December 29, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild got a lot of attention last year, including an Oscar nomination for its young star, Quvenzhan√© Wallis. For those who haven't seen it, it's the story of a young girl and her father who live in a insular, poor community in the Louisiana bayou called the Bathtub and how they fare when a destructive storm hits their community. After viewing it last night, I made my way online to read reviews and eventually to cultural critic bell hooks's harsh critique of the movie.

bell hooks is one of those thinkers who gets blasted a lot, like Camille Paglia. And like Camille Paglia (whom hooks loathes), she's someone whose legitimate insights can be obscured by her goofier statements. I've only read one book of essays by hooks, but I remember feeling really moved and convicted by her intense jeremiad against consumerism and middle-class indulgence and then equally baffled by her assertion that she drives an expensive car without guilt.

hooks was horrified by Beasts of the Southern Wild. She sees it as (1) eroticizing the children in the movie, (2) naturalizing violence and poverty, and (3) perpetuating the myth of the strong black female (for her a racist stereotype that implies that abuse and oppression don't damage their victims).

Of all of these charges, I find (1) the most baffling. Yes, the movie has shots of the girl Hushpuppy from behind, but not in any obsessive or exclusive way. She's just climbing around on little hills, being a kid, in a handful of shots. There's a later scene in which four girls from the Bathtub go to a local brothel for help and end up being coddled by the prostitutes, even slow dancing with them. bell hooks finds the scene sexual and threatening, but the film clearly portrays it as a kind of mothering; these are tender gestures that the girls, starved for nurturing, soak up like sponges. Hushpuppy, picked up by one woman and held in her arm while she sways, states as much, saying she can count on two fingers the number of times she's been picked up in her life.

hooks conflates this issue with the flashbacks of Hushpuppy's mother, whom her father, Wink, is describing to Hushpuppy and who is visually portrayed in shadows and mostly from behind. This is clearly an erotic view, but he is, after all, describing what is for him a powerful moment in his life, when Hushpuppy was conceived. To see his desire for the mother as patriarchal or reductionist is, well, reductionist, since desire is a normal part of romantic attraction and is a legitimate ingredient in many of the most powerful moments in anyone's life. It's also worth noting that the film is deliberately obscuring the identity of the mother, which feeds into a focus on her body rather than her face.

A more legitimate criticism is (2), the naturalizing of poverty and violence. The residents of the Bathtub live in squalor, drink a lot, and are occasionally (but not usually) violent. Early in the film, Wink smacks Hushpuppy in the face when she questions him showing up in a hospital gown after several days' absence. Hushpuppy is sometimes scared, often at least startled by her father's erratic outbursts. What hooks seems to ignore is that the film itself is saying this. hooks sees herself as reading between the lines, seeing what the movie is trying to hide. Though it's true that viewers sometimes romanticize images of poverty (something that can't always be helped by the filmmakers), the movie itself is perfectly clear about how horrible many of the facts of Hushpuppy's existence are.

Maybe what hooks finds objectionable is that Hushpuppy's existence is not seen as only horrible. One of the elements of the movie's greatness is that it is such a complex, full portrayal of this community. The kids are hungry and ill-clothed. They are unshielded from adult affairs. They are cowed by the adults around them. But they are also cared for by the adults around them, taught by those adults, toughened up by them. The community is above all resistant to absorption by the outside world, an attitude that is both destructive and, by the end of the movie, somewhat understandable. Hushpuppy's father is a source of occasional fear and wariness, but also a source of fun, care, and love. He teaches her to fish, plays around with her, takes her everywhere, tries to prepare her for the trying times ahead.

This feeds in to hooks's other main objection: (3) how the movie perpetuates the myth of the strong black woman. I'm sympathetic to the view that this stereotype can be used to minimize abuse and oppression, to imply that black women are undamaged by these destructive forces, maybe even born to endure them. Point taken. But as with all portrayals of specific demographics (based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), the point is not to eliminate all representations that might coincide with a stereotype but to widen the range of representations so that nonstereotypical traits are equally included. We don't want girls to be represented only as princesses in need of rescue. We want them to be heroes, we want them to rescue, or to be quiet or straightforward or whatever . . . all the things that girls can be. But that doesn't mean the princess narrative should disappear from our culture entirely; it should rather be just one among many representations. Likewise with gay stereotypes. We don't want every gay man in film and TV to be a flouncy queen—the fun, bitchy best friend. But we don't want to never see another Jack McFarland, do we?

So it seems short-sighted to me to demand that a young black girl can never star in a story of endurance and overcoming adversity. What a shame that would be, especially when we're talking about a role like Hushpuppy, which Quvenzhan√© Wallis plays with such naturalness and variety. She's never just tough or defiant. She's scared, joyful, kid-like, worried, stubborn—all of the things that are so often missing from kids in film, who tend to be overly self-assured and precocious.

Actually, Beasts of the Southern Wild reminded me most of another movie about a child who interacts with an imaginative world in order to face the difficulties of life: Where the Wild Things Are. Hushpuppy often reverts in her mind to a story that her schoolteacher told about beasts of the northern wild, boar-like aurochs who were a terror to all around them and whose remains were preserved through the ice age. Hushpuppy is threatened by them (as they represent both the encroaching forces of the storm and the loss of autonomy by "dry land" do-gooders). But she also identifies with them as fierce wild creatures able to dominate their milieu.

Getting in touch with their primal rage—and strength.

Child against nature:

Facing down their fears (with Snow White for good measure):

The story of a child gathering strength in the face of adversity is universal. It belongs to all children.

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