Joan Acocella on Maleficent, or, Wow, That Wasn’t Even Feminist


I will favor the details of the ballet in its modern versions.
-Joan Acocella, “Love’s True Kiss: Maleficent’s Complex Sexual Politics”

What’s Wrong With The New Yorker?
-Joseph Kugelmass, blog post title

Somebody at The New Yorker thinks that academics should write exclusively about sex.

Having spent many years studying academics in their natural habitat, I can assure you that this is a very very bad plan, even when the academics themselves favor it, as they usually do.

Academics like to think of themselves as liberated, including sexually liberated; here in the United States, at least, they are nothing of the kind. They are under-valued, under-paid, and engaged in difficult scholarly work. As a result, they are conservative, anxious, and eager to please, traits that do not favor liberation.

Furthermore — and this ties in directly to my previous posts about the humanities — there is a certain enduring prejudice, within the humanities, against the newer forms of media. It’s not that we refuse to analyze something like a Disney film; instead, we analyze it off-the-cuff, as if no real knowledge of context or genre is required. After all, we analyze much more difficult things, such as, I don’t know, Middlemarch! So we should be able to walk right in to any movie theater and understand exactly what’s going on…right?

Such arrogance is on full display in Joan Acocella’s recent, much-hyped article on the “complex sexual politics” of Maleficent, which ran in The New Yorker. Acocella doesn’t have a Twitter account; that pretty much tells you all you need to know about her credentials, when it comes to cultural studies. Acocella doesn’t even seem to be aware that Maleficent follows in the focus-group-approved footsteps of Wicked, Shrek, Frozen, and about a hundred other “twisted” fairy tales. Instead, she provides us with factoids about Tchaikovsky’s choreographers.

Here’s my issue: Acocella uses Maleficent as a springboard for the kind of devious, oppressive moralism that markets itself as “cool.” I would describe her agenda as basically anti-feminist, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a repressive imitation of progressive thought.

Acocella sounds, at first, like a libertine. She calls Maleficent’s costume “simultaneously deluxe and sinister,” and throws in a reference to Eris, as if she’s a closet Discordian. Her title, of course, suggests we are about to read something dangerous and hot. Her first close reading focuses on the name “Maleficent,” and is perfectly fine.

Then she writes about Maleficent’s wings. This is embarrassing, because she is wildly impressed by the wings, as if they are a truly original piece of screenwriting. In truth, everything in Maleficent (except for her being drugged, I suppose) was already done in the second X-Men movie, where the teen with angel wings is symbolically castrated by his father. In X-Men, the wings are a clear symbol for homosexuality. Here, they represent power in a more general sense.

By crediting the director, as well as Angelina Jolie, with genius, Acocella gives herself the chance to seem feminist and daring too:

Angelina Jolie, who plays the adult Maleficent, has said that it was clear to her and to the writer that the removal of the wings was an image of rape. I am certain that someone involved must also have had clitoridectomy in mind. A piece of the girl’s body, and a source of power and happiness, has been sliced off.

I question whether a clitoris is really a source of “power,” but regardless, all of this thrilling delving into various traumas leads nowhere. A clitoris, once removed, is not displayed in a museum; it also does not fly out of the museum and re-attach itself. Furthermore, Acocella is very concerned with what we are not allowed to see: “He drugs her and cuts off her wings. Blessedly, we don’t see this happen.” In other words, the film should get credit for raising important issues about harmed women, and for raising these issues in ways that make such topics harmless.

We can’t have it both ways. What is left unseen, in a film, signifies what should not be discussed in society, at least not with any specificity or clarity. The film doesn’t encourage a frank conversation about rape; it encourages us to think of trauma as something that (sooner or later) is magically completely healed. By extension, it encourages us to think of “deviant” identities, such as Maleficent’s, as caused by trauma, and therefore as pathological; it also encourages us to be impatient with people who can’t ever seem to fully “heal.”

