Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gender and Queerness in Matilda

It seems somewhat incongruous for my first real post on my largely TV themed blog to be about something which has been adapted into everything but a TV series, but this been running around my head for a while and I wanted to get it down onto virtual paper while it’s still fresh.

First let me start by saying this has probably already been said. I haven’t checked but I assume there’s already been much written about the queer themes in Matilda, it seems far too obvious for no one else to have noticed. However, if I only wrote about things which I thought no one else had written about I wouldn’t write about anything at all. So here goes:

I was obsessed with Matilda when I was a kid. I watched the bright green VHS tape over and over again to the extent that my family no longer let me choose which film to watch lest I make them watch it for the tenth time that month. I loved the movie and I loved the book. To my six year old self, Matilda was my reflection on screen. I was a bookish kid; I learned to read early and prided myself on being able to read two levels above my year group in school. I remember walking across my primary school hall from the infant classrooms to the junior library and feeling dwarfed by the shelves. I was also convinced I was going to be a prodigy. I was sure that someone would recognise my genius in an area I had not yet discovered myself. Of course I was delusional; I could read well for my age but that was about it. In any case, Matilda fed into my childhood fantasy of somehow being special, and my bookishness being part of that. None of my friends read like I did, my brother was more interested in sports – I had Matilda as a role model of sorts, as someone who read and as someone who triumphed because she was smart. Now, as I was at the time only six years old, I also genuinely believed that I could at some point develop magical powers and spent vast amounts of time glaring determinedly at a glass of water, trying to make it tip. Needless to say, this never worked. I also remember being further convinced of this kinship because in the movie, when trying to make her parents send her to school Matilda tells them she was “six in August”. The first time I watched the film, I too had turned six in August. Clearly we were long lost twins.

So Matilda was kind of my jam when I was young. It’s been a while since I re-watched the film and I haven’t read the book since I was a kid, but recently, what with the stage musical being a hit and the reunion photos surfacing online, I started thinking more about the story in all its forms from my now much more well informed perspective. Specifically I wondered whether there was any other reason why I loved the story so much, other than my strong identification with the protagonist. This train of thought led me to realise just how queer the story of Matilda is and how, for a children’s story published in the 80s and a kids’ film released in the 90s, it flagrantly subverts the heteronormative family dynamic. This essay will focus on three main points; Miss Trunchbull as the evil lesbian stereotype, Miss Honey as a possible queer character, and how the ending of Matilda rejects heteronormativity.

So Miss Trunchbull right? Obviously as a six year old child watching Matilda the movie for the first time and later reading the book, I didn’t see in Trunchbull what I do today as a queer 20 year old with a degree in reading into things. I also didn’t see the problems inherent with her character as the villain. She was an evil headmistress and nothing more. Now, thinking back, Miss Trunchbull is pretty obviously a subtextual lesbian character. She is resolutely unmarried, to the extent that she is offended when Miss Honey’s rhyme for remembering how to spell “D-I-F-F-I-C-U-L-T-Y” only features wives – “Why are all these women married?!” This statement also marks her out as a feminist, rejecting traditional gender roles, but I’ll get back to that later. Trunchbull is also consistently portrayed as overtly masculine presenting. She competed in strength based athletics like the shot-put, javelin and the hammer throw, she’s large and robust – able to pull her broken down car back to her house by a rope and wrench a padlock and chain from a door with her bare hands. In the film, when Miss Honey mentions Trunchbull replacing her father’s portrait with one of herself, Matilda replies “Whoever painted that must have had a strong stomach, a really strong stomach”. Trunchbull is coded as ugly by virtue of being “unfeminine” – it’s important to note that this portrait features her as an athlete, displaying her strength, at her most masculine. She wears breeches under her coat, dressing mostly in blacks or browns. This masculinity is emphasised further in the stage musical where the character of Trunchbull is played by a man. Essentially, Miss Trunchbull embodies many qualities of the stereotypical “bulldyke” and is of course the villain of the story. Not only is she unmarried, she doesn’t wish to be and resents the institution itself. She is assumed to have killed the patriarchal figure of Miss Honey’s father, who is also, assuming from the difference in surname, her brother in law. Trunchbull rejects both patriarchy and femininity, bemoaning the lack of unmarried women in her niece’s rhyme and expressing her disgust at Amanda Thripp’s pigtails. Remove the violent child abuse from the equation and Trunchbull could be seen as a radical feminist – ensuring the children in her school are taught that women don’t need to get married and liberating Amanda Thripp from her mother’s enforcement of schoolgirl femininity through her hairstyle.

