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The Raw, the Cooked, and the Scavenged
Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Dir. Ben Zeitlin, Cinereach/Journeyman Pictures, 93 mins.
Abstract: This article examines the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild in the light of intersectional feminism, specifically in terms of how scavenging, a key biological process, complicates the traditional concerns of environmentalism, critical race studies, feminism, and food politics. Using bell hooks’ reading of the film as a point of engagement, it advocates for more attention to scavenging in the conjoined discourses of contemporary ecocriticism and social justice movements.
Keywords: scavenging, animality, ecofeminism, intersectional feminisms, wetlands, Louisiana, critical race studies, Claude-Levi Strauss
The 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild contains a scene that has generated much commentary, along with occasional charges of racism. In it Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhane Wallis, is at a crab boil with her father and other residents of the Bathtub, a wetlands community based on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish. A man at the table begins to show Hushpuppy how to eat a crab—by opening the apron with a knife—when her father interrupts, commanding her to “Beast it.” She does. Rejecting the tool, she grabs the crab with both hands and tears it apart, using her teeth, rather than her fingers or a fork, to rip out the crab meat, while growling.
bell hooks singles out this scene as one of the film’s “most disturbing,” arguing that it demonstrates the brutality of Wink, her father; he shows affection towards his daughter “as a reward for her enactment of meaningless violence,” writes hooks, “especially when she mimics the behavior of a raging patriarchal male” (hooks). Finding it “a major mystery” that “moviegoers adore the film,” hooks concludes that its “pornographies of violence” are “hidden behind romantic evocations of mythic union and reunion with nature” (hooks). Her reading of the film as a conservative Gaiaesque celebration of capital N “Nature” is understandable, given Hushpuppy’s repeated references to herself as “a little piece of a big, big universe,” even without Zeitlin’s contention that his heroine “evolves” to understand nature as a “complete” and “flowing system, something in which everything has its place and everything plays its part” (Berlin).
The question of whether the environmentalism of the film is intrinsically, or accidentally, at odds with the anti-racist and feminist vision that hooks, among others, would prefer it convey, is worth considering. In contrast to hooks, I want to start by taking seriously the role of food in this film because both subjectivity and sustainability are mediated and even made possible through feeding practices and scenes of consumption. Catching, cooking, eating, feeding—as animal studies scholars from Carol Adams to Cary Wolfe have claimed—these are all gendered phenomena through which both gender roles and species distinctions are marked (Adams, Wolfe).
The “Beast it” episode is one of several feasts or famines that help to structure the film. Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with Hushpuppy feeding a baby bird, chickens, and pigs, followed by a crawfish boil, in which her teacher Bathsheeba announces what is in many ways one of the film’s crucial concerns: “Meat…meat…meat…every animal is made out of meat, everything’s part of the buffet of the universe.” Through her teacher’s words, Hushpuppy is interpellated into a worldview typical of a fragile food web. “Any day now,” says her teacher, “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled. The water’s gonna melt. Y’all better learn how to survive.” “Survival,” according to Hushpuppy’s father, means learning how to pull fish out of the water with one’s bare hands, rather than using a pole; tearing crab with one’s teeth, and never losing sight of one’s position as part of a threatened herd. “Strong animals,” says Hushpuppy, ”know when their hearts are weak. That makes them hungry, and they start coming.” If one adopts Wink’s perspective, the perspective of the film is similar to that of most post-Enlightenment maroon narratives, from Robinson Crusoe to Lord Jim: survival requires violence, and violence is masculine. “Show me them guns!” yells Wink, as they face the impending storm. When Hushpuppy displays violence, he promotes her a little way up the great chain of being: “You the man!” Only “babies” and “pussies,” he keeps reminding her, are afraid of the water.
If we move away from the stories the characters tell about themselves and focus instead on how the director, Benh Zeitlin, stages the scenes, we see a more nuanced perspective emerge. Beasts of the Southern Wild operates through an explicit series of contrasts, often conveyed in striking shots. Very early in the film, for example, before a word is spoken, we see Wink grab a raw chicken from the cooler and throw it on the grill. Juxtaposed to this scene is Hushpuppy’s own cooking practices, which require more complex mediations—the pots and pans that she inherited from her mother. For Levi-Strauss, this contrast between roasting and boiling is a structuring difference within many cultures, corresponding to “masculine” and “feminine” forms of food preparation. That Zeitlin’s filmic semiotics evoke Levi-Strauss is worth noting, particularly given his background. His parents, Steve Zeitlin and Amanda Dargan, are urban folklorists with advanced degrees in anthropology, founders of the highly respected City Lore organization in NYC. Smithsonian Magazine reports that the “exuberant crayfish boils” in the Beasts of the Southern Wild may be traced back to the feeding rituals known as the Summer and Winter games in Dargan’s rural South Carolina, home to the pig roasts and chicken chases that were the subject of Zeitlin’s college entrance essay (Smithsonian). Throughout the film, feeding practices shape identity, and in case we miss that point Zeitlin introduces us to an eccentric boat captain who, having eaten a fast-food chicken biscuit every single day, is surrounded by a mountain of wrappers whose “smell,” he explains, makes him “feel cohesive.” It is probably not a stretch, then, to conclude that the race and gender politics of a film based on a play “Juicy and Delicious” and featuring a child named after a fried food will be connected to a food economy, its food politics interacting with gender, race, and species in complex ways.
