A Philosopher's Blog

Maleficent & Rape: Metaphors

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2014
250 px

250 px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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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6 Responses

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  1. urbannight said, on June 13, 2014 at 8:39 am

    I disagree with the idea that it is a metaphor for rape. Rape is to have power and control over the other. I can’t remember the character’s name, but he wasn’t seeking power and control over Maleficent. He was ambitious, wanting a better place in life, and when he saw the opportunity to become king he took it. It was more Greed and Envy than a Power issue. After Maleficent places her curse upon the baby and creates an border around her kingdom, he descends into a madness that makes me think of King Lear and Lady Macbeth combined. I can see the argument for rape but I think it is too tenuous and just don’t buy it. It stems too much from the fact the victim is female so it must be sexual in nature.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 13, 2014 at 9:09 am

      While I do think a case can be made for the rape metaphor, I do agree with you. The narrative that the person betrayed Maleficent and mutilated her seems to suffice for the story without adding in the metaphor of rape. However, I do admit to the obvious problem with metaphors: since they are metaphors, they are subject to interpretation. In some ways, metaphors are like mental mirrors-they reflect the mind of the viewer. So, if someone sees a rape metaphor in the movie, it is as hard to prove them to be in error as it is for the person to prove that s/he is right.

  2. TJB said, on June 13, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  3. Trevor said, on December 13, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    While up alone last night, the thought that this was a metaphorical rape scene sprung to my mind, I only just remembered to do a search for it. My thought process went to my favorite book – How Green Was My Valley and how the main character describes sex as being ‘let into a garden’ I won’t go into it, but it occured to me that the entire Maleficent movie has a running theme of a young girl who guards a garden, is basically drugged and ‘raped’, then closes the garden off to everyone with anger and darkness/spiked trees, etc – and basically ruins it for herself for a time. The new girl, Sleeping Beauty, upon coming into her adult years, stirs sympathy and compassion into her and helps rebuild Maleficent’s own ‘young vibrant girl’ inside of her psyche.

    I’m sort of getting lost here, my kids want food, maybe someone more intelligent will roll with this – but I feel the movie might be just as much about Maleficentt’s healing and regaining of the vibrance and beauty of her youthful psyche as it is about throwing a twist on the Sleeping Beauty tale.

    • Trevor said, on December 13, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      I might go further and point out the physical act of Sleeping Beauty returning Maleficent’s wings to her, and I’d suggest that part of a healing process (if I were an educated psychologist I might actually have a term!) is a fractured part of the psyche to absorb or deflect pain by casual conversation – ie. her asexual crow friend that she conjures up, more or less.


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