Of course Miss Trunchbull is not a villain because  of her gender subversion (and supposed lesbianism – working on the concept that most Hayes Code era queer female characters were coded as queer by their happily unmarried status) but that subversion does sit alongside her villainy and often interacts with it. She uses her hammer throw technique to launch Amanda Thripp over the school fence and is frequently shown as menacing because of her sheer strength, size and masculine “ugliness”. What makes Trunchbull a villain, and a despicable one at that, is her hatred and abuse of children. She runs a school despite this hatred, seemingly only for the opportunity to torture the children in her care. She’s overwhelmingly strict, enforcing bizarre rules so she can either make her pupils miserable or punish them for being happy. Her abuse is physical, making use of her strength and stature. When her relationship to Miss Honey is revealed, it is heavily implied that she subjected her to severe physical abuse as well. There is a shot in the film version at the end of Miss Honey’s flashback as she tells Matilda the truth about her childhood, where Trunchbull aggressively grips the child Jenny’s shoulder – the first indication that Miss Honey suffered physical abuse at the hands of her aunt. This is made explicit later in the film when, during the final confrontation between Trunchbull and Matilda in the classroom, she grabs hold of Miss Honey’s arm and growls “I broke your arm once before Jenny I can do it again”. Miss Honey then reclaims her arm and retorts “I am not seven years old anymore Aunt Trunchbull”. The revelation that Trunchbull broke her seven year old niece’s arm, implicitly on purpose, coupled with the fact that Miss Honey refers to her by her surname instead of Aunt Agatha, shows the extent to which her abuse of children reached. She clearly imposed her dogmatic regime of violent punishment over all children in her care, even her own kin.

Such extreme violent abuse of children is shocking in itself, but it remains subversive that it is a female character who is the abuser. To an extent Trunchbull is seen as more evil because of her gender. In the same way that juries are more likely to give a longer sentence to a female murderer than a male guilty of the same crime, women are largely expected to be less aggressive and far less violent than men. When a man hits someone it is seen as part of his masculinity, he is admonished for losing control – for letting his nature overcome his nurture. When a woman commits a violent act she is analysed far more, the implication being that something must be wrong with her biologically or that her social environment was somehow harmful. Society believes that violence in women is unnatural which is why we have such a morbid fascination with female serial killers – and why as a child you’re told to seek a woman’s help over a man’s if you ever get lost. Crucially in regards to the character of Trunchbull, women are seen as having a natural affinity for children. Society expects women to be maternal caregivers at a basic biological level. It’s why women are expected to have children and stay at home to mother them, and it’s why any woman who doesn’t want children is dismissed as just not “feeling the pull yet”. When women commit violence against children society is shocked three times over. Firstly by the inherent shock of someone hurting a child, secondly by a woman being violent and finally by a woman who would hurt a child – a woman supposedly without this “natural” maternal instinct. Child abusers are universally reviled but female child abusers are seen as far more fascinating than their male counterparts. There are very few studies looking into the causes of paedophilia in men yet the media often fixates on the motivations of female abusers who are often portrayed as either having been controlled by their male accomplices or as victims of abuse themselves. Society needs an explanation for how a woman could hurt a child whereas if a man does it, he’s just evil. It is because of this gendered expectation that Miss Trunchbull is such a formidable villain. She subverts gender roles completely, both with her masculine presentation and through her disavowal or lack of maternal instinct. She is not only a happily unmarried woman without children of her own; she actively despises children and takes pleasure out of physically abusing them.

Miss Trunchbull is not only terrifying because of her status as a female child abuser; she is also rendered horrific because of the gender subversion this enhances.  Barbara Creed wrote this ridiculously fascinating book on female imagery in horror called The Monstrous Feminine (this book is amazing and you should read it, if not only so you can join me in spotting vaginas in every movie monster’s face). In it she talks about how any breakdown of the gender binary can be seen as monstrous as it threatens the other binaries we take for granted. When gender is subverted, as with the character of Trunchbull, heteronormative society’s view of reality is skewed, the boundaries start to disappear and certitudes are rendered meaningless. In a world where Miss Trunchbull exists, anything could happen.

