Maleficent & Rape: Rape Culture

Maleficent's dragon form as it appears in the ...

Maleficent’s dragon form as it appears in the climax of the film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I focused on the matter of metaphors in the context of Hayley Krischer’s claim that the movie Maleficent includes a rape scene. In this essay I will take on a rather more controversial matter, namely the question of why it might matter as to whether the movie contains the alleged rape scene or not. This might result in some hostile responses.

It might be wondered what taking the scene as a metaphor (or implied) rape adds to the work. One might say “Maleficent is betrayed and mutilated—what does adding the idea that this is a rape metaphor add? Does not the betrayal and mutilation suffice to serve the purpose of the narrative or does it need to be believed that this is a metaphorical rape?”

One way to answer the question would be to focus on aesthetic matters: does accepting the rape metaphor enhance the aesthetic value of the work? That is, is it a better film on that interpretation? If the answer is “yes”, then that provides an aesthetic reason to accept that interpretation. However, if this does not improve the aesthetic value of the film, then it would not provide a compelling reason for that interpretation over the alternative.

Another way to answer the question is to look at it in terms of academic value. That is, taking it as a metaphor for rape provides an insight into an important truth—the most likely truth being the existence of a pervasive rape culture.

However, there are risks in embracing a view on academic grounds. One common risk is that theorists often accept a beloved theory as an intellectual version of the ring of power: the one theory to explain it all. It could be objected that taking what happens in Maleficent to be rape (rather than something horrible but not-rape) it expands the definition of “rape” to encompass ever more and thus validates the rape-culture theory by redefinition.

However, there appears to be an abundance of evil that does not seem to be driven by the motive to rape—unless all evil is the result of some sort of Freudian sublimation. This is, of course, not impossible and might even be true. But, being too enamored of a theory can easily blind one—wearing the goggles of matriarchy can blind one as effectively as the goggles of the patriarchy (which allow people to use phrases like “legitimate rape” and really mean it).

Another way to look at the matter is in terms of ideological value. In this case, taking what happens as a metaphor for rape provides support for an ideology—most likely that regarding an ideology that includes a belief in a pervasive rape culture. By expanding the definition of “rape”, rape expands within the culture—thus making the case that there is a pervasive rape culture. However, there is the legitimate concern as to whether or not such expanded definitions are accurate.

People seek evidence for their ideology (or deny evidence against it) and can do so in ways that are not consistent with critical thinking—a subject I examined in some detail in another essay. The risk, as always, is that people accept something as true because they believe it is true, rather than believing it because it has been shown to be true.

It might be contended that taking an academic or ideological interpretation of Maleficent is harmless and that debating its accuracy is pointless. However, I contend that overuse of the notion of rape culture is problematic. To show this, I will turn to the murders allegedly committed by Elliot Rodger.

In response to Rodger’s alleged murder of three men and two women, Salon editor Joan Walsh asserted that “the widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging.” Even self-proclaimed nerds have bought into this notion, apparently not realizing the significance of the fact that three of the victims were men—rather odd targets for someone driven by misogyny and male entitlement.

While in many cases the motives of alleged killers are not known, Rodger wrote a lengthy manifesto that allows an in-depth look at his professed motives.

Fellow philosopher Jean Kazez has analyzed the text of Eliot Rodger’s manifesto and presents the view that while Rodger eventually adopted misogynistic views, these were late in the development of his hatred. Her view is supported by text taken from his manifesto and it seems clear that his views that are characterized as misogynistic are the terrible fruit of his previous hatreds.

Kazez notes that “But if you read this manifesto, what seems much more overwhelming is the overall pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, craving for status, humiliation, despair, etc.  So it is baffling to me that we’ve settled on misogyny as key to understanding why this happened.”

While I share her bafflement, I can suggest three possible explanations. The first, and easiest, is that the modern news media generally prefers a simple narrative and it tends to get easily caught up in social media trends. The idea that Rodger (allegedly) killed because he is a misogynist is a simple narrative and one that started to trend on social media like Twitter.

The second is that there is an academic commitment in some circles to the rape-culture theory that includes as essential components views about misogyny and male entitlement. Given a pre-existent commitment to this theory and the conformation bias that all people are subject to, it is no surprise that there would be a focus on this one small part of his manifesto.

The third is that there is also a commitment in some circles to the rape-culture ideology (which is distinct from the academic theory). As with the theory, people who accept this ideology are subject to the confirmation bias. In addition, there are the usual perils of ideology and belief. As such, it is certainly to be expected that there would be considerable focus on those small parts of his manifesto.

