From the author: Revisiting the film Matilda as someone who grew up to be the Trunchbull. This piece was originally published as a post on Medium in 2016.
At the climax of Matilda (1996), when the students of Crunchem Hall finally revolt against Pam Ferris’s iconic villainess, the narrator declares that “the Trunchbull was gone: never to be seen or heard from, never to darken a doorway again.” And she does simply drive out of the film, defeated and crammed into an old clunker. It’s a strangely anticlimactic exit for such a bombastic villain.
The film is, of course, based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. Like every white man enshrined in the western consciousness as a kind of beloved uncle, Roald Dahl was a bigoted creep. His Oompa-Loompas were originally “black pygmies.” He was infamously antisemitic. And so forth. That isn’t what this post is about. Dahl’s creepery is old news. Everyone knows about it. We tend to do the same thing with him that we do for the likes of Rudyard Kipling and H.P. Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis: We dutifully list his sins and then we cheerfully brush them aside so that we can keep on adulating him, or at least so that we can enjoy his work without feeling conflicted and without thinking too hard about it.
This post is, instead, about something that’s been kicking around in my brain for years. The 20th anniversary of Matilda’s release seems like an apt time to finally write about it.
I was 7 when Matilda came out and my family went to see it in the theater. I loved it immediately. On one level I readily identified with the protagonist: I was a bookish and lonely little girl. I read voraciously and schoolwork came so easily that I was constantly restless, but my social development lagged. I felt alienated both from my peers and from adults, unsure of my place in the world. Naturally I felt validated by Matilda’s triumph, as so many girls of my generation have felt.
There is a superficially “feminist” reading that one can ascribe to the film. When I was growing up, fantastical stories about child-heroes were usually about boys. The first book in the Harry Potter series would be published a year after Matilda was released, and it would re-solidify the archetype of the magical child-hero as quintessentially male. Boys were, and are, allowed to have grand, awe-inspiring adventures. They were allowed to slay monsters and to uncover terrible mysteries. Popular fiction about girls tended to be more grounded in reality, and was often smaller in scope and with lower stakes. As a child I was so utterly bored by most of the available media that featured girl protagonists.
The most notable exceptions to the trend of the boy-hero in children’s fantasy were Dorothy Gale of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Matilda herself, as portrayed both in Dahl’s original text and in the film (which is almost a moment-for-moment retelling of the book), is reminiscent of both Dorothy and Alice. She is thrust (by virtue of being born and by existing as a child) into a nightmarish world where she must prevail against a child-killing–or at least child-hating–villainess. In Entertainment Weekly’s review of the film, Ty Burr even declared that the Trunchbull is “maybe the most frightening movie villainess since Margaret Hamilton slathered on the green paint for The Wizard of Oz.“ Certainly the Trunchbull is also reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts: she is oversized, “mannish,” and loud, and ironically childlike in her emotional volatility.
In Matilda, the real world of home and school becomes a dreamlike otherworld through the eyes of its child protagonist and the eyes of child viewers. Upon discovering her fantastic powers, the protagonist is called to a kind of quest. She liberates herself and her comrades from the tyranny of the monstrous headmistress, and she lives happily ever after. On the surface, she seems to defy stereotypes about what girls should be like and care about.
But, in addition to whatever other prejudices the man harbored, a deep, ugly misogyny also permeates Roald Dahl’s work, including his books for children. Matilda is, on another level, precisely a story about what girls and women ought–and ought not–to be.
