Saturday, January 26, 2013

Poverty Porn, Pre-Humanism and Beasts of the Southern Wild

Several weeks ago, I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild (adapted from the one-act play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar), the first feature-length film by director Benh Zeitlin and possibly one of the toughest films to characterize that I've ever seen.  Whatever other faults it may have-- and I will get to those shortly-- it is absolutely beautifully filmed.  That's a particularly noteworthy accomplishment in this case, given that much of Beasts of the Southern Wild's subject matter is quite ugly.  Blending both real and fantastical images, Zeitlin's film recounts a few dramatic weeks in the life (and the imagined life) of its young protagonist "Hushpuppy" (Quvenzhané Wallis, pictured left) as she struggles to survive the harsh conditions and even harsher people of a southern Louisiana bayou shantytown, called "The Bathtub," in which she lives.

The Bathtub is a community beset by abject poverty and, as a consequence, it provides the kind of organic culture that sustains many of the other social ills that almost always accompany abject poverty. Hushpuppy lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), whose sometimes casual disregard and sometimes outright abuse of her forces her to mature quickly and independently beyond her years.  Wink's parenting strategy, such that there is one, is to demand that Hushpuppy not be a "pussy," a directive reinforced by her (unfortunately named) schoolteacher Miss Bathsheba, played brilliantly by Gina Montana, though Miss Bathsheba imparts that lesson with the important addendum: "y'all learn to take care of the things smaller and sweeter than you."  Wink, on the contrary, instructs Hushpuppy on how not to be a pussy by instilling in her a ferociousness bordering on the animal-like, implicitly confirming the Hobbesian state of nature that is her world.  When the Bathtub is decimated by rising flood waters and her father slowly begins to die, Hushpuppy learns just how "nasty, brutish and short" life can really be.  But, because she is still a child, the merciless process of natural selection she experiences is filtered for her (and by her) through a vivid imaginary world.  In the end, Hushpuppy makes a kind of uneasy peace with both the real and imagined beasts that rule her Southern wild, but I suspect that how or why she does so remains somewhat mysterious for most audiences.

A pejorative that has been bandied about by film critics since 2008's Slumdog Millionaire has also been used to describe Beasts of the Southern Wild, namely, "poverty porn."  (Other alleged offenders include HBO's television series The Wire, Wayne Wang's 1993 film The Joy Luck Club and the 2002 film City of God.) Critics of poverty porn worry that its graphic portrayal of human misery and destitution, usually represented in stereotypical or clichéd images, is more exploitative than edifying.  To wit, critics argue, poverty porn ends up giving us a romantic and sentimentalized picture of privation and effectively anesthetizes audiences to the real tragedy of it.  This seems to be at least part of philosopher and critical race theorist bell hooks' scathing criticism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, though hooks is far more concerned with what she sees as a carelessly unreflective racism and sexism in the film.  I'm still a bit ambivalent about the merits and demerits of poverty porn, though I think Beasts of the Southern Wild is definitely an example of it.  Then again, so is most of Charles Dickens' work.  Literature is different from film, of course, but if the problems with "poverty porn" in film are particularly egregious because of cinema's structurally voyeuristic nature... well, I'm unconvinced that film is any more inherently voyeuristic than other forms of art.

More interesting to me than Beasts of the Southern Wild's dubious aestheticization of poverty is its intentional blurring of the line between the human animal and the non-human animal.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the world of the Bathtub as it is depicted in the film is intensely, brutally, and unforgivingly Hobbesian through and through. That is to say, the Bathtub and all of its inhabitants are figured as decidedly pre-social-contract animals, scrapping and clawing for survival in an indiscriminately uncaring state of nature.  Throughout the film, the "beasts" of Nature and human "beasts" are metaphorically elided in Hushpuppy's real life and her imagination.  The danger that each poses to her survival are different in neither kind nor degree.  And the rules that govern the Bathtub's residents, which have far more in common with the laws of Nature than agreements of rational agents, are as simple as they are inflexible:  fight, survive, do not weep and do not fail to "beast" Nature when Nature threatens to beast you.

