Man or Beast?: Revisiting the White Male Gaze

By Andreana Clay
Originally Posted on Queer Black Feminsist 

“I’m the man!” the little girl screamed at her father in a climatic scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild, a new film by Behn Zeitlin.  My dear friend Holly and I checked it out tonight in downtown SF. It’s a film I’ve been wanting to check out for a while. And, it did not entirely disappoint. In fact, it did something else.

Beasts made me sick, literally. This has happened to me once before, because of the way the film is shot and our proximity to the front of the crowded theater, I became nauseous and had to run to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details because it wasn’t pretty, but it was a nice break from the dizziness. Not just from the camera work, but also the storyline and overall flow of the film. I don’t want to imply that it wasn’t good. There were great things about it. For instance, Quvenzhane Wallis, the young woman who plays Hushpuppy, is breathtaking. In a word. Her voice, stories, screams, and strength infect every inch of this film, which was the the intent, as narrators often do. But, Wallis goes beyond this. You feel everything–every word she utters, every adventure she embarks upon, and her extreme isolation, relaying that she can count the times she’s been held in her short life on two fingers.  If I could stomach it, I would watch this film over and over again just to see her. She is devastating. I don’t care if she never acts in another movie again, this was it. The same is true of Dwight Henry, who plays her father. He’s stunning.

So what was it, aside from the camera angles, that made me sick? Nothing, really. It just felt uneven, rushed, and, as its touted, fantastical. This film is loosely based on Lucy Alibar’s play, Juicy and Delicious, which I know little about, but it also–given it’s story location in the Southern Delta and Zeitlin’s love for New Orleans–is reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the similarities, the fantasy/magical element of the end of the world feels off to me. I don’t know that Katrina is far enough “behind us” to make this kind of movie–one that touches upon, but doesn’t really delve into the “truth.” I won’t give away spoilers, but I think it’s difficult to make a fantasy movie about a natural (and social/cultural) disaster that most of us haven’t seen the full scale of. Many of us have put out of our mind the flood victims, mostly Black, who were forced to leave their home city and still haven’t returned, lost their homes to flood damage and “lost paperwork,” and lost their lives due to a slow moving federal response. Remember Kanye’s (he’s mentioned way too much on this blog) George Bush doesn’t care about Black people comment? That was true.

But, that’s not really the case here, or at least that’s not what troubles me about the movie. The Black folks, though ‘magical’ at times, are the most interesting characters. It’s the white people in the film that tweaked me a bit. They are effectively “poor white trash.” The lines the white characters are given and their overall buffoonery–one guy is so drunk/disheveled that he opens the door of his house, doesn’t realize there are no steps and walks right into the water. It’s supposed to be a kind of funny, sweet and sympathetic scene, I think. But then we get inside his “house,” and his large, female counterpart (wife?) is passed out under the table, wakes up, and says something about “trying to touch my titties.” Outside of Hushpuppy–can’t stand these kinds of nicknames for little Black girls and there is no context as to why this is her name, more of the fantasy–all of the characters feel one dimensional. I think her character may have been written one-dimensionally, but her acting transcends it. In any case, there’s something about her magical quality, her strength that feels half written and insincere against a backdrop of bumbling, incompetent, but kind of lovable, poor white people.The distancing that had to/has to happen in order to portray those characters in that way demonstrates a false alignment with our heroine. And it’s an alignment, a solidarity that’s necessary to make this movie believable.

Benh Zeitlin is a white male filmmaker–as are most that gain attention–and I don’t fault him for that. He (and Alibar) have created one of the most beautiful Black characters to come along in a while. However, the portrayal of white people in the film represents a distancing between his whiteness and theirs that allows his privilege, his gaze to remain invisible. He is not a part of them.  It’s not like the white people are racist in the film, which we collectively assume to be true when we view white + Southern, they’re just poor. And poverty, as a state, is something that it looks like he knows little about. Or he has constructed it in some way that he hopes filmgoers will go along with. But, it’s a representation that strips them of their humanity. And how is stripping the white people of their humanity when you’re trying demonstrate the super humanity of a Black girl whose mother deserted her and her father (which felt very Disney/Pixar, I must say and whose truncated body was sexualized in ways that didn’t go outside of the gaze whatsoever)? What does it say when the only other white people in the film are officials who force their way into people’s homes, try to break up families, and hold down the violent Black male body? Hushpuppy’s strength comes with much sacrifice, which is a story that gets told over and over again about Black women.  But, in the end, she’s ok, she’ll be ok. Like all the others. That’s troubling to me in this current moment of openly celebrating the white male gaze.

Or, really, the white male.

If you follow this blog, you know that I watch a good chunk of TV. And I’m currently gearing up for Sunday night’s premiere of Breaking Bad (unless my DirectTV scrambles AMC, which will make me go all Walter White on folks). I also watch and am a fan of Mad Men. Both of these shows are in total celebration of all things white, male, and heterosexual.