Then Acocella takes Maleficent’s line, “I don’t like children,” as a “meta joke.” She writes:

Jolie demonstrably does like children…From another angle, too, she has a special relationship to motherhood. As she explained on the Op-Ed page of the Times last year, she recently had a double mastectomy, because she had learned from genetic testing that she was at a very high risk for breast cancer. A big-time, gorgeous movie star, announcing that she has had both of her breasts removed: Is this something that Marilyn Monroe would have done? It is not.

Which brings us to the next point. Jolie, who often plays a sexy little item—in several of her early movies she was one of those “Nikita” types, with the short skirt and the lethal weapon—becomes, in “Maleficent,” the very opposite, a mater dolorosa.

Actually, Jolie’s double mastectomy has nothing whatsoever to do with her life as a mother. The fact that Acocella thinks it does — bolstering her point with a snide and completely fictitious piece of speculation about Marilyn Monroe — is really creepy. It is suddenly very clear that Acocella is glad Jolie has had her breasts removed, because it has made her a more mature person, a better mother, and a better role model.

Reducing “I don’t like children” to a “meta joke” is, frankly, morally wrong. It eliminates all the ambivalence and thorny difference from Maleficent’s personality, so that Acocella can turn her into a perfect mother: “a woman, who perhaps will unmagically save you just by having loved you, quietly, for a long time.” This is the film’s “wholesome revisionist message,” and Acocella will not let anything diminish its wholesomeness. While she is right about Jolie’s private life, reading that life into scenes from the film is inexcusable — Acocella doesn’t think the audience knows what “Maleficent” means, yet assumes that six-year-olds watching Maleficent will know each child actor who stars in it by name. Jolie is playing a character, not herself, and Acocella’s unwillingness to accept that character on her own terms is anything but “loving.”

Acocella is totally wrong about Jolie’s career. Jolie did not get her start playing “Nikita” types. She played in a variety of small dramatic roles, then broke out with Gia, a biopic about supermodel Gia Carangi. Acocella represses Gia because it’s everything she does not want Jolie to be: irresponsible, sensual, and unashamed. The essay continues apace:

Jolie manages to be both soft and sharp, poignant and yet still a little slithery. (Those horns are covered in black leather, or something close.) This is a quite a trick, but perhaps not for Jolie. In her early years, she was a wild thing. She told interviewers that she had tried every drug she could find, that she was bisexual, that she was interested in B.D.S.M., and so on. She showed off her many tattoos. Now, at thirty-nine, she is a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard for her, in “Maleficent,” to be both a badass and a paragon.

Again, Acocella tries to be hip. She sounds like she’s impressed by Jolie’s black leather, and “slitheriness,” and BDSM references. Fortunately, Jolie is now “soft” and “poignant.” You can be slithery, in other words, as long as you don’t overdo it. Ideally, your power should come from your misspent youth, which you have already recanted: “Now, at thirty-nine, she is a special envoy…a paragon.”

Both times, when Acocella refers to Jolie’s younger years, she calls her a thing: a “sexy little item,” a “wild thing.” She applauds Jolie for wielding her thing-like past, now, in the service of the greater good. In the old days, though, Jolie wasn’t a thing. She was a person then, too. Being a paragon, and being bad-ass, are not two things she has fused into one — as far as I’m concerned, she was a paragon in Gia, even if she was chasing the dragon. Acocella begins her final paragraph like this:

The film’s moral tolerance extends to its other characters. The treatment of the men is especially interesting. King Stefan falls to his death from one of the castle’s high parapets, but, God knows, he had it coming.

That is literally her first example of “moral tolerance”: somebody who “had it coming” falling to his death. Like everything in her essay, it is the opposite of what it claims to be. Her essay has nothing to do with complex sexual politics, unless you count “Diaval, who can pretty much be whatever [Maleficent] needs” as a compelling revision of masculinity. Personally, I can’t get on board with that. I am just not sure that craven shapeshifters, and sexless Madonnas, are really all that wholesome, or the sort of men and women anyone, in this agony of  a world, really needs.

So, until next time, this is Kugelmass saying…