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Hushpuppy's Hope

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2015) connects reality and fantasy as a way to express the challenges of representing climate change and environmental justice. Through the narrative of six-year-old Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis with a mesmerizing distinction, the film depicts the unrelenting struggle to survive against violence on personal and global levels. Zeitlin’s choice of filming locations for Beasts of the Southern Wild vividly encapsulates the southern gothic genre from the opening scenes. The film starts in an anarchic place of car scrap and driftwood— a dismal landscape that invokes a sense of dread and moral corruption. Hushpuppy’s existence is limited to the Louisiana bayous, alongside a community of proud outcasts. As her home and family gradually diminish, Hushpuppy is left to defend herself against constant risk. Throughout this paper, I contend that Beasts of the Southern Wild illustrates how projected fantasies, in the form of magical realism, become the agency for an impoverished child to cope with the social anxieties associated with an uncertain personal and environmental future.

Echoing in the stampeding hooves of the aurochs, magical realism presents itself in Beasts as the backdrop for Hushpuppy’s story. Zeitlin successfully replicates the lack of separation between a child’s reality and imagination as Hushpuppy is restricted by the nature of her home, the Bathtub, and her father, Wink. The film immediately establishes her relationship with nature as she lays her head against the body of a pig and listens for the heartbeat, explaining in her narration that “all the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating… talking to each other the ways I can’t understand.” As she spends a great deal of time in solitude, Hushpuppy is dazed by the fantastical environment that surrounds her— a place that is so bare and broken, yet simultaneously so full of saturnalia and experience. The Bathtub residents are faced with frequent storms and floods, leaving the community determined to survive in the face of detrimental climate change. For Hushpuppy, the Bathtub represents a place of childhood play. However, as real bathtubs function, the innocence associated with her youth is being consumed with water and slowly overflowing. Hushpuppy is well aware of the apocalyptic forces that threaten the world around her, as her teacher, Miss. Bathsheba, lectures: “Ice caps gonna melt, water is gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under… Y’all better learn to survive now.” Hushpuppy internalizes this lesson and comes to understand that as the Bathtub disintegrates, her community as a whole must figure out how to survive after a hurricane.

Miss. Bathsheba’s lesson continues with talk of the Aurochs; “a fierce, mean creature that walked the face of the earth back when we all lived in caves.” Zeitlin uses these fantastic and monstrous beasts to connect the declining health of the planet to the declining heath of Hushpuppy’s father. At an individual level, Hushpuppy’s existence is vulnerable and arguably savage, as her father’s idea of parenting is often rough and neglectful— his way of imparting necessary survival skills. Wink believes he must teach his daughter how to defend herself independently, for he knows that his ailing health will prevent him to care for her much longer. Hushpuppy is taught that there is “no time for crying,” and she carries the pressure of having to cure both her father’s illness and the environmental illness that is flooding her home. As children’s magical thinking often pushes them to believe their circumstances are personally inflicted, Hushpuppy reasons that she can save her father and fix her universe if she mends the pieces, as everything “depends on fitting together just right.” However, as the film progresses, Hushpuppy soon realizes that her father’s illness is fatal. The film’s concluding scene is the arrival of the aurochs, a face-to-face encounter between both southern beasts— Hushpuppy and the auroch. Their arrival coincides with Wink’s ultimate death, which perhaps is Zeitlin’s way of representing the global threat of climate change for communities like the Bathtub.

Beasts of the Southern Wild connects the story of a specific location and the narrative of a young girl to the greater conversation about climate change. As a young child, Hushpuppy takes on an extreme amount of responsibility. However, she knows that she is small and therefore limited in her capacity to help. Hushpuppy expands this line of thinking to understand that her community is small relative to the non-human environmental forces working against it, allowing Zeitlin to play into the idea of slow violence. Rising sea levels, flooding, and impending storms can be difficult to depict with a sense of urgency, thus empowering Zeitlin to utilize magical realism to construct a compelling narrative, embodying slow violence in a child’s present moments. Hushpuppy’s existence is entirely comprised of her social and familial bonds to the Bathtub community, and climate change imposes the threat of losing both of these things, therefore losing her own identity. Furthermore, magical realism allows for the presence of the aurochs, a symbol that Zeitlin uses to make climate change visible and animate the anxiety elicited by climate change.

In closing, Beasts of the Southern Wild employs the technique of magical realism as a way to draw attention to the social anxieties associated with slow violent environmental destruction. Hushpuppy becomes the vessel for this story, and her six-year-old perspective gives a voice to the young and marginalized children that are affected by climate change. In many cases, the problem starts with a lack of recognition for communities like the Bathtub, and Hushpuppy’s story insists on recognition: “The scientists of the future, they’re going to find it all. They’re going to know once, there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.” The story of Hushpuppy matters, and Zeitlin shows audiences that the realities of climate change are forcing newer generations to adapt to an alternative lifestyle in order to survive. Zeitlin is reaching out to this generation through his powerful tactics of magical realism, which not only highlights the very real issues branding coastal communities, but instills an even more powerful sentiment of hope for the Hushpuppys of the world.

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