So, what’s the problem? 1) All of the people that are killed or evil onBreaking Bad are people of color, mostly Mexican with one or two other Latinos thrown in for good measure. Walter White gets away with murder (literally) every season. He’s ruthless and, as the story goes, will do whatever it takes and whatever white guys are supposed to do, to protect his family. 2) Don Draper on Mad Men doesn’t trust women whatsoever, makes angels out of some and “whores” out of others as do all of the male characters on the show. This was explicitly the case this season when Joan and Peggy played both roles literally and figuratively by “betraying” his idea of them. I’d say this was all nostalgia or more fantasy, if it wasn’t coupled with Daniel Tosh’s recent “rape jokes,” George Zimmerman’s second release from jail, and the “beast or man” comments made about Serena Williams and Brittney Griner this week. A celebration. An all out arrogance.

While Beasts doesn’t exactly celebrate, it doesn’t feel in solidarity either. It feels defeatist. That’s the uneasy feeling it left me with. But there are scenes from the movie that will stay with me for a long time. Unfortunately, some of the scenes are the disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised.

moyazb

moyabailey.com

19 thoughts on “Man or Beast?: Revisiting the White Male Gaze

  1. “And how is stripping the white people of their humanity when you’re trying demonstrate the super humanity of a Black girl whose mother deserted her and her father (which felt very Disney/Pixar, I must say and whose truncated body was sexualized in ways that didn’t go outside of the gaze whatsoever)?”

    this sentence structure confused me

    are there words missing perhaps?

    • there are missing words, it should be “And how is stripping the white people of their humanity OK when you’re trying TO demonstrate the super humanity…thaanks!

      • that happens with writers. sometimes the words come faster than your hand can type or write. but we recognize it in each other. at least i do.

  2. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there, Andreana. My bar was set pretty low going into BSW pretty much along the lines of your conclusions, but somewhere around Little Miss Wallis flexing her muscles and Mr Henry being a multi-dimensional (I thought) black man on screen, I was just like, “Aw, fuck it: I love this movie.” It did feel like the filmmakers tried to do a whole lot (too much?) in their span of time, but if I’m reading the press correctly the film was largely made by a collective of filmmakers. I can understand, in the face of Big Hollywood budgets, just going for broke and making a film as if you’d never get to make another one.

    I disagree about Walter White, though: he stopped actually caring about his family a while ago. Now he’s all about him with the facade of protecting his family. But then, perhaps that’s the purpose of the nuclear family in patriarchy?

    • I’m with you on this. I am so incredibly impressed by these two White people (Zeitlin and Alibar) creating Black characters that didn’t make me feel gross, or seem to me as if they were exploiting them, (also that, so far, neither of them is demanding that we recognize them for that) that I I’ll admit to likely overlooking some other things. “Aw, fuck it: I love this movie.” Yup.

      • I also loved the movie. It was not unlike Eve’s Bayou or a Gloria Naylor book with its lyrical, dream-like, deconstructed narrative. I have to say I think the notion of the white filmmakers drawing a line between themselves and the white characters in the film rings like over-reaching to me. The characters weren’t buffoonish. They were, indeed, poor — so was everyone in the film; so, too, is a large segment of the actual NO population. Perhaps I don’t see being poor as a stigma. So what there are poor people? The issue isn’t that some people lack material wealth but what we make that lack of material wealth mean in our society…which, by the way, was some of the point of the film. The violence of the state in forcing “help” on poor people who did not experience their poverty as something in need of remediation was one of the most moving parts of the film (beyond Hushpuppy, of course).

        Rarely have I seen such an unapologetic, glorified portrayal of complex blackness (and gender! We don’t talk about that) on film. I rather don’t care if those who produces such a product are white. If Tyler Perry can exist then I think this product can, too.

  3. I too came in with no expectations and I loved film. We’ve NEVER seen a character like Hushpuppy before. Quvenzhane Wallis tore that role up! There are so many magical realism stories with POC that don’t get told (When is Hollywood going to put Parable of the Sower on the big screen?).

    This story for me was about the tension/struggle between order and chaos, the process of overcoming primal fear (the beasts, death, aloneness) and survival.

    I agree the white characters were a little Johnny-one-note but I thought they were supposed to function as “Bathtub” band of misfit props. The only characters that mattered in this story were Hushpuppy and Wink (even the unseen mother was a figment of Hushpuppy’s imagination). I don’t understand the line you draw between the film maker’s whiteness and the white characters in the film. Do you know his story? I thought this was his first film. This seems like an awfully presumptuous thing to say (but we’re all entitled to our opinions).

