Beasts of the Southern Wild is being heralded by many as one of the best films of the year. Where I live—New Orleans, Louisiana—the chorus of yays is even louder. People love to see themselves onscreen—especially the brashest, most in-your-face versions of themselves. I have to admit that my heart swelled seeing then-six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as the film’s protagonist.
This year, Disney/Pixar released Brave, its eleventh feature film and the first with a female protagonist. And Brave’s Merida—despite a fiercely independent streak—is still the catch-all role for girls, a princess. She’s still white/cis/stereotypically beautiful. As I watched Beasts, I thought about the fact that exposure to film and TV still hurts the self-esteem of girls and children of color, and bolsters the self-esteem of young white boys. And Hushpuppy is not just a protagonist—she’s a hero. The film opens with her playing and jumping around a falling-down trailer in a muddy bayou in bright orange underwear. There is only one scene, in the anemic Red Cross/mandatory evacuation shelter, where Hushpuppy’s hair is styled and she wears a dress. Otherwise, she is allowed to simply be. She is not corrected. She is hero-worthy as-is. She is not a princess, and the film never makes her one. Her femaleness is hardly mentioned, not even noteworthy. If anything, the story of the movie is about the vulnerability behind her fierceness. In one of the film’s early scenes, she sets a fire in the kitchen, then hides under a cardboard box, drawing on its walls. Even this act that seemingly shows her vulnerability and fear—cowering under a box—feels brave, in a way, because she does not flee.
This metaphor can be expanded to the entire film. We admire the cast of characters as we admire Hushpuppy, whether their decision to stay is foolhardy, righteous, or both.
I did have issues, though, with the film. Although the story is supposed to be firmly from Hushpuppy’s point of view, I didn’t feel as if we fully inhabited her mind. This distance is at least partially due to Hushpuppy’s relationship with the supporting characters. In the film, Hushpuppy has three important relationships: to her father, to her teacher, and to the cook who may be her mother. There are many other characters in the film that we spend time with—including three other girls around Hushpuppy’s age. The audience never learns their names or their stories. In the film’s climax, Hushpuppy and the three girls all swim out to sea to try to find Hushpuppy’s mother. The four girls are linked to four Auroches—extinct, primitive cattle who are freed from melting polar ice caps. This resonance doesn’t quite stick, however, because the three other girls are nameless stand-ins, not even foils for Hushpuppy.
I also felt conflicted about Hushpuppy’s relationship with her father. He is tough to the point of meanness. It is clear that he loves his daughter, but I think the movie’s depiction of him was off-balance. It leaned too mean, for me, when Hushpuppy said she had only been held twice: once, by her father at her birth; twice, by the cook at the film’s end. Again, this doesn’t have to be read as factually accurate—it can be simply Hushpuppy’s perception. But still, why?
Finally, I was troubled by the flatness of the characters. They’re all tough, but what else are they? We know they’re supposed to be fun and funny and hard-drinking because the Cajun score swells while they hand-clap and eat gumbo crabs. What else? Hushpuppy’s drawings—the record she makes of herself—consist of the same crudely-drawn face time and again. Why not give her some talents? Can’t she be more than tough? Can’t she be special, extraordinary? Maybe we’re supposed to just read that part in.
Characters onscreen, in some ways, are ciphers. We glean from their depiction and attach ourselves to them. That’s why I chuckled knowingly during Moonrise Kingdom when Suzy pulled a copy of “Coping with the Very Troubled Child” from her suitcase. It was only one of several books that she had with her. Of course, Suzy is twelve, double the age of Hushpuppy. Her fascination with books is more than just a marker of her smarts—it’s an insight into how Suzy views the world. She likes stories that take place in fantasy worlds with young female protagonists, many of them orphans.
So far, what sort of stories does Hushpuppy like? She likes her own, and the fact that it exists. That’s something, and it matters. We all like to see ourselves in stories. But it isn’t enough.