You read that correctly. It is this writer’s view that Matilda, the 1996 superhero film (based on the story by Roald Dahl) about a young girl whose parents don’t care for her very much, is, in fact, a charming example of leftist media.
The political underpinnings of Matilda are plain as day. An examination of the unjust nature of hierarchical social organizations, a rebuke of the federal government’s ability to infringe on constitutional rights, a nuanced jab at anti-intellecutualism, and (of course) a complete critique of capitalism are some of the myriad left-leaning dalliances of the beloved family film.
One can forgive the casual viewer for seeing simply a quirky morality tale colored by fun performances, wacky set-pieces, and crash zooms enough for a lifetime. And if you take in this Danny DeVito directed (I know, right?) daydream and take away no political conclusions, you’ve not watched the film incorrectly or anything. It is a complete and entertaining piece of work that brilliantly juggles fantasy fun with some truly solemn beats.
But inside those solemn beats, when the movie takes just a little time to ask narrative questions about power dynamics and the roles we play in each other’s lives, there can be found a wellspring of progressive thought and reason.
The most striking example of this is the B-plot involving Matilda’s doting teacher, Miss Honey. Honey, we learn, is also trapped under the oppressive thumb of the film’s villain, Trunchbull. It turns out that Honey has been mistreated by Trunchbull, secretly her evil aunt, since childhood and is still bullied by her, frightened out of action at every turn until Matilda arrives and inspires her to rebel. Miss Honey’s dire anxiety and desperation is brought on by Trunchbull exercising authority and threat of physical violence against her, utilizing at first the legal system of guardianship and then her power as the principal of the school Miss Honey teaches at.
Trunchbull gains and gains power over decades despite (or maybe because of) her total lack of empathy for others. And Honey, a perpetually kind and compassionate woman, is kept subservient to this hateful person as a result of the systems that prioritize Trunchbull’s strength and cruelty over any amount of intelligence or empathy. This is a cornerstone of progressive critique of capitalism: the idea that capitalism rewards oppressive and unfair hierarchies and punishes individuals who act empathetically in the interest of others. After all, Trunchbull must be the best choice for a leader and authority figure, she produces results, traumatized children or not. And surely Miss Honey, who operates without scarring children for life, doesn’t produce similar results without the use of violence and fear-mongering?
One recurring feature of Matilda’s life is tied to this appeal to strength and its resulting authority. Both Trunchbull and Matilda’s father justify taking terrible and immoral actions by telling her “I’m big and you’re small, which makes me right and you wrong.”
This ‘might makes right’ approach is fundamental to right-leaning ideology and is shown for just how ridiculous it truly is. The audience knows that Matilda is right, that her father shouldn’t sell junk cars that are glued together, that Trunchbull shouldn’t torture children for laughing, and that being bigger that someone else doesn’t make your point of view more valuable. More importantly, “I’m big” is not an argument. It’s barely a statement. So when one allies this framework to real-world happenings like wealth-hoarding or the wage gap, it’s easy to boil the pro-billionaire crowd’s and the wage gap truthers’ arguments down to “I’m big and you’re small”. Why should a billionaire sit on money that they didn’t earn and could never spend entirely instead of distributing it to those in desperate need of fundamental change and support? Because they can. Why do men make more money for the same work as women? Because they can.
And Matilda makes the conclusion here very simple to arrive at: that’s wrong. In fact, the moral action to take is often unarguable and that’s why those in power appeal to authority and strength rather than anything substantial or meaningful.
Finally, the 1996 film Matilda makes a solid argument for armed (if gentle) revolution against powerful right-leaning structures.
When Trunchbull snaps and is finally prepared to fully and completely enact fascist justice upon those who have challenged her, Matilda wastes no time inciting a revolt. Food and water balloons are thrown, Trunchbull is violently rattled by psychic throttling, and the students unite against their oppressor, removing her permanently from their school and humiliating her in the process. Notably, the students do not use Trunchbull’s own systems of power allocation to remove her. Obviously, trying to do so would result in her acquittal and perhaps acquisition of even more power. The students do not sing her out of the school, they don’t pray her away, they don’t make impassioned speeches until her mind is changed. They make their school a place that she cannot psychologically survive in. That’s how oppression is fought and defeated.
This writer would honestly recommend Matilda as a gentle and fun introduction to progressive thought. It serves very well as a lens through which to examine the problems with unethical hierarchies and might-makes-right ideology, as well as a crash course in effective protest. It’s also a film with a lot of heart and personality carried by great performances and a passion for curiosity and compassion.
-Quick aside at the end-
The 2010 Matilda the Musical by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin reinforces and transforms these themes with songs like ‘Naughty’ and ‘Revolting Children’ that directly allude to Matilda’s need to challenge those in power around her and the necessity of empowered protest. It’s a great show, well performed, and rife with anti-establishment theming!