    I just loved the film — it was poetry. The way the film was shot combined with sitting too close to the screen (our theater was packed) made my wife sick too:-/

  4. Reblogged this on tressiemc and commented:
    Talk about something I could not disagree with more! If you follow me on Twitter it is no secret that I was deeply affected by this film. Clay’s review is evidence that we are, indeed, not a monolith. :)

    I also loved the movie. It was not unlike Eve’s Bayou or a Gloria Naylor book with its lyrical, dream-like, deconstructed narrative. I have to say I think the notion of the white filmmakers drawing a line between themselves and the white characters in the film rings like over-reaching to me. The characters weren’t buffoonish. They were, indeed, poor — so was everyone in the film; so, too, is a large segment of the actual NO population. Perhaps I don’t see being poor as a stigma. So what there are poor people? The issue isn’t that some people lack material wealth but what we make that lack of material wealth mean in our society…which, by the way, was some of the point of the film. The violence of the state in forcing “help” on poor people who did not experience their poverty as something in need of remediation was one of the most moving parts of the film (beyond Hushpuppy, of course).

    Rarely have I seen such an unapologetic, glorified portrayal of complex blackness (and gender! We don’t talk about that) on film. I rather don’t care if those who produces such a product are white. If Tyler Perry can exist then I think this product can, too.

    • Thanks for the dialogue, difference in reading, all. Not to defend my post, but to clarify: I don’t see poor as a stigma. I was troubled by the portrayal of white + poor in this movie, which is most often represented as poor, white, “trash” which does carry a stigma in this society and which I think is an over-relied upon trope–poor white people, though not necessarily the focus of the film, are never portrayed as complex characters on (film, television) screen. It’s usually represented as separate from “whiteness,” which is where I see the distancing.

    • and the film was actually not set in New Orleans-it was set in the outlying bayou parishes. This region is actually in a much worse economic condition then the city of New Orleans (as shitty and exploitative as they are, at least we get tourism dollars-these areas don’t even get that and are stilling recovering from Katrina, Rita, and the BP oilspill), which reflects a reality of lot of rural communities across the nation and the invisibility in our analyses that lot of rural areas face. so if you are going to have a conversation about socio-economic status of people in the Deep South, please have it with a little more nuance and please be geographically accurate. Im saying this as a 6th generation New Orleanian and proud Southerner.

  5. Hopelessness and presenting a tragedy are flavors which allow someone off the hook from feeling a need to strive or sacrifice for change…
    It presents a sad scenario where fierceness in buoying up the sacred or precious in a stricken situation in Life is futile.
    (Many people still refer to Native America in the past-tense…and if Pow Wow Highway and Smoke Signals had capitalized on that hopelessness, they might have won some different accolades…but would have slighted all the Ancestors and contemporary folks who have fought and sacrificed and laughed and cried and continued…so that milliions of Native folks survive and even thrive today.)
    As a mostly Celtic partly Native man; I appreciate your insights in this particular entry especially…and your care not to make dehumanizing generalizations.

  6. As a Black male sitting and watching this film, I couldn’t help but be troubled by it as well. I agree the young girl “hushpuppy” was captivating but the rest of the film left me “sick” as well,. It was an aggressive movie, sexist and abusive. I wanted to find someplace in the film for me to root for and I could not situate a place because it was scene after scene of abuse, neglect, and hopelessness.

    • THANK YOU, david smith. i was beginning to feel like a lone wolf in my deep dislike of this film. sure, some elements were well-done (esp. quvenzhane wallis’ acting), but i came to hate it at the same time that sapphire sister (a respondent above) came to love it. being poor certainly isn’t a stgma, but it shouldn’t render people to living in animalistic brutalism. and what was up with the pig-like aurochs?? anyhoo…

  7. Pingback: Tuesday Teasers: Stuff I’ve Been Reading #13 - The Pursuit of Harpyness

  8. This review is largely off base.

    First of all, you suggest that certain characters in Beasts are portrayed as “magical negros.” That term is used to describe black characters who come to the aid of white characters, often with special insight or powers. A black super hero is not a “magical negro.” Likewise, the black characters in Beasts may have enhanced abilities, but those abilities are not designed to help white people. It doesn’t apply in this case.

    Second, I don’t agree that the white people were stripped of their humanity. I thought they (and all of the characters, regardless of race) were full of humanness. You mention the “poor white trash” couple and the authority doctor/police characters, who are white, but you fail to mention the boat captain, who comes to the aid of Hushpuppy on her journey, and two of Hushpuppy’s young female travel companions. You can’t talk about the way white people are depicted in this movie without talking about these characters, and they don’t fit on your trash/authority spectrum. Your argument that the filmmaker is trying to distance his whiteness from other types of whiteness is a stretch, and it’s unfair for you to criticize him for some of those characters being outside of his (perceived) socioeconomic class. I think he does a fair job navigating the class structure that exists in our society.

    Third, this review is supposed to be about the male gaze, but I don’t think you construct an argument for how it applies here, unless the argument is simply that this movie was made by a male.

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