White women’s ambition and naïveté — the story of Maleficent 2 is an examination of white women in leadership
I’m going to try to write this blog with very few spoilers.
It’s well known the Maleficent is a movie that is dear to my heart, in part because of the strong impact it has had on my niece and nephew in their understanding of consent and reactions to violence. It’s a movie with strong visuals that are perceived clearly by both of them, things they still reference.
Because of that, we frequently watch it, and have plans to see Maleficent 2 together next week.
Because of that, I needed to see it alone first to make sure I knew what I was walking them into.
I was skeptical of how the tagline mistress of evil was going to be scaffolded into the plot, and how that might change the first movie’s themes.
It was on my mind going into the theater tonight that I was feeling vigilant.
And, what I noted was a level of sophistication I wasn’t expecting, but should have been because it flowed so fully from the first movie. Themes of perspective taking, and actions as based on prior events surfaced immediately.
Questions of character development, and unreliable narrators also surfaced immediately, as points of view were placed in conflict with one another, and certain plot points were kept vague in service to creating complex characters.
At other times swells of emotion led me to observe less than feel what was happening on the screen, paying attention to my reactions more than what prompted them in the storyline.
What Maleficent 2 offers that is new are two queens in two different kingdoms with different formative experiences, and different self-images. Both are importantly white women.
One is persistently naïve, and the other ruthlessly ambitious.
Both create in their environments and relationships a lot of harm.
Watching this plot unfold made me think of conversations that I’ve had recently offscreen.
About #DecrimNow, yesterday’s hearing before DC council, and how white women perpetuate harmful myths and silencing tactics that hurt survivors and sex workers.
About the murder of Botham Jean by a white female officer in their Texas home.
About the murder of Atatiana Koquice Jefferson by a white male officer in their Texas home.
About the newly released anthology Love with Accountability that I’ve been reading, edited by Aishah Shahidah Simmons.
We have in our current landscape mirrors that are being held up to white women.
An agitation is forming that examines how white women leaders affect and impact environments, and gaps that remain in how we see ourselves and choose to operate.
sense of urgency.
quantity over quality.
worship of the written word.
only one right way.
fear of open conflict.
i’m the only one.
progress is bigger, more.
right to comfort.
This list was assembled in a document written by Tema Okun describing characteristics of white supremacy culture commonly present within our institutions. She writes, “culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.”
An article was published in response with a second list of behaviors.
disavowal of power.
obsession with the future.
niceness above all else.
confusing informality with equity.
Heather Laine Talley offers this list as descriptions of behaviors of white women leaders that perpetuate white supremacy.
“White women are not the only people who exhibit these traits, and nonprofits are not the only structures in which they appear. But as power-holders in non-profits, white women’s behavior forms the backdrop of the nonprofit organizational cultures.
These traits go a long way towards explaining why we see recurring patterns of white supremacy.”
This theme — behaviors explaining cultures — and white women leaders as creators of culture through behavior and decision making, describes what is captured in Maleficent 2.
There is no story line that detracts or distracts from this theme, making the character development so interesting to study.
Decisions are made to highlight characters as active rather than passive drivers of the plot, and women are featured prominently. And, a rushed overview of the plot, without examining character development, means that the audience views the narrator as reliable, and uninvolved.
For those who might not remember, you learn at the end of the first Maleficent movie that Aurora is the narrator, disputing our impression that the person telling the story is not also a character in it.
I wondered as the movie went on how the parallel of Stephen and Maleficent compares to the parallel of Queen Aurora and Queen Ingrith.
I wondered how much the label of “mistress of evil” led us to focus too much of Maleficent as the character moving the plot forward, rather than these two queens.
Two white women leading from a place of trauma, and a myopic worldview.
Two white women consistently given the benefit of the doubt.
Two women who struggle to internalize their power.
Two women who realize late places of vulnerability in their point of view.
Two women who in spite of their calculation, and their obliviousness, cause harm in their closest family relationships, and within their public roles as queens.
Over and over I found myself asking, how are you accountable?
Who are you accountable to?
Are you the right leader in this time and place for this community?
What are you learning from this experience?
What lets your community place their trust in you?
What healing do you need to engage in if you want to be an effective leader?
What happens now to you, and by you?
How will you take this failure, and what will be different, if anything?
Maleficent 2 ends with the vagueness I’ve grown to appreciate, and a familiar feeling that there is still more unknown about who these people are, than known from this telling of them.
What I know leaves me dissatisfied, and what I don’t know keeps me from righting them off.
What I don’t know has everything to do with the accountability I want to live into, and that I hope even these fictional characters are capable of desiring as well.
What I do know is that they won’t get there on their own, and neither will we.
I’ll reenter this story next week with my niece and nephew, ready to receive truths they can see and sense much better than me.
Perhaps one message we need to breathe in until it takes firmer root is that accountability isn’t just for harm we have already caused.
Accountability is also for harm we hope to never cause,
and futures built with and for and by and because of those we’re in relationships with,
and those who we never, ever consider.
Accountability asks us who we’re accountable to,
and it asks us how we are accountable to them.
The how is what we have to work at,
and until we can, the who is no one.
Perhaps with that Maleficent offers us at least two leadership practices rooted in her accountability.
The gift of getting out of the way, and the gift of naming how your trauma still affects you.