In the novel, size is a prominent marker of appropriate femininity. Matilda’s smallness is emphasized in contrast with her fat mother and with the massive Trunchbull. Miss Honey, the other “good woman” in the text, is similarly small and quiet, again in contrast with the loud, active Trunchbull. Matilda’s powers manifest as telekinesis: she acts literally through her mind and with invisible influence, yet again in contrast with the distinctly physical Trunchbull. Miss Honey lives in a kind of arrested state of development, a sort of perpetual girlhood, and at the end of the story Matilda joins her there, ending up as neither a vapid housewife nor a grotesque spinster. The message seems to be that the only good way to be a woman is to avoid becoming a woman at all. Instead, the ideal performance of femininity is to remain an eternal girl: small, and sweet, and still. Nurturing without being a mother, pure without being a prude. Most of this was carried over into the film. The Trunchbull definitely embodies everything that women are not supposed to be. The spinster is a well-worn villainess archetype and Agatha Trunchbull is basically a spinster on steroids. Literally, almost: she has all the drabness and severity of any bitter schoolmistress, combined with the bulk and power of an Olympic shot put thrower. In the popular consciousness all spinsters are implicit man-haters (recall the line “Why are all these women married?!”) and suspected lesbians. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to declare that the Trunchbull is one of the most prominent and influential representations of a butch lesbian in popular media.
My own 7 year old self was a lonely bookworm, as I’ve already described. But I was also a “tomboy.” I was (and am) loud and aggressive. I was rough-and-tumble, I was awkward and large. I had less than zero interest in boys, I was losing interest in other things that girls are “supposed” to care about, and I often had a difficult time relating to other girls.
Watching Matilda as a child, I saw myself in Matilda but I also saw myself in the Trunchbull. The narrative drew a firm line between the girl and the monster, but I was both.
Twenty years after the film’s release, the Trunchbull still casts a long shadow across children’s fiction. I don’t think that children’s media has budged much from consistently representing big, gruff, aggressive, “mannish” women as the natural enemies of children. The portrayal of Bismuth, and the wan redemption arc granted to Jasper, in the children's TV series Steven Universe stand out as stark exceptions to this general rule.
The Trunchbull has also cast a shadow over my own self-image. I never grew out of my tomboyishness into some acceptable expression of femininity. Despite the film’s warning, I did become the Trunchbull, and I’m still trying to understand what that means.
Over-identification with monsters and villains is a common experience of LGBT people. Sometimes I feel like that’s the only thing my close friends and I ever really talk about: being, or feeling like, or otherwise relating to monsters. I recall one conversation with my friend Julian K. Jarboe in which we specifically discussed the portrayal of butch or “mannish” women in fiction. As much as figures like the Trunchbull are meant to be repulsive, I confessed, I often wish that I really were huge and scary and physically powerful. “We want to become the monsters that they say we are,” my friend replied. I think that’s a great way to put it. If people are going to hear “butch” and envision the Trunchbull, couldn’t I at least actually be that? If I could pick up a car maybe that would feel like some kind of consolation.
Queer and queer-coded villains have become aspirational figures in this defiant sort of way, or at least a source of something like pride or identity. Like mascots. I mean, despite everything I’ve described, I still like the Trunchbull. I still enjoy Matilda as a film. But, recently, I’ve started to wonder just how much I might have internalized the story’s message about gender. Maybe that’s why I’m so deeply uncertain of my own womanhood. I didn’t turn out like Miss Honey. I became the very thing that I was told not to become. I did girlhood wrong, so am I even allowed to be a woman?
I’m left with all of that uncertainty and ambivalence. Even as, again, I can rewatch Matilda and enjoy it.
It’s easy to see why the film has endured. It is ugly and frightening in just the right ways. It strikes a certain darkly fantastic tone that is a hallmark of the early to mid-90′s, and yet it also seems timeless. It is impossible to say what decade the film is supposed to be set in. There are plenty of trappings and tropes that specifically evoke the 90′s, but the Wormwoods and their house look like caricatures out of the 1960′s. Despite all the Americanization, the Trunchbull herself is still a British schoolmarm who "looks like she stepped out of the 1930′s," as Julian put it during one of our conversations.
As long as children feel like strangers and underdogs in a world created by adults, the story’s central conflict will also remain timeless. So we’ll find ourselves revisiting Matilda forever.
Maybe the film’s ending isn’t so much of a let-down. Maybe it’s satisfyingly unsatisfying. Like all the best monsters, the Trunchbull is still out there somewhere. She’s left to lurk, to cast her shadow. Thinking about that long, cold shadow, I just hope that we can start telling some new stories too.