“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the Girl Hero Phenomenon
2012 has been a banner year for movies featuring brave girls fighting to save their people. From Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” to Merida in “Brave,” teen warrior girls are taking center stage in pop culture, revealing a different way to be a hero, one that incorporates more feminine values of nurturing, caring, and collaboration as forms of bravery. This phenomenon has been noted by journalists and authors; this new feminine energy signals a change in our collective psyche. A surprising new brave girl has arrived in the mix: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the six-year old protagonist of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” this year’s Sundance favorite, directed by Benh Zeitlin and written by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy’s story depicts a relationship between a father and a daughter tilted too far to the masculine, and the need to retrieve and reclaim the energy of the missing feminine.
“I have enough faith in the evolution of consciousness to believe that, just as in their personal life people don’t usually bother with the feminine principle unless they are forced to through some illness, so the same thing’s happening on the planet — our earth is sick. Fear is going to force us to allow the Goddess in. No, she is forcing her way in whether we like her or not.” — Marion Woodman
Hushpuppy lives in the Louisiana bayou in a place called the Bathtub on the wrong side of the levee. Her hearty community lives independently, festively feeding on the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico and celebrating each day despite impoverished conditions. She has never known her mother, and lives with her father, Wink, who loves and cares for her, but keeps her at arms length emotionally, even living in separate ramshackle huts. The mother absent, Hushpuppy longs for her, even imagining conversations with her, embodied by a blinking lighthouse across the ocean. Wink sometimes leaves for days without explanation, unable to acknowledge the impact of the separation. The relationship, stuck in a masculine mindset, blindsides Wink, who even teaches Hushpuppy to chant “I’m the man!” and show her “guns” by flexing her biceps. Hushpuppy reaches the breaking point after one of these separations, burning down her trailer in anger, saving only a basketball jersey that represents her mother.
Though unpredictable and sometimes violent, Wink displays kindess at times to his daughter, teaching Hushpuppy independence, self-sufficiency, and strength. Since Wink is dying, she will need these attributes to make her way in the world, though his illness remains unmentioned. Wink continually devalues more feminine sentiments, reminding Hushpuppy that there will be no crying, they are not “pussies,” even after Hurricane Katrina destructively plows through their community. In an intense and moving scene, Hushpuppy demonstrates courage by confronting her father about his illness and imminent death. He still will not discuss it with her, but at least acknowledges the truth.
At this point in the film, Hushpuppy’s longing for her mother, for the symbolic feminine, turns into an epic brave girl journey of reclamation. She and three girlfriends travel to the land of the Mothers, in a scene that recalls Greek mythology, where Demeter reunites with her daughter, Persephone. In a dreamspace set mid-ocean, the girls find the feminine, and Hushpuppy gets the motherly nurturing she has never known from a woman who may or may not be her mother. The woman not only cooks for her, she shows her how to prepare the food–alligator meat–in a scene that merges self care and bravery with the sacred feminine. Much as Demeter and Persephone had to eventually part (Persephone was the Queen of the Underworld and needed to tend to the dead), Hushpuppy must leave this motherly embrace and return to tend to her dying father. But she brings with her a symbol of the feminine as a boon; food that this mother figure has cooked for both of them. She and her friends return to the Bathtub transformed, and Hushpuppy goes to her father with the package of deep fried alligator–nourishment from a creature feared but subdued. They eat of it, like the eucharist of the Goddess, and their relationship transforms. They finally allow emotions into their predicament, and they both shed tears. When Hushpuppy and her father mourn together, they face the loss, and Hushpuppy can move on, stronger than ever, with a sense of wholeness. Hushpuppy is then able to face her ultimate fear — of a primal helpless, that the dangers of the world will consume her, symbolized by prehistoric beasts, called aurochs, unleashed from the polar ice caps that are melting due to global warming. in a scene blurring reality with fantasy, she confronts and disperses these creatures with courage and strength.
“…I see that I’m a little piece of a big, big universe…” — Hushpuppy
Characters like Hushpuppy, Katniss and Merida are popular for a reason. They resonate with a collective need that transcends gender for the feminine to balance a society out of whack due to the dominance of masculine values. Hushpuppy gives us hope and shows us the way to equanimity between masculine strength, independence, and logical thinking, and feminine relatedness, feelings, nurturing, and intuition. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a blueprint for dealing with what has been wrought by overvaluing the masculine – things like climate change that causes killer storms like Katrina more frequently and the ice caps to melt, and how, potentially, all our communities, like the Bathtub, will be destroyed. Climate change releases problems of epic proportions that creates fear, shame, hopelessness and helplessness in us all, like what the aurochs provoke in Hushpuppy; we must have the courage to confront the beasts of our making, or they will eat us up. If society’s relationship with the patriarchal “father” changes, as did Hushpuppy’s and Wink’s, we have a chance.