“You were born into a family that doesn’t always appreciate you, but one day things will be very different.”
Matilda is one of my favorite movies from my childhood in the 1990’s, but because there really are so many great movies from that time, it seems to be forgotten.
It was a movie my mother didn’t want me to watch. I was a sensitive kid and she was afraid that all the horrible things the parents said to Matilda would make me upset. At the time, it did affect me but I don’t think I truly grasped what the movie was implying, the way I can now as an adult.
“You’re a liar.”
“You’re a cheat.”
“You little twit.”
“What are you stupid?”
“Listen you little wise-acre, I’m smart. you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re little. I’m right you’re wrong! And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
As a nerd, it’s hard enough feeling like you’re different than everyone at school. It would be an especially difficult reality to face given that Matilda’s school was Crunchem Hall, ruled by the Principal, Ms. Trunchbull, who is a physically abusive, violent woman. Her personal motto is “Use the rod, beat the child.” However, Matilda hates her home so much, that she’d rather be at school.
Is it really any wonder that Matilda loved to read? To escape?
“Books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: you are not alone.”
While most parents would have been overjoyed that their child loved to read, Matilda’s parents were the bullies many of us faced at school.
“What do you want a book for? Why would you want to read when you have the television right in front of you? There’s nothing you can’t get from a book that you can’t get from a television faster,” her father laughs at her. Sneers at her. Kicks her books, rips them apart.
“I think there’s something wrong with that girl,” her mother says within easy earshot of her daughter.
Of course, the exact opposite was true – it was her parents and her principal that were the uneducated, emotionally disturbed bullies. Matilda was very much an abused child. Luckily, Danny DeVito (director), and the screenwriters found a way to show the violent acts as being mostly comical so it wasn’t too scary for children to watch. This is especially important because the message of this movie isn’t really for adults, it’s for children who feel stuck in a world that doesn’t appreciate them.
Matilda’s mental capabilities and her self-education gave her a literal power, a kind of telekinesis. “To unlock that power, all she had to do was practice.” Suggesting, that if child practice being confident, work hard in school, and take initiative, they will find their own kind of power and agency.
Unfortunately, most children don’t have magical powers nor are they geniuses, but they can study and take initiative. The movie also suggests that there is strength in numbers. When other children are picked on at school, Matilda encouraged them publicly.
“You can do it Bruce!” she screams at a public school assembly. The Trunchbull had dared Bruce Buggtrotter to finish a whole chocolate cake after falsely accusing him of stealing her own. The rest of the children, after seeing Matilda’s bravery in daring to speak out, standup and yells, “Bruce, Bruce, Bruce!” This gives him the courage to finish and scares the cowardly Principal into stammers.
“I thought grown-ups didn’t get scared?” Matilda inquires out loud.
“Quite the contrary. All grown-ups get scared, just like children,” Ms. Honey says.
“I wonder what Ms. Trunchbull is afraid of?” Matilda says.
Yes, to those abused children out there, adults are not gods. They do get afraid. Usually they hurt people because they are also hurt. What they fear is chaos and a lack of control. Because when they were abused, it was also random and unfair and unnecessarily hurtful. If the people they have control over can’t make connections, form patterns about the ways in which punishment may come, then they will always be afraid. They don’t want subordinates to be educated or confident and they don’t want them to form bonds with anyone who can help them. The movie tells kids what Matilda’s books tell her, “You are not alone.”
Ms. Honey tells her, “You were born into a family that doesn’t always appreciate you, but one day things will be different.” I think is an especially powerful message for any child, whether their family is abusive or their school or they just don’t fit in with their peers, because as a child, you have little control. You don’t get to pick your peers, your school, or your family. It is hard to be a kid. Everyone assumes children are too immature to make choices for themselves and that’s true, but they are not stupid. They do know what they do and do not like. They know when they’re not loved and appreciated and they carry that with them into adulthood.
We watch little, tiny Matilda “learn what most people learn by their early thirties, how to take care of herself. ” “As time went on, she developed a sense of style.” Here is this tiny human being who not only dresses herself but has clearly developed her own personality and tastes. We watch her walk by herself, several blocks away to the library. The fragileness and purity of her youth emphasized by the especially stocky people and semi-truck that stops behind her at a crosswalk. As a kid, I remember feeling blown away that this little girl could make her own pancakes and walk to the library by herself, under the age of 10. I’m not suggesting that children should use the stove by themselves or walk by themselves in public, but as a kid watching that movie, for the first time, it occurred to me that I could do these things by myself or could do them eventually. Sounds like a meaningless epiphany now, but to an eight year old, it was important. It felt empowering. It also set to me up to receive even more important message – that it was ok to question adults. Children might have to do what adults tell them, but that doesn’t always make the adults’ behavior “adult.” It doesn’t make it the “right” or the responsible behavior. The child can be obedient but decide that the actions of their parents are wrong, and decide that when they are adults, they will not do the same thing. They can choose to be better.
Matilda taught me, that anyone who makes you feel worthless as a human being, is not someone worthy of respect and it is ok to rebel against those people. Matilda taught me that no matter what these people tell you, you are not worthless and you are not powerless. I think this message was especially powerful coming from a girl. Rarely the main characters of movies and usually saved by someone else, Matilda defied those stereotypes. She was powerful because she was confident, did things for herself, and because she was smart, because she was a NERD. She was rewarded for doing many of the things women were historically told not to do, and I love this movie for that. The reward was something beautiful and sweet, something every person deserves:
“In the end Matilda and Ms. Honey each got what they had always wanted…a loving family.”