Commentary: What 'Maleficent' Says About Human Nature, And The Justice System

May 30, 2014

Not so long ago Disney villains were truly terrifying. At the top of that list was, of course, Maleficent.

With Disney's Maleficent opening this week, pop culture philosopher Nicolas Michaud stopped by First Coast Connect to discuss what the film says about human nature, and the U.S. justice and systems.

Angelina Jolie as the titular character in Disney's "Maleficent" - opening this weekend.
Credit Disney

In Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, the self-proclaimed "Mistress of Evil," tries to kill a princess, tortures and torments the girl’s true love, and turns herself into a gigantic fire-breathing dragon while calling the hordes of hell themselves to her aid.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for such a monster, yet interestingly that seems to be exactly what Disney’s new retelling of the story will ask us to do in Maleficent, in theaters this weekend.

This tale, reminiscent of Wicked, will presumably show us the why behind Maleficent’s evil.

Disney’s press release says it all: “Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turned her pure heart to stone.”

So there it is, another example how our society is willing to forgive and forget once we understand why someone turns evil. But that just doesn’t sound like us, does it?

If we think about it, our society really isn’t the most forgiving. We like to hold people accountable. In fact, if we look at many fields today, like education, “accountability” is the key term. We think people should be held responsible for what they do, because, ultimately, even if they were abused as kids, had a poor education, or were raised in poverty, it was their choice.

So how is it that we have stories like Wicked and Maleficent where we sympathize with the villain? After all, we are one of only very few countries in the world that allows children to be held in prison without hope for parole, and we are the only country in the world that actually has children serving those sentences.

So if we are willing to hold kids accountable, even though neuroscientists tell us that their brains aren’t developed enough to understand why their actions were wrong nor the consequences of those actions, why would we put up with Maleficent?

Are we really all that interested in understanding the reasons why people do wrong? You don’t hear a lot of, “Well Osama bin Laden did what he did because…” We pretty much just wanted him dead, whatever his motivations were be damned.

This is not to say that the idea of forgiveness and redemption are bad ideas, but that we as a society seem not all that motivated to be sympathetic.

So how is it that any of us would tolerate a story, like Maleficent, which seeks to give reasons for the actions of a woman who literally tries to kill a little kid?

In fact, if we look at our own justice system, we realize it really isn’t based in forgiveness and redemption.

That seems pretty obvious. In the U.S., we have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. In other words, after a convict leaves prison, he or she is very likely to return.

One possible reason is that this happens because our prisons aren’t really built to prevent crime as much as they are built to punish criminals. If prisons were built to prevent crime, which of course requires lowing the chance that a prisoner will return to a life of crime, it would actually need to be a pretty nice place.

People are far less likely to commit crimes if they are well-educated, feel like they are part of the community, and have good work. In other words, prisons, if they really wanted to reduce crime, would make sure prisoners got great educations (especially in ethics and community), were reminded that they are a valuable part of a community that cares about them, and had jobs when they got out.

But, in fact, the opposite happens. Our prisoners are often not afforded much education, are treated as if they are separate from good people, and when they get out of prison they have an even harder time finding work than they did before. All of these factors make it much more likely that they will return to crime.

Why have a prison system with such a high recidivism rate?

Vengeance.

After all, who wants to see the person who stole something from them, or hurt them, having a great life? Think about the last person who hurt you. Most of us want that person to suffer.

So how do we make sense, then, socially of films like Maleficent? Well, if it isn’t about us learning to understand the “why” behind people’s actions and forgiving them, maybe it is about our sympathy for people who seek vengeance against those who harm them.

That would make a lot of sense. And that is a key component of the new film, we don’t see Maleficent struggle with a difficult upbringing, growing up in poverty, or lack of education, we see people hurt her.

If our system is really based on our need to see harm come to those who hurt us, then understanding Maleficent would really just require showing that she’s been done a great harm.

The rest of the story, then, will really just be then another opportunity to watch someone get even. And that is something we all can understand.

Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.