The following clip provides a good example of what I find both fascinating and unsettling in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  In it, we see a particularly explicit rejection of so-called "civilized" behavior (in this instance, using a utensil to open up a crab) in favor of beast-like behavior.  Hushpuppy's father, Wink, even uses "beast" as a verb in this scene-- he demands that Hushpuppy "beast" the beast-- and her transformation in the course of this act is not only striking, but disturbing.


What we see above, and throughout the film, is a steady and repetitive rejection of the idea that the world of the Bathtub is somehow different from the rest of the natural world solely on the basis of having human inhabitants.  These "people" are animals, exactly like all the rest of Nature's beasts, and the extent to which they deny that isomorphism is inversely proportional to their chance for survival.  That the Bathtub is represented as wild and untamed as the natural world surrounding it is no surprise, though that representation complicates the sympathetic identification we are meant to have with Hushpuppy.  Like her father and the other Bathtubbers, she also is an animal, though a smaller and sweeter one, to be sure.  We pull for her, we want her to survive, we wince as bigger and stronger beasts (like her father) cause her pain but, as she tells us in her voice-over narration, "the whole universe depends upon everything fitting just right" and we know that means, first, that predation always favors the strong and, second, she is not strong.  She is, by far, more prey than predator.

Does Beast of the Southern Wild "dehumanize" its characters, unfairly turning the poor and destitute into animals, as the critics of poverty porn allege?  Does it exploit age-old stereotypes of race and gender to rob Wink and Hushpuppy of their requisite dignity and humanity, as bell hooks suggests?  Yes... but perhaps in ways that are more complicated that they appear at first blush.  What is difficult to read about this film, in my view, is that it takes place in a world that appears not so much inhuman as pre-human,  if we take this thing we call "the human" to be the product of a whole host of social, cultural and political-- that is to say, strictly speaking, unnatural -- forces and norms.  What does it mean to "dehumanize" a person in such a world, where the kind of beast we are is indistinguishable from any other living thing?  What does it mean here to level the conscientious humanist's charge of racism, sexism or classism, all of which have long and documented histories of dehumanzing humans by reducing them to the moral status of the animal?  Or, to phrase the question in the manner most disturbing to most of us, what traction does any humanist critique have in the state of nature?

In one of the final scenes of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy stands face-to-snout with the beasts that have (metaphorically and imaginatively) hunted, haunted and threatened her survival throughout.  She is, quite literally, dwarfed by them, by their strength and size, but she looks them in the eye and articulates an expression of almost incomprehensible solidarity: "You're my friend, kind of."  Perhaps we are meant to take from this some deeply human, though sublimated, insight about our persistent attachment to the delusion that we are not, like every other natural thing, just another point in the vast, complicated web of Nature. And also that Nature does not and never has, in any way prescribed by humanism, care one whit about us humans.

Would that it were not the case that a child, so heartbreakingly small and vulnerable, must say so.

It took me several weeks of being perplexed and deeply bothered by Beasts of the Southern Wild before I could write about it, and I think that's a credit to the film.  There is still a part of me that finds bell hooks' criticisms profoundly resonant, and there is a larger part of me that finds poverty porn as a genre extremely problematic.  But, unlike other films that trade in unreflective racist and sexist stereotypes (like The Help) or exploit poverty for reductively sentimental value (like Slumdog Millionaire)I think the very intentionally pre-humanist frame of Beasts of the Southen Wild makes it a far more interesting, and far less objectionable, film.  I often tell my students that they harbor, acknowledged or not, a whole host of deeply sedimented convictions about "human nature" that inform almost all of their views about almost everything else.  What Beasts of the Southern Wild forces its viewers to contend with is precisely those hidden presumptions.  As a card-carrying humanist, I found that experience profoundly decentering.