By Christopher Sheid
Like all provocative cinema, the 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” can be viewed through multiple interpretive lenses. It is at once a children’s fable, a cautionary tale about climate change, a nostalgic consideration of humanity’s innate connection to the environment, and a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a young girl’s awakening to the limits and impermanence of a world that she had previously assumed was whole and unchanging. The film’s mythic qualities are embodied by the presence of a boar-like, now-extinct prehistoric beast called an “auroch,” the resurrection of which is, at least in the imagination of six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, in an Oscar-nominated performance), precipitated by the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, the same phenomenon that is helping to flood the waterlogged spit of Louisiana land called “The Bathtub” on which she, her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), and their colorful collection of neighbors eke out a hardscrabble but independent existence. When a huge storm floods The Bathtub with saltwater, and as the reanimated aurochs make their way inexorably toward the Louisiana coast, Hushpuppy must accept and embrace her role in nature’s interconnected cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s film is rooted firmly in the traditions of myth and magical realism; as co-producer Michael Gottwald told National Geographic around the time of the movie’s release, “you won’t get very far if you interpret the film literally.” While Hushpuppy’s adventures may play out partly in the wonderland of her own imagination, however, the film establishes a solid connection between her fanciful perspectives and the real-world impact of poverty, climate change, and humankind’s shifting relationship to the natural world. It is the film’s depiction, in microcosm, of that relationship that positions “Beasts of the Southern Wild” as a powerful, if sometimes problematic, example of American popular culture’s embrace of what we shall call the “New Primitivism.”
“New Primitivism” can be defined generally as the nostalgic romanticizing of, and emulation or simulation of, skills, behaviors and lifestyle choices that historically have been attributed to native peoples or other marginalized groups of Americans (including African Americans, immigrants, and rural Southern whites) whose cultures once were derided as backward, animalistic and uncivilized. The popularity of this “return-to-nature” or primitive ideal can be seen in the last decade’s proliferation of cable-television reality shows dedicated to survivalist themes (“Survivor,“ “Man vs. Wild,” “American Tarzan”), hunting and fishing (“Duck Dynasty,” “River Monsters,”) and rural or wilderness living (“Alaskan Bush People,” “Swamp People”), the latter examples being part of a trend referred to by USA Today as “Redneck Reality TV,” and by the pop-culture website Buzzfeed as “hicksploitation.” In general, these shows celebrate the development and display of survivalist skills or, in the case of hicksploitation, the backwoods, back-to-basics existence and/or cultural idiosyncrasies of white, rural American men and women, many of them impoverished or presented as such on screen. More recent programs, most notably Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” take the competitive “Survivor” template to extremes and deposit contestants in dangerous bush, backcountry or rain-forest settings without supplies or clothing, thereby returning them to a distant, imagined past in which native peoples went about the business of daily survival with only sticks and stones (and no kind of apparel, apparently) at their disposal. This conception of native peoples and other marginalized ethnic cultural groups plainly reflects centuries of white European racist stereotyping; what is less clear is whether the surging popularity of these TV programs represents a new phase of that same cultural prejudice or a social reconsideration of the stereotypes themselves in more positive terms.
“With 45 million Americans living below the poverty line, are we supposed to laugh at these people, pity them, or relate to them?” asks Buzzfeed writer Ryan Broderick in his Oct. 27, 2014 article about the “hicksploitation” phenomenon. Of one of the genre’s most popular titles, which has since been canceled, he writes that it “seems like the only really outrageous thing about ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ was that TLC had the gall to a let poor family from Georgia show the rest of the country how they lived. American audiences gawked along at a family that hung out in garbage dumps and ate roadkill. Its first season was one of TLC’s highest-rated shows ever.” Broderick’s article addresses the academic suggestion, voiced by Anthony Harkins, author of Hillbilly: History of an American Icon, that “American pop culture becomes obsessed with rural hillbilly culture during moments of economic tension, and mass media rednecks help the American middle class blow off some steam and feel a little more secure….” This explanation presupposes a middle-class cultural prejudice that might suggest “hicksploitation” is a modern version of the historical minstrel show, featuring impoverished, uneducated white characters instead of grossly stereotyped black characters. But Broderick suggests these shows inspire more in their viewership than just “snarky irony.” The appeal, he writes, is “more complicated than just middle-class viewers gawking at the poor. There are just as many — if not more — viewers tuning in to see families that actually look like them depicted on television.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is directly relevant to this cultural question because it trades in longstanding racial stereotypes that, historically, have been used to render people of color and also some white Americans as less than fully civilized. These stereotypes often relate to food, hygiene, and the use of animal metaphors to demean alleged negative characteristics of ethnic groups. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” does not embrace these elements of characterization in a negative way, but their use nonetheless portrays the characters’ habits and lifestyle choices in terms that traditionally have been used to “otherize” ethnic groups and diminish their humanity. The presence of these stereotypes in “Beasts” can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience, but the filmmakers’ romanticized presentation of them – and how else would a six-year-old see her world, if not through the lens of wonder? – could be reasonably interpreted either as patronizing or empowering, depending on one’s sociopolitical predispositions. The same could be said of “Swamp People” or “Duck Dynasty.”