Positioned in direct opposition to Miss Trunchbull is her niece and Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey. Miss Honey is everything Miss Trunchbull is not – a point explicitly made in her introduction via the narrator in the film. She is warm and kind; she loves children and is physically frail. The original illustrations in the book by Quentin Blake further emphasise this physical difference in stature. Trunchbull is tall, fat and muscular whereas Honey is thin and elegant. As with many of Dahl’s characters, their names also codify their personalities – Trunchbull seemingly a portmanteau of “truncheon” and “bull”, implying corporal punishment and mindless anger simultaneously and of course Honey meaning sweet and, perhaps crucially, natural. You don’t have to look hard to see the striking differences between Trunchbull and Honey as gendered. Whereas Trunchbull is coded as masculine through her strength, clothing, physicality and personality, Miss Honey is ever feminine; clothed in floral dresses, her hair worn long and loose. Miss Honey wears glasses, a cinematic trope used to let audiences know she is intelligent right from the off. Her power lies in her intellect and her compassion which contrasts with Trunchbull’s disregard for intelligence and use of physical power. The message of the story of Matilda is essentially that smarts win out over strength. The precociously intelligent Matilda and the equally clever Miss Honey use their wits to outsmart Trunchbull and end her tyranny. More specifically though, Miss Honey nurtures Matilda, helping her to develop her intellect and powers and therefore facilitating her victory. Miss Honey’s strength comes from her maternal instinct and her love of children. This contrasts directly with Miss Trunchbull’s attitude. Trunchbull is demonised because of her disavowal of maternity; Miss Honey is glorified because she embraces it.

This could be seemingly a simple reinforcement of traditional gender roles; Miss Honey as the heroic mother figure embracing her femininity against Miss Trunchbull the gender subverting masculine villain. However, I think the reality is far more complex. Again, if we look back to Hayes Code era representations (when Hollywood had to conform to certain “morality” codes, preventing the inclusion of openly queer characters in film) many female characters were subtextually coded as queer by being shown as happily unmarried. These characters were usually secondary to the main female protagonist who would be engaged in a romantic storyline with the film’s lead male. Of course not all unmarried female characters are lesbians, but it is interesting to look at the figure of Miss Honey as a possible queer character especially considering her opposition to Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey lives alone in a tiny cottage, she is resolutely a “Miss”, having no love interest or romantic storyline and the only male figure in her life is her dead father Magnus. She is not only single, but she never mentions wanting a man in her life either. She isn’t a Bridget Jones kind of figure, always longing for a heterosexual relationship; rather she seems content without a partner, happily independent and paying her own way. If we take Miss Honey as a queer female character her positioning as a stark contrast to the perhaps more obviously, stereotypically lesbian Miss Trunchbull takes on an extra layer of complexity. The narrative is no longer simply glorifying heterosexuality and demonising homosexuality. Miss Trunchbull’s lesbianism is in effect nullified. She’s no longer evil because she is queer; she’s evil because she is butch. In Matilda, homosexuality is acceptable but gender queerness is not. Rejection of femininity makes you evil; embracing it makes you a heroine. This concept is reinforced by the representation of Matilda’s mother who is also shown to be non-maternal, being far more concerned with money and television than her daughter’s wellbeing. Mrs Wormwood’s selfishness makes her a bad mother – when a woman has children she is expected to always put them first, in the eyes of society she stops being a woman, an individual, and becomes only a mother, there solely to take care of her children. Mrs Wormwood’s disinterest in her daughter (coupled with her “white trash” appearance in the film) renders her unfeminine and therefore villainous. She is positioned with Miss Trunchbull as a woman who rejects expected aspects of her femininity and is therefore shown as an antagonist.

An analysis such as this suggests that Matilda is inherently problematic in its representation of gender and those who reject constructed gender binaries. However the ending of the story is unmistakeably queer. Matilda leaves her heteronormative family unit with a biological mother, father and brother, to be adopted by a single, possibly queer woman who she is completely unrelated to. This is the happy ending. Matilda is inarguably better off with Miss Honey, a single adoptive mother who understands her far more than her own biological parents. This seems especially significant now, what with the main argument spouted by opponents of equal marriage being something along the lines of a child needing a mother and a father to be well adjusted. Of course this argument is total bullshit – it relies on the idea that marriage is solely for raising children, ignoring all childless married couples, besides if the GOP were so concerned about every child having a mother and a father they would ban single parenthood, embrace contraceptive pills and abortion rights and steal children away from widows. Everyone knows how preposterous this argument is now, everyone knows it’s just a smoke screen, just spin – “we don’t hate gay people we just want to protect the children”. But considering the time at which Matilda was written and the time when the film was released this conclusion was somewhat revolutionary. Dahl was saying that children aren’t always better off with their own parents, sometimes the heteronormative family unit doesn’t work, straight parents can be bad parents and children can be happier without them. The image of Matilda joyously roller-skating around the living room of Miss Honey’s reclaimed family home flies in the face of the traditional family unit. This single, potentially queer woman is a better parent for Matilda than her own biological, decidedly heterosexual mother and father.  Here emotional kinship is better than shared biology, blood is not thicker than water, nurture wins out over nature. And that’s huge, that changes things. Especially when the classic fairytale villain is the stepmother – the imposter, the woman who isn’t related to the hero and so cannot connect with them.

