Myths of human survival that evade questions of gender, race and social relations, won’t help us adapt in a world already being radically reshaped by environmental disasters and slow burning climate change, argues Agnes Woolley
Midway through Benh Zeitlin’s debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild a fierce storm tears through ‘the Bathtub’, an impoverished bayou settlement in Louisiana cut off from the mainland by a levee. Having refused to evacuate the area, Hushpuppy – the film’s six-year-old protagonist, played brilliantly by Quvenzhané Wallis – and her booze-soaked father Wink defiantly weather the tempest from inside his makeshift home, cobbled together from the reclaimed waste of those on the other side of the levee. As the rain and wind batter the fragile and creaking trailer, a terrified Hushpuppy seeks comfort from Wink who, instead of offering reassurance, challenges her to an arm wrestle. In military commander mode, he insists she stop crying and demands: ‘show me them guns!’ until the young girl musters the courage to flex her puny muscles in an echo of her father’s wiley physique. ‘You the man!’, he shouts gleefully. For Wink at least, Hushpuppy’s ability to survive storms, both literal and figurative, and become ‘king of the Bathtub’ depends on her ability to channel archetypal masculine traits.
In an article on Zeitlin’s film for Mark Anthony Neal’s blog ‘New Black Man’, critic bell hooks expresses astonishment that her fellow cinema-goers didn’t share her anger at the film’s gender and racial stereotyping and argues that Wink’s character ‘is a composite of all the racist/sexist hateful stereotypes that mass media projects about black masculinity’. While it should be noted that the film’s justification for the brutal treatment Hushpuppy receives is the understanding that Wink’s tough love is designed to prepare her for life without him (he is dying of a blood disease), I share hooks’s reservations about a film whose mythic, magical-realist form not only occludes a troubling representational politics, but also permits its director to evade questions surrounding changing social and political relations in the era of climate change and increasing scarcity.
Throughout Beasts of the Southern Wild there are hints that when the effects of climate change begin to re-shape our (western) world in earnest the most valuable qualities will be those traditionally associated with masculinity: repressed emotion, self-sufficiency, aggression and strength. After the storm has abated the Bathtub’s small group of survivors feast on a giant catch of shellfish washed in by the floods. Struggling to get at the inside of a crab, Hushpuppy is coached by an older member of the group, who shows her how to use a knife to cut into the creature’s soft underbelly. Spotting this lesson taking place, Wink erupts in anger and, visibly terrifying his daughter, demands instead that she ‘beast it’; break its shell open with her bare hands and suck out the flesh. Echoing the earlier scene, Hushpuppy screws up her courage and manages to ‘beast’ the crab shell open to a whooping chorus of approval from the rest of the community. Satisfied she has done what was required of her, she flexes her muscles from the table top like a prize fighter.
Even if we didn’t view these moments through a gendered lens, Zeitlin’s film installs an unmistakeable opposition between the masculine world of survival and independence into which Hushpuppy is to be initiated, and the feminised space inhabited by her errant mother. In one particularly troubling scene, Hushpuppy and a group of girl orphans hitch a ride on a vessel scouting the bayou for survivors and go in search of their missing mothers. Arriving at a low-lit floating Bordello – emblazoned with the legend “girls, girls, girls” – the children are immediately seduced by a group of cooing, cosseting women in varying states of undress. Each child slow dances with their surrogate mother watched over by the adult male punters, whose presence intimates the provisionality of the encounter. Shot in womb-like ambient reds and warm oranges, the scene is clearly designed to evoke those maternal qualities of comfort, security and tactility of which they are deprived in the Bathtub. Following her own symbolic mother into the kitchen, Hushpuppy is given a dish of carefully prepared delicacies to eat with cutlery in place of the whole barbecued chickens she is forced to chew off the bone in the Bathtub. As food acquisition and preparation are crucial to survival, the marked distinction here is significant; in situating the domesticated female kitchen firmly in the realm of fantasy, the film demonstrates the inadequacy of stereotypical feminine qualities for survival in the ‘wild’. Worryingly, Hushpuppy’s feeble and irresponsible proto-mother – self-professedly unable to look after anyone but herself – recalls a number of recent films, such as John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011), in which mothers are either absent or passively inert when confronted with impending disaster.
Wink’s disdain for the tools of modern existence sharpens the film’s focus on self-reliance in the face of both ecological uncertainty and institutional disregard, and also emphasises its thematic investment in the idea of humanity as coextensive with the natural world. In fact, it’s precisely through this image of Gaia-like transcendental ecological interdependence that the film evades the questions of gender, race and social relations that would undermine its vision of mythic unity. This deeper and perhaps more troubling set of associations draw on ideas of primitivism and a romanticised localism which suppress gendered, racial and social identifications. At the outset, Hushpuppy’s voiceover reminds us that ‘the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right’. While this vision of interdependency quite rightly suggests the re-evaluation of anthropocentrism necessary for a sustainable future, in the context of a marginalised community living hand-to-mouth it also invokes Shepard Krech’s ‘ecological Indian’; the idea that before colonialists arrived, Native Americans lived in perfect ecological harmony with their environment and other non-human species. Like this myth, Beasts of the Southern Wild works hard to romanticise the notion that an attachment to local environment is commensurate with an innate symbiosis with nature, resulting in the simultaneously consoling and debilitating observation that humans are just ‘a little piece of a big, big universe’.
When understood as making a more or less explicit reference to hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the film’s romanticised notion of human survival in the face of adversity makes for uncomfortable viewing, especially as it seems to studiously ignore the deep-rooted racial and social stratifications revealed by the events of 2005. Contrary to the film’s assertions, nature and the ‘universe’ are not unmarked by race, gender or class. In my view, the magical-realist mode of Beasts erases questions of racial, gender and environmental justice through abstraction and mythologisation, relegating these more challenging concerns to the margins by celebrating a homogenous conception of humanity.
Magical realism and political critique are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many critics would argue that they’re intimately connected, attributing the predominance of the form in Latin America to tensions between indigenous and Western iterations of self and society. In making use of fables, myths, folktales and symbols in witty and subversive ways, writers like Gabriel García Márques, Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter retain a strong contemporary relevance and political acuity. In contrast, Beasts of the Southern Wild offers only mythic obfuscation and what Phil Hoad describes as ‘an ethic of flaky whimsy’. Narratives are beginning to, and will increasingly, play a crucial role in shaping our response to the changes which will be wrought by climate change: they should take full account of the divisions within humanity that exacerbate disaster’s worst effects.