contends that the movie Maleficent includes a rape scene. Since this movie is a PG-13 Disney film, it does not contain a literal rape scene (in the usual meaning of the term). Rather, the character of Maleficent is betrayed and mutilated (her wings are removed) and this can be taken to imply an off screen rape took place or, perhaps more plausibly, be a metaphor for rape.
The claim that the betrayal and mutilation of Maleficent is a metaphor for rape is certainly plausible—Krischer does a reasonable analysis of the scenario and, of course, if one intended to include rape in a PG-13 Disney film it would presumably need to be metaphorical rape. Of course, whether the scene is truly about rape or not is a matter of dispute. Metaphors are, after all, not literal in their nature and are thus always subject to some degree of dispute.
One way to address the question would be to determine the intent of those who created the film. After all, the creators would presumably be the best qualified to know their intent and the creators can be regarded as owning the work in terms of who gets the final say about what it means.
However, creators sometimes do not know what they intend. While I am but a minor writer, I know well enough that sometimes the words simply come forth and, like wild animals, go as they will. Also, I know that sometimes the audience provides an even better interpretation. For example, in one of my Pathfinder adventures I created a dwarf non-player character named Burnbeard. In the course of interacting with the players, he evolved into a true villain—a dwarf who burns off the beards of other dwarfs after he murders them (the greatest insult in dwarven culture). This sort of interaction between the audience and the work of the creator can invest something with new meaning. As such, even if the creators of the movie did not intend for the scene to be a rape scene, it could have evolved into that via the interaction between the audience and the film.
There is also the possibility that a metaphor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. That is, the intent of the creator does not matter—what matters is the interpretation of the audience. To use the obvious analogy to communication, a person might say something with a certain intent, yet what matters (it might be contended) is the meaning taken by the recipient. As such, whatever a specific audience member sees in a metaphor is what the metaphor means—for that person. As such, to those who see a rape metaphor in Maleficent, the movie contains a rape metaphor. To those who do not, it does not. As such, every interpretation would be “right” in the subjective sense.
While this does have some appeal, it makes claims about the meaning of metaphors rather pointless—if everyone is right, it is hardly worth discussing metaphors except as an exercise in telling others what one sees in the mirror of the silver screen. As such, it seems reasonable to expect even metaphors to have some sort of foundation that can be rationally discussed. That is, in order for discussing and disputing metaphors to be worthwhile (other than as psychoanalysis) there must be better and worse interpretations.
In the case of Maleficent, there is certainly a plausible case that there is a metaphor for rape. However, a case can be made against that. After all, there are numerous fantasy movies in which something awful happens to a main character—in which the character is subject to treachery and gravely wronged. However, these are not all taken as metaphors for rape. After all, one does not speak of the rape of Aslan. Or the rape of Gollum (betrayed by the ring and robbed of his precious by Bilbo). Or even the rape of Sauron (who has his finger chopped off and is robbed of his ring of power). However, it might be contended that the rape metaphor is limited to female characters rather than male characters who undergo comparable abuses. What is needed are some clear guides to sorting out the various evils and which are metaphors for rape and which are not.
Getting back to Maleficent, it is interesting to imagine that the movie was created as a rated R movie instead and that although it could include an actual rape scene, it did not—and the scene remained as it was in the PG-13 movie. Would it still be a metaphor for rape or would the fact that a literal rape scene could have been included suffice to show that the movie is not intended to include a rape scene? I would suspect that it would not be a metaphor—but, naturally enough, it could be argued that the creators preferred the more subtle approach of the metaphor to including a literal scene.
Now imagine that the movie was rated-R and the creators added a literal rape to the PG-13 scene. Would the scene still be a metaphor for rape, in addition to the literal rape? It would seem that it would not—after all, having a metaphor for what is literal would seem a bit absurd—but certainly not an impossibility.
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