Plucky Minxes of American Film
The “silly wench,” the “sly minx,” the “coy baggage”: British magazine The Academy rationalized these stereotypes in the 1899 article “Classification of Women.” Seemingly unwilling to relinquish such categories, a 1936 New York Times review dismissed even irrepressible child star Shirley Temple as “a clever little baggage when she is kept in her place.” Fortunately, times have changed. Girls today are frequently cast in roles of real character that earn our respect.
The motherless child is a familiar cinematic theme. Without a sheltering matriarch, a child faces the world’s harsh winds alone—though some might say a “smart little minx” will turn to Daddy. In a string of 1930s movies, cherubic Shirley Temple tap-dances her way to happy endings, enchanting grown men with her irresistible wiles. They reward her plucky innocence with paternal solicitousness—or is it something else? Contemporary New York Times critic Frank Nugent called Temple “simply ravishing” in her “brief little kilts,” and English novelist Graham Greene prompted a libel suit for describing her as a “fancy little piece” who smiled at men with “dimpled depravity.”
Though her halo of hair and adorable pout are Temple-esque, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the motherless protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, never resorts to coyly playing Daddy’s little girl with her mercurial father, Wink. Critics praised Wallis as a serious actor, “preternaturally alert” and possessing “charismatic poise.” Nonetheless, feminist writer bell hooks objected that the six-year-old, often dressed only in underwear, was eroticized and subjected to a “pornography of violence.” Ironically, Hushpuppy takes the sting out of Greene’s rebuke when she says, “I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.”
From her isolated New England outpost, Moonrise Kingdom’s 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) peers at things near and far through an enormous pair of binoculars. “It helps me see things closer,” she explains, “even if they’re not very far away. I pretend it’s my magic power.” Down in the remote bayous of Louisiana, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy examines her surroundings by holding birds and other small creatures to her ear, trying to detect the world’s beating heart. She too has seeing powers: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes,” she says, “I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces.”
Hushpuppy struggles to comprehend how hurricanes, melting polar ice, the emergence of aurochs (extinct boarlike megafauna) and her father’s fatal illness threaten her coastal community, the Bathtub. Suzy and her boyfriend, Sam (Jared Gilman), endure their own epic storm, with mettle and clarity of purpose that contrast with the muddled dysfunction of the adults around them. Like these lovers on the lam, Hushpuppy forges on with vigilant focus, and at film’s end the tiny orphan seems poised to fulfill her father’s mighty prophecy: “You’re gonna be the king of the Bathtub. I promise that.”
With her saddle shoes, snow-white knee-highs, prim collared-and-cuffed dress, and kitten in a basket, Moonrise Kingdom’s Suzy Bishop looks like a direct descendant of pinafored, pigtailed, Toto-toting Dorothy Gale, heroine of The Wizard of Oz. Similar in their modest, girlish comportment, the two young ladies remain serenely feminine throughout their adventures.
In stereotyped ways, both are cared for by their male traveling companions, and they are simultaneously caretakers of those same “men.” Judy Garland’s determined Dorothy devotes her wholesome attention to her costars while they whinge about their shortcomings. Kara Hayward’s preteen Suzy captivates and calms a runaway troop of Boy Scouts, reading aloud to them like a mother to her brood (or like Peter Pan’s Wendy to the Lost Boys). But director Wes Anderson bestows Suzy with a depth of character her foregirl counterpart never attained. More than a simple plot device or a good little trouper—and never a damsel in distress—Suzy plays a wayward daughter, a lover, a fighter. One can hardly imagine Dorothy stabbing a mean boy with lefty scissors, embodying the symbolically dark role of a raven or undergoing a sexually suggestive ritual piercing with fishhooks.
Shot in sepia-toned black-and-white in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the Kansas where Dorothy Gale lives is described in L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) as “dreary and gray.” Ree Dolly, of Winter’s Bone, moves across a similarly muted Midwestern colorscape in a postmillennial rural Missouri shattered by the crystal-meth trade. Ree’s community is a far cry from the square conventionality Kansas has come to represent as a generic stand-in for middle-American blandness. Although Dorothy voices the cliché, neither teen is “in Kansas anymore.” Winter’s Bone reveals the terrible truth: Its sordid landscape is the new underbelly of the Midwest.
Ree’s mission in the aftermath of her father’s drug-related crimes is to save the family’s poor, unkempt house at the edge of the woods—her only refuge as she cares for her younger siblings and severely disturbed mother. Dorothy too yearns for home throughout her journey, and she finally gets there by repeating the phrase There’s no place like home. Ree feels this sentiment keenly when an Army recruiter points out the courage it takes to stay put and raise her kin—even at the “no place” that is home.
Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Hushpuppy has only fleeting memories of the mother who abandoned her. Wink, her father, vacillates from neglect to abuse to grudging responsibility. Incurably ill, he finally recognizes a kindred, fierce survivalism at his daughter’s core and begins to train her to make it on her own in their bayou community. He schools her in fishing and “beasting” (cracking crabs open with her bare hands). Hushpuppy’s teacher, the wise Miss Bathsheba, relays another important message: “Y’all gotta learn to take care of people smaller and sweeter than you are.”
Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone has already learned this lesson. Living a hardscrabble life far removed from typical American comforts, self-reliant teenager Ree lacks even the modest support system Hushpuppy enjoys; trying to avert the loss of her home, she receives no help from her distant, mentally ill mother and only late, grudging assistance from her extended family. Yet she makes sure to give her younger siblings the support she has done without, tenderly preparing them for the possibility of an even harsher life in the mountain wilds. Among the survival skills she teaches is how to handle a rifle, instructing them, “Kneel down, like you’re praying.”
Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), African American teen protagonist of Precious, endures a homelife of poverty and relentless misfortune. She is impregnated twice by her father and constantly, ruthlessly abused by her mother, who demands she quit school and apply for welfare. From these hopeless beginnings in Harlem, Precious conjures a remarkable determination that leads her to an alternative school, where a web of supporters encourages her to succeed.
Winter’s Bone also presents an all-but-abandoned teen from a persistent underclass: poor, rural white folks who live amid filth, guns and drug abuse. Ree Dolly’s plaintive plea to her troubled mother—“Can you please help me this one time?”—falls on deaf ears. But like Precious, Ree triumphs, wielding an obstinacy bred from destitution.
African American journalist Nathan McCall, discussing how race influenced perceptions of Precious, could have been referring to a film like Winter’s Bone when he wrote, “A white artist can make a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, and the public sees it as a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, not 10 white drug addicts.” But is that entirely true? At least one Winter’s Bone review included the epithet white trash in its headline.
It’s difficult to imagine less kindred spirits than Barbara Barry (Shirley Temple), the sweet, spoiled truant of Poor Little Rich Girl, and Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the resilient teenager who must save her home and her siblings in the bleak, drug-ravaged Ozarks of Winter’s Bone. Both films, however, set the girls on a quest that takes them from person to person. Little Barbara enjoys the guardianship of a series of figures: a railroad porter, an Italian organ grinder, a gruff businessman, a song-and-dance team, even a would-be kidnapper. She ultimately finds her way home to her father, exclaiming, “I’ve never had so much fun in my whole life.”
Also searching for her father, Ree Dolly—on a much less charming mission—visits one tight-lipped relative after another, looking for answers. Her female kin seem kind and supportive at first, offering her a hot drink or a “doobie for your walk.” When they turn on her, a father figure intervenes: her lawless uncle, Teardrop, who pays a high price for his action. Ree prevails, but her last line—“I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” spoken to her siblings—reveals how little “fun” her triumph brings.