Last night I had the very good pleasure to see Disney’s latest film Maleficent. Before I dive into the meat of what I want to say, let me pause and tell you that the movie is 100% worth seeing. Angelina Jolie’s performance is masterful, the world is vivid (not only in the big set pieces but in all the tiny corners and crannies too, such that I imagine watching the movie 100 times would yield 100 new little things you never noticed before), and the story is enjoyable with all the right pieces arranged in only slightly less than a workable configuration.
Basically if you clicked on this article hoping for a review, the short version is this: Go see the movie. It is exactly what it purports to be, and if you liked the trailer, you’ll like the film. Period. From here on, this post focuses on a particular point and WILL include spoilers, for those that care about such things.
With that being said, I’d like to raise one particular point for consideration, or even contention below.
My point begins with the question: What did the Prince do in Maleficent?
About 3/4’s of the way into the film we are introduced (finally) to the character of Prince Philip, who fans of the original Disney Sleeping Beauty film will know is supposedly Aurora’s true love. He is lovely to look at, as portrayed handsomely if blankly by Brenton Thwaites. He rides around on a horse, gets kidnapped by Maleficent, ambles awkwardly around the edges of the final conflict, and then ends up possibly in a “friends with bennies” sort of arrangement with Aurora during the films epilogue.
Now, I have to admit that I really liked the film’s turn on Maleficent, whose fated curse was so excellently executed in the story (That all who knew Aurora would come to love her, and that she would fall into a sleep eternal), and who herself fell victim to Aurora’s charms and then could not undo her own power except through embracing the very “true love” she didn’t believe was possible. It was a really nice moment when Philip’s kiss fails to wake Aurora, and in her resulting grief, Maleficent herself inadvertently provides the “true love’s kiss” to break the spell. It serves as another note in a growing chorus of representations of female emotions (especially affections) that do not have to have sexual or romantic intentions at their source to be viewed as valid and powerful. Anna and Elsa in Frozen’s climax come immediately to mind as other examples of this trend, along with Merida and her mother in Brave (so basically Disney is writing this chorus). I like that! I think it is really good. I think it is even necessary.
But here is my question, the morning after my viewing: What the hell was Prince Philip even DOING in that film? He literally served no purpose. He neither contributed to the action, nor complicated the protagonist’s plans. He wasn’t funny, or clever, or clumsy, or valiant. He had absolutely nothing to do at all. He wasn’t even done the courtesy of being relegated to a “traditionally” female place in the film like Kristof in Frozen. He was 100% irrelevant, save as a grossly blunt foil for audience expectations in order to set us up for Maleficent’s own big smooch.
Of course Philip is not the only male character in the film. There is King Stefan, the much-debated antagonist of the film, who is at once cartoonishly villainous in his tyrannous rule and horrifically blase about his thinly veiled de-winging “date rape” of Maleficent which began that very same reign. This character is, perhaps, simply a product of bad writing and one too many weights hung on the narrative for a nuanced portrayal of his inner world. And he certainly seems to conform to the view of men held by some exaggerated (or I would say immature) feminists (who are as cartoonish in their ideology as he is). But at least he has a story. He serves as the antagonist in a tale about what is really a story of female empowerment and self-reliance. I think it is almost appropriate to have him around.
Then there is also Diaval, Maleficent’s Raven slave and sometimes sarcastic sidekick. I would make the argument here that he is totally Jack to Maleficent’s Karen (read: he’s her gay bff), but that would take a bit too long. But suffice it to say, he is a largely castrated and subservient secondary character whose grounded wisdom never quite seems heavy handed enough to reach Maleficent’s ears (or the audiences). I think the problems with him simply arise from some missed opportunities for balance in the plot’s driving motion.
But then there was Philip. In some ways, had the films major male characters been limited to only Stefan and Diaval, I don’t know that I would even be writing this piece. I think I might have wondered a bit at the writer’s sour-note pandering to feminist stereotypes (harmless or horrible men exclusively) in an otherwise lovely story for women and girls, and would have considered the film’s inadequate characterization of males as simply a necessary (and honestly much-deserved) misstep in the pendulum swing of equal and equitable representation in the media. But there Philip was, beautiful and brooding and perfectly pointless. And he made me ask myself a question too.
