Maleficent & Rape: Metaphors

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(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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  1. I knew it. All that Islamist butchery and beheading in Syria and Iraq is an expression of homosexual rape, the rape that cannot speak its name in Islam.

    And, my butcher, butchering that tasty spring British lamb right now! Child lamb abuse! Oh no! I bought some: I’m an enabler!

    No. Worse. I’m a an addict to zombie rape porn. I just loved the butchery in Walking Dead.

    It all makes sense now.

    Hold on. Nope. It’s bollocks. Analogies, and more, allegories, can be made of anything. Just read the bible for examples.

  2. That is the nature of the metaphor: a metaphor is like a mental mirror that reflects the mind of the viewer. While a case can be made that Maleficent is about rape, there seems to be a case that is equally good that it is not.

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler

    While rape is a very specific act, there are metaphors and there are metaphors. And an actual act of brutalization/humiliation need not imply rape in a movie – but it can even if no actual rape is simulated. A metaphor can also imply/suggest rape depending on context and factors like the facial expression of the antagonist, a number of antagonists, the humiliation of the victim and/or mere inclusion of classic/Freudian sexual symbols. I’d have to see the movie to make a cogent argument one way or another: the implication of rape may be the only logical conclusion, or it may be a choice:

  4. A metaphor may be intended, by the author, to represent something else. Perhaps for poetic reasons, or comic effect, or as an analogy, or to diguise a political message, or to disguise adult themes in a less provocative manner. If the producers of the film intended to imply rape, then fair enough.

    Otherwise it’s not a metaphor but a misreading, an incorrect interpretation, putting one’s own spin on a story, inciting conspiracy where there is none, or simply being a literary critic indulging their imagination.

    The non-metaphor is exposed at it’s most embarrassing best when the interviewer informs us and the interviewee how smart they are at spotting the supposed metaphor, only for the interviewee to explain that the metaphorical meaning wasn’t intended.

    At its most common, metaphor is used by all of us as authors of our own spoken words, as Pinker points out in The Stuff of Thought – e.g. ‘points’ in that sentence: Pinker wrote about metaphors rather than literally pointing them out with his finger.

    If those viewers of the film see it as metaphorical rape then they are re-authoring. Another but different ploy of critics or reviewers. For example, if a reviewer says they see the wings scene as a metaphor for the rape of Malificent, then they are creating a sub-plot, and they are the authors of that imaginary sub-plot. A femanist might see it as the metaphorical rape of strong women by a patriarchy that dispise her strength. But again it is they who are creating the metaphor in a commentary on the film and not attributing the metaphorical intent to the producers of the film.

    A typical conspiracy abuse that tries to misrepresent the intent of the author is when the internet turns up images from Disney films asserting that the cartoonist intended to hide phallic symbols in the cartoons:, though some help the fiction with photoshopped images.

    So Malificent being raped is a plausible metaphor only to the extent that it is plausible that the producers intended it to be one. Otherwise it’s no more than internet bunk.

  5. We should consider the source. Hayley Krischer has an axe to grind. She sees rape everywhere.

  6. The wing-tearing scene as rape and as one of the pivotal moments of the movie is a very interesting take. I’d say, it’s easy to make metaphors in movies, given many ideas have become ubiquitous.

  7. Metaphor or not the scene was well done and purposeful reminder of the destructive power of greed and just how far we can go for power, or pleasure. Good thoughts!

  8. Considering the source is legitimate-if it is established that she has an interpretative bias, then that would give grounds for suspicion. But, her case stands or falls on its own.

  9. She has one theory to rule them all 😀

  10. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Considering the source is legitimate-if it is established that she has an interpretative bias, then that would give grounds for suspicion.”

    That she’s a journalist is grounds enough for suspicion. Journalists are guilty until proven innocent – they so very rarely are innocent, it’s only fair to your time to dispense with the need for a trial. Much journalism these days is “optimised”, to draw traffic. People Google Maleficent, because they want to find out more about it – whether it’s suitable enough to take their kids to. Which is why Krischer’s editor (or whoever pays her) asked her to write the piece – as it will list with everything else for Maleficent. Krischer then hacks together a narrative, with the intention of inducing anxiety in a soccer mom, who has been foolish enough to step into her web of deceit and manipulation. Advertisers pay for the traffic; Krisher spends her fee on birth control pills, cigarettes, beer, and cocaine.

    There are two types of story tellers/filmmakers. One who is conscious of the psychodynamics, studies it, and carefully places signs and hidden metaphors, with in their story. Then the other kind, just unknowingly projects their psychosis onto the page, screen, or whatever.

    Sometimes the metaphor is so screamingly obvious, very few pick up on it. Like Little Red Riding Hood. Who is Little Red Riding Hood. She’s a little girl, who has red cape that fits over her head, and she goes off to visit her grandmother. But what is a Little Red Riding Hood. It’s something Elliot Rogers never got to see in the flesh in his short life. Is that really my subjective projection or is the metaphor very intentional. Why isn’t the story called Little Green Riding Hood, blue or yellow.

    Is there a hidden rape metaphor in Little Red Riding Hood. Let’s see. She goes to her grandmother’s, but in her grandmothers bed is the Big Bad Wolf, disguised as her grandmother. LRRH, is a little suspicious, so she asks “Oh grandma, what big eyes you have”…”All the better to see you, my child….come closer, so I can have a better look at you..hop up on my bed”. She gets ever closer and closer to the Wolf, each question met with the same response – until the final question; “Oh Grandma…what big…BLAH you have”..the Jig is up and Wolf says “All the better to BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH you with”.

    In Dracula, Dracula is BLAH BLAHing women. Penetrating their necks with his teeth is just a metaphor to throw you.

    In Ridley Scott’s Alien, the Alien is running around a space ship, raping and impregnating both men and women. He gets to play on the anxiety of rape; which causes anxiety for men, their anxious fantasy being forced to fellate a stronger man. The anxiety of an unwanted life destroying pregnancy is there. Scott was very conscious in his film making, HR Geiger’s art work; the Alien, is completely composed of penises. Even its’ tongue is a penis. The Alien is black. The Alien is an alien – that doesn’t care for documents. Are the worst neurosis of the white middle-class American of 1979 all there.

    The audience are none the wiser. They really think it’s just a film about an alien trying to kill people. Scott is not creating a racist propaganda film that also promotes “rape culture” – but he’s playing on those fears – there isn’t a literal message.

    But this works the other way around too. In the Walking Dead, the good wholesome rural people cannot be seen to kill those who they truly feel threaten their Way of Life; urban people, the working class; feminists, immigrants, homosexuals, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill, people who just not like them, etc. That would be horrific – it would make them people look worse than the NAZIS. So, they’re hidden in the metaphor of the zombies; where they can be eliminated with abandoned and righteous pleasure…….But even with the metaphor hidden in the zombies……People might eventually twig it is a fascist fantasy of extermination (like the people who realise they are the zombies). So the metaphor must be obscured further. And this is done with literal characters; the good black guy, the good black lesbian, the feminist with a heart of gold, etc. The leger demain is so good, it allows the fascists to kill targets of their hatred who are not zombies.

  11. JMRC,

    On the one hand, I would say that being a journalist in and of itself does not seem to be legitimate evidence for bias. On the other hand, you are certainly right about much of the “journalism” on the web: it is calculated and crafted to draw eyeballs and there is often good reason to suspect bias in favor of the sensational.

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