Wicked Women: Why Angelina Jolie's Essay Misses the Point
In an essay for September’s issue of Elle, Angelina Jolie writes that the world needs more ‘wicked women’. Written to precede the release of Maleficent II, she begins the essay by defining the term ‘maleficent’. Humanising the villain and her struggle, just as she embodies in the film franchise, she believes we should also embrace women who are "causing or capable of producing evil or mischief; harmful or baleful" in reality.
Is she right? Of course. Strong, outspoken women are fantastic. But when you take a closer look at the essay, you can see that she misses the point just a tad.
Let’s put this essay in the context of the author. Jolie is rich, famous and attractive. She’s influential, but she’s also privileged. This works both for her, and against her. It’s great that she’s using her voice to to speak about a cause so dear to half of the world’s population (and hopefully to some men too), but ultimately, she hasn’t had to live through the struggles that so many women face. She hasn’t been married off at the age of 12. She hasn’t been stoned in the streets or had family members killed for speaking up. She hasn’t had the right of an education withheld from her. But what she has had is the natural right to be a ‘wicked woman’.
That’s not to say that she hasn’t faced any barriers as a woman. But in terms of this essay, Jolie’s attempt at trying to deeply empathise with abused women in this essay just comes across as surface-level because of her privilege. Now, I don’t mean to be one of those ‘tRiGgErEd’ people who gets offended at everything, but by trying to place herself into the context of women who lose their lives for this cause, she trivialises the magnitude of the problem. Citing the Old Testament and then the witch trials of Europe and America, she says "Had I lived in earlier times, I could have been burnt at the stake many times over for simply being myself".
But it’s not like she’s uninformed. Jolie’s years of humanitarian work has made her very aware of the problems that women face around the world. The essay is stitched together with tons of allegory - from Jolie’s first time seeing real violence in Sierra Leone, to seeing a Afghani father who had been beaten for sending his daughters to school. Jolie knows about the 200 million women who have suffered genital mutilation, and the 650 million girls who were married off as children.
But just because she knows, it doesn’t mean it comes across as such. The essay seems to be a simmering down of the reality into a smoother, milder concoction which is more palatable to the readers. You see, when the essay is boxed by images of Jolie posing in Dior dresses and Burberry jackets next to her own private plane, it’s a little bit jarring. It’s like the issues that she’s trying to talk about are shrouded by the glamour of who she is and what she’s done, circling back to the effect of her privilege. Also, it’s all well and good to state statistics and stories, but where are the voices that she is seemingly so desperate to amplify? Jolie becomes the mouthpiece of these women, who would have benefitted so much by being included in this project. (Elle’s fault, maybe?) She’s the one telling these women to be loud, yet she becomes the one to silence them.
The whole palatability thing becomes even more apparent when Jolie starts to talk about men. After listing the stats of abused women, she says “None of this is to dismiss or downplay for an instant the terrible abuses against men and boys”. This bit is only there for those who, at this point of reading her essay, would be like “bUt WhAt AbOuT tHe MeN???!!1!” Jolie, you don’t need to appeal to these people. Anyone who expects you to talk about the victimisation of men in an essay about the historical abuse of women has probably missed the whole bloody point anyway.
But I do think I’m being a little reductive in the whole ‘men’ thing. She talks about applauding the men who support ‘wicked women’, such as the aforementioned Afghani father, and a Syrian man supporting his paralysed wife. It’s great that she talks about the responsibility of men to encourage the empowerment of women, and it definitely shifts the narrative of the essay to put it into a context which is more grounded. At the end of the day, it’s not all about encouraging women to be more ‘wicked’, but more about encouraging society to accept women who are ‘wicked’. I do feel like she could have put this more strongly, though.
She also gets kind of wishy-washy when she says “But it is also true that women don’t wake up every morning wanting to fight. We want to be able to be soft and nurturing and graceful and loving—not everyone is born to fight.” This is hella true, but it’s a deflection of her own responsibility to acknowledge that her advice might just be lethal. She says:
“Wicked women” are just women who are tired of injustice and abuse. Women who refuse to follow rules and codes they don’t believe are best for themselves or their families. Women who won’t give up on their voice and rights, even at the risk of death or imprisonment or rejection by their families and communities”.
Ultimately, it’s easy to encourage this behaviour when, as a privileged individual, you don’t have to bear the consequences of it. After talking about all the stuff that women face by standing up for themselves, she still fails to acknowledge that a lot of these women might just go through that same stuff if they took her advice of being a ‘wicked woman’. Suffering in silence is hurtful, but speaking up can be fatal. The world very well might need more ‘wicked women’, but it definitely does not need more dead women.
Not to be nit-picky, but let’s just briefly look at the use of language (I luuuurve me some language dissection). The word ‘wicked’ is definitely an interesting choice. She’s embracing all the labels that women have had - the bitches, the witches, and all of that. It’s turning those labels that have been used to hurt women on their head. It’s acknowledging that women can be unapologetic and unafraid of being themselves and taking up space. But also, this interesting word does garner attention. It gets clicks. It sells copies. Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for that word, then I probably wouldn’t have read that essay - I would have dismissed it as another misguided celebrity ramble. I wouldn’t even be writing this piece if it wasn’t for that word. Yet, even with this spicy, strong word, the essay is just weak.
And finally, the icing on this privilege-flavoured cake: “There is nothing more attractive—you might even say enchanting—than a woman with an independent will and her own opinions” she concludes. Attractive to whom, exactly? “Enchanting”? Wait, didn’t she just want women to be ‘wicked’? Then why the fluffy wording to undermine her message? The entire essay is a series of missed points, held up by her privilege and fame. Being “attractive” and “enchanting” herself, Jolie is tone-deaf to the freedom and safety that so many women dream of. The essay is a well-meaning attempt at awakening some energy, but her clouded, privileged vision, and tone of appeasement make it a watered down, weak attempt at female empowerment.