Perhaps it was somewhat of a trade-off. Dahl had his decidedly queer ending but he had to reinforce gender stereotypes elsewhere. Matilda could live happily ever after with an adoptive single parent who she has far more in common with than the people who conceived and birthed her, but Miss Trunchbull had to be a gender bending villain. The heteronormative family unit could be breached, its homogeny denied, but gender roles still had to be prized. A woman can live without a man but she can’t be a man.  A single independent woman can be a hero but only if she’s a mother figure. You can blur the gender lines but only if you demonise it. In order to offer an alternative to the heterosexual happy ending, Miss Trunchbull must be sacrificed for her unsanctioned masculinity.

9 comments:

  1. I really like this! It's really well-thought out. I had one idea though and was wondering what you thought of it. You have the Hayes Code saying that you can't have queer characters. I don't necessarily think that Miss Trunchbull is meant to portray negativity toward masculinity or genderqueer-ness. Perhaps she's meant to exemplify what the homophobic 90s masses saw queerness to be, and Miss Honey is meant to be a hero for queer women, proving that there's more to the queer community than people who look and act like Miss Trunchbull. The other reason I'm not sure about that is that physical strength is mostly meant to embody her abusiveness. There are generally three types of child abuse, and since they can't really include sexual abuse in a children's book/movie, her parents represent the emotional side of abuse while Miss Trunchbull is left to represent the physical. Again, this is just my two cents. I still really enjoyed reading this!

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    1. I still think Trunchbull's abusiveness is facilitated by her strength. A lot of her acts of abuse would be impossible for anyone without her physical stature and olympic background - she uses the same hammer-throw technique in throwing Amanda Thripp for example. So her strength and its implied masculinity are directly linked with her abuse, but I agree that she's the other side of the coin to Matilda's parents whose abuse is like you said emotional and mostly based on neglect.
      I also think it's a shame that there aren't more positive representations of truly butch or masculine of centre lesbians in the media. Trunchbull for me embodies the negative attitude to that kind of queerness.

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  2. You are really awesome, and now that I can respond ( I don't have a tumblr (gasp)) I wanted to tell you that, (and a lot of other things but my phone is being a pain) and to ask you if we could talk sometime. [ gets scared, hides under desk] I want to become better aquatinted. .........maybe........... If you aren't busy........

    No time for editing I have to post this before I lose my nerve.

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    1. My original response is currently published on my blog of you want to read it in all its long ramblyness.
      http://effugently.blogspot.de/?m=1

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    2. Sure :) I'm far better at talking to people on the internet than in real life. I'm not sure which medium would be best for you if you're not on Tumblr, is there a message system on here? Get back to me in the comments on how you want to get in contact.

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    3. There isn't a message system here, at least not one that I know of. My original thought was Skype of email, but I could just make a tumblr (I've been thinking on getting one anyway) if that is easier.

      Side note: What ever it turns out to be, I won't be able to talk for about sixteen days. I'm currently on vacation and don't always have Internet acess. Sorry, I probably should have waited to say something.

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    4. I'm back home now! Yay! Hope to here from you soon.

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    5. I don't have skype so email is probably best. I'm at Jasmin.billinghay@gmail.com

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  3. Well but not every story must be ideological. Some butch lesbians ARE evil and some lipstick ones are heroines. Sometimes it might be the other way around of course, but an author can only tell one story at a time and in this case it was about an evil butch. When we are good or evil, all our traits come to support that character. Yes, her masculinity here was "used for" evil (like abusing children). In another story it could be used for good. But this isn't another story, it was this one. Literature is allowed to portray villains and heroes from all backgrounds and it doesn't all need to be subversive. Frankly it would be unrealistic to have a book be all subversive. Real life is usually a mix of stereotypes being both confirmed AND subverted. Sometimes a butch lesbian IS a bad person in the world. And some of them are not. This book depicted a bad one. So be it.

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