Serving to reinforce the theory and the ideology is the fact that a critical assessment of either can be met with considerable hostility. Some might also suspect that certain men publicly support the ideology or theory due to a desire to appear to be appropriately sensitive men.

As a final point, it might be wondered why being critical of such theory and ideology matters. The easy and obvious answer is that the danger of excessively focusing on the rape culture idea is that doing so can easily lead to ignoring all the other causal factors that contribute to evil actions. To use the obvious analogy, if it is assumed that a factor is a cause of a broad range of diseases when it is not, then trying to prevent those diseases by focusing on that factor will fail. In regards to the specific matter, addressing the rape-culture will not fix the ills that it does not cause. This is not to say that rape culture is not worth addressing—there are horrific and vile aspects to our culture that directly contribute to rape and these should be addressed with an intent to eliminate.

There is, of course, also the matter of truth: getting things right matters. As such, I freely admit I could be wrong about all this and I welcome, as always, criticism.


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  1. Great thoughts! I agree that while the issue of the rape-culture is important to address, it is actually focusing on the outcome of a problem rather than the actual problem itself. Like you said though it is much easier for media and the masses in general to focus on one target rather than what should really be addressed. Its like the expression goes, “First things first”.

  2. I did see the movie and thought that the “rape” scene could go either way, metaphor or not, and still retain an effective point. My initial thoughts were that of betrayal, greed, power, etc. but as the scene progressed I leaned over to my wife and said, “talk about date rape” to which she responded “I think that is where they are going with it”

  3. s. wallerstein

    Maybe someone could explain to me what is meant by “rape culture”. I’ve seen the phrase in many articles, but I’ve never seen it clearly defined or explained.

    I don’t live in the U.S., so I have little idea of how prevalent rape is there. Is rape increasing in the U.S. or is it that a culture justifying rape is now more prominent or all of the above or none of the above?

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler

    If rape is implied in Maleficent, it could be because rape is common and is a strong and obvious, but not creative or original motivation for a story. The destructive and widespread nature of rape makes it a legitimate academic subject of study which cannot be logically separated from misogyny unless you want to argue that its widespread use as a weapon of war is simply objective. There seems to me no argument against the position that civilization and the control of women have been inseparable objectives although not always and completely successful. As for the ideology argument, I have read innumerable articles and columns claiming that male against female violence is no more common than female against male – a “theory” the police themselves refute, that common sense and history refute, but that survives nevertheless.
    Too much emphasis even on the truth, nevertheless can and likely does normalize it, and that is a hazard in over-emphasizing misogyny and attributing every violent crime to it.This is especially true and repugnant in fictional use of rape and women-as-victim for entertainment. But it is a very small element in a world in which male and female have been polarized for the exploitation of both in different ways: as soldiers for males, and traditionally, as part of soldiers’ booty for women.
    As for motivation in some mass murders, one does not necessarily exclude another and hatred/fear of women – and according to every culture every man is entitled to at least one of them – can involve/elicit an overall “pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment sadness” etc. in some men. It is not much of a stretch or libellous to conclude that Elliot Rodgers was misogynist.

  5. “Even self-proclaimed nerds have bought into this notion, apparently not realizing the significance of the fact that three of the victims were men—rather odd targets for someone driven by misogyny and male entitlement.”

    He had killed the men, because they had had something he had not. Which was to have had sexual intercourse with women. It’s all in his manifesto. He was also a racist. It’s not like you have to exclusively devote yourself to one thing or another. The KKK do not expel brothers for misogyny; “Earl, this is a racist organisation. We have no time for misogyny, and we will not tolerate it.”

    I believe he had narcissistic personality disorder, and pathological misogyny. He had attempted to kill a group of women the previous year, by pushing them over a ledge at a party. He failed, broke his leg in the process and was given a beating by some men at the party. His account of the incident in the manifesto is thoroughly deranged. He again, is the victim of the piece – it doesn’t register with him that he had just attempted to kill several women, beyond his recklessness in acting in the moment.

    A misogynist is a man, who is sexually attracted to women, but simultaneously detests them. It’s a recipe for madness – especially if women won’t sleep with him. The problem in America, is young men are being encouraged by the right, to believe misogyny is the mirror image and the correct response to feminism. But where some feminists take their feminism to the point of political lesbianism, the misogynistic young men are not becoming political gays.

    The last thing you need, if you’ve lost your mind, is people encouraging you to believe your psychosis is sanity.

    A person with NPD, sees other people as objects, not subjects. The objectification of people, especially women, in culture and advertising reinforces their distorted view of reality.

  6. JMRC

    I am happy to say that I agree with all your points in the previous comment. But you know I strongly disagree on others. Have a good day

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