In “Beasts,” Wink, Hushpuppy, and their neighbors subsist in a sort of hunter-gatherer fashion on a subtropical atoll in the midst of a flooding estuary on the Louisiana coast. The Bathtub is presented as a kind of Adventureland, with playgrounds consisting not only of swamps and woods but of ramshackle dwellings and overgrown yards festooned with castoff appliances, vehicles, scrap metal, and assorted detritus. Hushpuppy seems content in this jumble of weeds and repurposed refuse, and the film is effective at communicating her sense of being at home in a cluttered and seemingly unsanitary hodgepodge of do-it-yourself civilization. The fantasy trappings and artistic presentation of this thoroughly convincing set design distract us from the uncomfortable reality that Hushpuppy, her father, and their neighbors exist more or less in a rural slum, living in conditions that appear unhygienic and potentially dangerous even before the saltwater invades. When public health officials order Bathtub residents to evacuate their homes, which have been flooded by the storm, Hushpuppy and her father see them as unwanted intruders – the enemy – and, despite knowing better, so does the audience. Later scenes in a hospital, where Wink is being treated for a debilitating disease (“My blood is eating itself,” he tells Hushpuppy), are invested with an atmosphere of alien menace that all but overwhelms Hushpuppy’s senses. When Wink, Hushpuppy and the other residents make their getaway from the hospital, it’s presented as a moment worth cheering for, despite all logic to the contrary.
So what can we make of this romanticized vision of rural squalor? There appears to be an argument here for cultural sensitivity toward impoverished people, and for admiration of their ability to adapt and thrive in the most challenging environments. Yet, the film’s dramatic presentation and defense of Hushpuppy’s “natural” surroundings recalls a common theme among the racial stereotypes that permeated 19th-century culture: that of the unwashed, unclean “Other.” As author Carl A. Zimring notes in his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, in “nineteenth-century constructions of race, white supremacists stained Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans with assumptions that their skin, bodies and behaviors were somehow dirtier than the skin, bodies, and behaviors of ‘white’ people.” This racist assumption formed the basis of white supremacists’ concerns about “race purity” and the need for separate social accommodations for people of color, according to Zimring. He also notes that the same pejorative references to dirt and supposedly unclean natures were “used against Jews, Slavs, Italians, Hungarians, and a host of people Americans now uncritically identify as being white.” Zimring might also have included rural Southern whites – so-called “hillbillies,” or “hicks,” to use Buzzfeed’s term – or Louisiana Cajuns, groups that have also been disparaged with stereotypes often used against people of color.
Residents of The Bathtub are both black and white, and appear to exist in an atmosphere of racial harmony. If they are marginalized as a group, it is because they eke out an impoverished existence from the compromised land and waters of an endangered environment, and because they are either unable or unwilling to live according to the habitability standards of modern society. The same observation could be made, to some degree, about the subjects of shows like “Swamp People”; the question for both is whether these portrayals are rooted in negative historic stereotypes or if they somehow transcend the offensive clichés to reflect a modern reassessment of previously denigrated or exaggerated character traits, values and lifestyle choices. As Roderick indicates in his Buzzfeed article, the answer may have as much to do with the viewer as with the artistic intentions of the creators.
In “Beasts,” the idea of embracing the “primitive” is illustrated most clearly in the film’s treatment of food. In one scene, a white neighbor is showing Hushpuppy how to use utensils to pick apart a freshly caught crab. This infuriates Wink, who orders Hushpuppy to “beast it.” Others take up the chant – “Beast it! Beast it!” So Hushpuppy pulls apart the shellfish with her hands, eating it in a manner that recalls countless scenes from jungle-adventure movies in which natives are depicted as uncivilized savages who devour uncooked, unclean food without the barest hint of table manners. Yet, one can imagine a similar kind of scene in any of the aforementioned Redneck Reality TV shows. The “Beasts” filmmakers seem to revel in this depiction of learned primal instinct in young Hushpuppy, and any negative audience response is an intellectual one, because the emotional impact is undeniably uplifting.
It is meant to be. The filmmakers see Hushpuppy and the beasts of the film’s title as analogous creatures representing the tenuous yet essential relationship between all creatures on Earth. It is Hushpuppy’s awakening to her place in the world, and to the power of her own inner beast, that forms the heroic quest of the film’s narrative. “At the beginning, Hushpuppy’s relationship with nature is that she’s a morsel of food that’s going to be consumed by a larger force,” explains producer Gottwald to National Geographic. “The only way she understands death is a big thing eating a smaller thing—the food chain. All the things that are bigger than her and that have created her are being consumed by things bigger than them—her father being consumed by his illness, her home being consumed by storms and floods and saltwater intrusion and land loss. That violent relationship is the way she begins her understanding of nature. But over the course of the film her view evolves into a more enlightened, complete view of nature as a flowing system—something in which everything has its place and everything plays its part. She comes to peace with it.”
And to peace with her own primal nature, it would seem. The film suggests that, contrary to centuries of stereotyped depictions of black people and other ethnic groups as uncivilized and bestial, there may be something noble and empowering, and even environmentally necessary, in embracing one’s natural heritage, and in doing so transforming the social limitations of negative stereotypes into the actualization of the higher and greater self. This is undoubtedly a grander thematic purpose than any Redneck Reality Show like “Swamp People” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” could lay claim to, but perhaps there is some kinship between them. Both seek to make heroes of marginalized persons through the celebration of the very characteristics that once were used to rob those groups of agency. In doing so, perhaps they give agency back to those viewers who see themselves in the characters that represent them, and who can take heart in the trials and triumphs of people very much like themselves.