25 February 2009

My deep gratitude to Matilda and my parents' inability to hide things well

"Having power isn't nearly as important as what you decide to do with it. And Matilda had in mind something heroic."

When I was much, much younger, a relative or family friend or some other good intentioned person bought Matilda for my family. I remember it very clearly for two reasons:
1) It was my favorite movie of all time for ages and
2) My parents, after seeing the movie themselves, decided it was massively inappropriate and hid it from me. I would always find it in the wrong video box, stashed on top of the cabinet in the living room, under their bed.

People always laugh when I tell them that. It's as ridiculous as them not letting me watch Power Rangers (sorry mom and dad!). I think I still suffer some kind of social anxiety because I can't tell you any of the Power Rangers' names. I always thought they were just being irrational. An 8 year old girl can surely handle a PG rated movie! She's the exact audience target for this movie!

I'm watching it tonight as a 20 year old woman, and I think I'm beginning to understand why my parents hid that movie from me.

Matilda is much much more than a spunky 8 year old. She's a role model for the burgeoning feminist or youth activist. She puts Abbie Hoffman to shame. She gets us while we're young. She's an intelligent, articulate, powerful young woman. Those words don't go together in mass media. A young person rightfully opposing and changing an oppressive institution. A young person organizing other young people against the institution. A young woman leading this organization. A young woman who took complete agency and control over her education. A young woman utilizing the anger and oppression directed at her and, literally, turning it into amazing power. A young woman actively dismissing an oppressive and sexist family structure in favor of a single, independent mother in an established prowoman space. Matilda is a radical, radical chick. If that little 8 year old badass was real, and grew up, I have a feeling we'd have a full blown revolution right now.

Those are some intense values to be instilling in any 8 year old. I'm sure my parents wanted to hammer in "Always say Please and Thank You," or "Excuse yourself from the dinner table," before building a foundation for a radical political future. My parents are fantastic in their support of the choices that I make, but let's just say that I don't think they were looking at 8 year old me imagining I'd be an activist.

Every once in awhile the house would be empty, or my aunt would be babysitting, and I'd push a chair up to the cabinet where I knew they hid the Matilda VHS tape. I'd climb up the chair, grab the tape, wipe the dust off, and pop it in. Occasionally my parents would catch me, yell a bit, and hide the tape somewhere else (which I'd later find). But usually I'd get to watch it all the way through. I never really wanted to be Britney Spears, or Mandy Moore, are whatever us kids were into those days. But did I think it would be rad to be Matilda? Fuck yeah.

So here I am in college, just starting to find my way to the kind of activism Matilda embodied at 8 years old. Maybe my parents wish they hid Matilda a little better right now. Somehow I think they might be ok with it though. To be honest, and correct me if I'm wrong mom (I'm told she's started reading Ninjas), a little part of me thinks that maybe they wanted me to keep finding it each time. I just had to go through the trouble of looking. It's either that, or they were just really bad at hiding.

Toward the end of the movie, the Danny Devito voiceover says this:
"As bad as things were before, that's how good they became"

I think this is what I want most for all us feminists, radicals, activists, change-makers, whatever you want to identify yourself as. I think that's what I mean when I say I want social change.

(And did I pause while writing this article to dance around during the scene where Matilda makes breakfast with her powers?
...Yes. Yes I did.)


  1. Unfortunately i let my daughter watch this movie, thinking it was doing no harm. She watched it so much she believed she was Matilda, which is not so bad. It was when she started trying to make out that we were her evil parents that i had a problem.
    Everything we did was designed to beat her down and bully her, and she was so downtrodden and needed a savoir or some super powers to help.
    After talking to her repeatedly over it, we ended up banning the movies. She ended up having to get professional help who described what she had as 'princess syndrome' where she saw herself as a princess needing saving from all the bad people. She was not even 10 years old at the time and had depression over the perceived victimization of herself. Of course other children started to bully her at a similar time.
    Now days many years later and well into her teenage years she is mostly ok, but has her moments and has to realize that TV is exactly that, its not real. Hindsight is always a pain in the butt, but now we are a little more vigilant about how many times a movie or TV program is watched.

  2. I adored Matilda! I read the book when I was younger - Roald Dahl has just the most amazing imagination ever and each book it's like he opens the door and welcomes you in with open arms. (I'm reading Charlie and The Chocolate Factory to my foster son at the moment).

    I loved the film and I think we'd (me and my brother) boo at Matilda's dad when he's really mean and doesn't really care for her. That bit in the house when Matilda has to try and escape from Miss Trunchbull who's chasing her round the house - even now my heart leaps into my throat and wonders if she'll escape or not.

  3. It might interest you to know that I came to read your blog post because Mara Wilson's blog links to this article. ; )