Taken back to the broader perspective, what the hell is Prince Philip doing in the movie? Or in any movie? What purpose do men serve in a world where they can’t occupy themselves with saving females?
I think, often, as a gay man, I feel like I’ve been shunted to the side of the whole “feminist” debate. I am not exactly bound by the traditional gender roles of society (a blessing AND a curse), and I certainly don’t care much for the evolution of relational dynamics between men and women. I am definitely FOR my female friends getting to be empowered, well represented, self-sufficient, and not objectified by the media. And I think the broader social and economic issues of gender inequality are absolutely critical to resolve and also kind of no-brainers (equal pay for equal work, derp.) But in terms of the whole “women in the media” thing(especially if a mom brings it up about girls), I for the most part usually just roll my eyes and wait till something more interesting came along to talk about most of the time. But this Philip question has finally really let me see the reality of what the “traditional” treatment of females in our art does to men. I finally grasp what a weirdly bleak and frankly horrifying landscape it is for male characters who are just as bound by the “Princess” stereotype as their female counterparts.
Here’s the deal: If the Princess is liberated, and needs nothing from the Prince, what the heck does the poor man do then? I know a lot of my patient feminist friends have tried to get me to see this before, and I apologize for all the times I changed the subject or poured us another shot when this came up. But I see it now! And when I did, it was like I suddenly realized for the first time I was walking on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, and the vast existential abyss of gender roles yawned wide beneath me and left me clutching the rope on all fours whimpering. Holy crap! Yes, women get told all the time to wait on a man, and that their lives should revolve around a man, and a thousand other misogynistic things about behavior etc. But men are just as trapped as women by our traditional model of gender relations! They’re told to go out and find a wife, and how to treat her, and how polite you have to be, and careful with them, but also weirdly controlling, and on and on. Their entire worth is judged by the quality of woman they have in their life, or their plans to get a woman if they don’t have one yet. And I’ve even experienced that!
I’m very happy that women at long last are getting some different and diverse stories told about them in mainstream media, especially for children(though you can read more about my concerns on THAT over here and also over here). And I think they need to run with it. Go on, get free. I’m certainly not suggesting that the tide of empowerment in portrayal of females needs to be staunched because it is raising some pretty awkward questions about the role of males. But at the same time, we need to realize it IS raising some awkward questions about males, and not doing much in the way of answering those questions. Apparently, so far, what we’ve learned is that it is ok for men to be antagonists, and sometimes even supporting characters. But in the new normals that are emerging, how do boys get to be heroes? What value do we offer to society, if it isn’t to rescue, protect, and love things that need that sort of help? Because I think this traditional hero expectation is at play for all men, about all things, not just about getting together with women. I think it relates to how we think about jobs, success, family, friendships. It applies to us gay men as well!
In my spiritual seekings I had the great honor of dealing with several followers of the Lakota Native American Spiritual traditions and I can remember one of them telling me how men in the modern era came to resent women because they held all the power, and how men built terrible machines and brought much death into the world because our hearts were broken knowing we would never hold the power of creation inside of us that all women do. At the time, I really didn’t understand that, but watching Philip in Maleficent, I think I begin to see what the old man was talking about. Of course, I’m not saying that is what is going on here! I’m not ready to invent some sort of queer death-ray of fabulosity. I’m just saying that I can kind of understand the sentiment finally. It is a scary thing to realize your function, not just in one story, but in like all stories ever, has basically become obsolete and was maybe never necessary in the first place.
So my question still remains, though better explained now I hope: What the hell does Prince Philip do? What do we as a society need from him, or from any of our young men? Is the best we can do to turn him into a craven villain like Stefan, whose grossly outdated world views imprison him in fear and hate? Or do we strive to turn him into an obedient if quippy sidekick to an empowered female like Diaval? What does Philip want? How does he go about getting it? And what can he contribute to these stories?
Of course, you can argue that Maleficent (and Frozen and Brave) is media targeted at girls, and that media targeted at boys gives different messages more tailored to them(Big Hero 6 is coming up and so far hasn’t even given a female character a speaking part in trailers yet). But then if this film is just for girls really…what does it teach girls about boys and men? Is it still too early in the success of the female Disney liberation to start trying to answer a question like Philip? I’ll let you know if I come up with an answer, and feel free to post your own in the comments section below! But for now, I’m left scratching my head at what men get to do in society OTHER than quest around?