Beasts of the Southern Wild
Last night I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was a moving, poetic piece about living in the margins, the liminal space of society. The geographic space seemed to be Louisiana or the general gulf region, where the characters lived in a small off-the-grid enclave on the wrong side of the levee on the brink of a major flood. So the film alludes to the racial and cultural issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina while retaining a sense of magical realism and wonder around the characters’ towns and what drives them to reject the safe and modern world on the inland of the levee.
The major themes throughout the movie revolved around family, gender roles/identity, how we legitimize/create world views, and the sense of social disenfranchisement. The central character “Hushpuppy” is a young girl trying to make sense of the world based on her father’s self-destructive lifestyle, her town’s (“The Bath Tub”) romantic relationship to nature, the absence of her mother, and her own sense of independence from all these factors leading her to often wander/wonder alone in her own world.
From the beginning of the film, “Hushpuppy” shows us the audience, the hyper-industrialized and mediated westerner how to find new forms of sensory exploration and knowledge production through listening and touching. As she walks around the loosely scattered animal pens and marshes surrounding her father’s land she picks up chickens, turtles, and other small animals to hear their hearts, listen to their whimpers and try to make sense of their sounds. As human’s grow to become adults they actually loose a lot of their sensitivity to particular sounds, especially within other languages, as a way to create structures of value in endless world of stimulus. The neglect of certain sounds becomes most apparent when hearing other languages, such as south east Asian language speakers trying to differentiate between the english “l/r” or English speakers unable to hear southeast Asian or sub-Saharan African phonemes. At once the feels seem to create a magical or romanticized other world for us to look on longingly as we’ve neglected our senses and attachment to the material world of nature.
Her openness to exploration is even contrasted for her fathers’ seeming repetitive task of endless drinking combined with the occasional chicken grilling which he feeds to “Hushpuppy” by ringing a bell for “feed-time” where she sits with the chickens under his trailer and eats like the rest of the animals that he cares for. She doesn’t appear to feel a sense of neglect but rather accept this as her natural upbringing. This tie of the animal-human is further explicitly emphasized by her teacher who claims that all animals are meat, as they look over a writhing pan of shellfish, including humans. The dichotomy between animals and humans is only really created once the residents of “Bathtub” are forced into a federal shelter after the land is completely flooded and animal life dies. At this point, her ailing father is forced into surgery and “plugged into a wall”. This is his worst nightmare as he’s told Hushpuppy before that if he’s ever really sick he wants to be put out to sea with his boat and burnt so he’ll never have to end up dead plugged to a wall. Nature is constantly referenced as a deadly force but something that man must face head on. In order to prove this point her father goes out with a shotgun and starts shooting the clouds as the initial torrential storms begin to flood their small town. As he claims repeatedly throughout the film, “I have everything under control”. It is the individual who must be strong to survive nature and not wither in the decay of Western medicine and modern abstractions from the wild.
Additionally there is a sense of masculinity applied to the wild and to the strong. Though Hushpuppy is a girl, her father almost exclusively refers to her as a man and makes her say “I’m the man” in multiple acts/tests of strength. The first time in the film she is actually referred to as a female is when another community member is showing her how to pry open a crab with a knife. Her father angrily runs over and pulls the knife away saying she has to “beast it” or rip it open with her hands. Instruments such as these are for the weaker. Throughout the film she reiterates her father’s claims that “no crying” and “crying is for pussies”. She is forced to masculinize herself and deny any emotional sensitivity that might limit her from surviving in nature. Yet her own wonderings and explorations show that she is extremely sensitive. So when she does finally put her father in his boat and burns him, she has become the strong male he wanted her to be. But before he died they both cried together as he ate fried alligator, from a woman that resembles in all mythical and practical purposes her mother, and in that moment of shared tears they mix the “feminine and masculine” and show that Hushpuppy is the unification of the two. Just as she is the unification of nature and humans, her crayon drawings left on everything, so that “in the future scientist will find them and say there was once a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub”.