The nature of this economy and the ethical problems it presents become most apparent after the flood. An active agent in this film, water resembles the volcano in Werner Herzog’s La Soufriere, which Zeitlin said influenced him(Berlin). The post-Katrina Beasts is organized around a storm and the apocalyptic threat it poses to the freshwater ecosystem of the Bathtub. The director draws on his knowledge of Louisiana’s wetlands, which face erosion, silting, and ultimate destruction from many sources: climate change, saltwater intrusion, pollution run-off from the oil industries, coast damage from wide-scale dredging, growing nutria populations, and a general loss of animal habitat. The film figures these threats largely through a landscape strewn with industrial waste and ominous smokestacks in the distance; they are personified, however, by Hushpuppy’s vision of the oncoming aurochs, released from their icy graves by melting polar ice caps.
These mythical creatures—actually Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs wrapped in nutria fur and endowed with prosthetic horns—lead the film into the realm of magical realism, as products of the child’s imagination. Their release, journey, hunger, and illness allow Hushpuppy the opportunity to reflect on her own nature. “Strong animals,” she claims, after discovering her father’s hospitalization, “know when their hearts are weak. That makes them hungry, and they start coming.” While clearly the aurochs represent Hushpuppy’s fear of Wink’s impending death—my “blood,” he tells her, “is eating itself”—her translation of his disease into generalizations about “strong animals” lends the film an ontological and ethical weight that it otherwise might not have. After the storm, for example, the remaining residents are confounded by an influx of saltwater that quickly kills the fish and eventually the mammals they had hoped to eat until the water receded. Within two weeks, then, the flooded wetlands are filled with the floating carcasses of goats, chickens, and nutria. At this point, the trudging auroch herd appears in the Bathtub, some of them falling and being set upon by others, eating their own to stay alive. “Strong animals got no mercy,” says Hushpuppy. “They’re the type of animals who eat their own mammas and daddys.” What she’s describing through the aurochs is a scavenging rather than predatory society; most scavengers do not kill the animals they eat but, in the words of one research team, “rely on animal deaths due to malnutrition, disease, exposure, parasites, and accidents” (DeVault, et al. 226). Indeed, before hunting and domesticating live animals for food, humans competed with them for the carcasses of dead ones (Moleon, et al.).
I want to stay with this image of the scavenging Aurochs for a moment. We tend to think of Levi-Strauss’ food politics in terms of the “raw” and the “cooked,” but in the text by that name Levi Strauss makes the sometimes overlooked claim that while differences between the raw and the cooked structure one axis of presumably universal myths, those between the fresh and the decayed constitutes another (Levi-Strauss 3). And Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in Louisiana’s wetlands, derives much of its ethos and energy from images of decay--most notably the dead fish and goat carcasses that demonstrate the fragility of a wetlands ecosystem. Precisely because of this fragility, many wetland animals are scavengers. Blue crabs, for example, are omnivores and, while roaming the sea or marsh bottom, they eat plants and scavenge from carrion; if food becomes scarce, moreover, they, like the aurochs, quickly resort to cannibalism. Indeed, nearly all vertebrate predators are also scavengers to some extent: otters, herons, woodpeckers, ring-necked pheasants, and hippopotami all occasionally eat carrion (DeVault, et al. 225). From a scientific perspective, then, both “carrion” and “carrion eater” are highly unstable categories, intimately related to environmental stresses and conditions of food scarcity. The boundary between “scavenger” and “predator” is so unstable that even turkey buzzards have been known to turn predator under periods of environmental stress, when few animal carcasses are available for consumption.
We might reasonably expect scavenging to be a sensibility congenial to the residents of the Bathtub, with its marsh trawlers created from pick-up truck beds floating atop empty oil drums and driven by abandoned lawn mower engines. “We made the movie,” explains Zeitlin, “as if it were a collage or a junk sculpture. We invited chaos into the process.” This aesthetic, or politics, of bricolage—working with discarded objects that happen to be available—does not, tellingly, extend to feeding practices. While a hungry Hushpuppy is willing to eat leaves hanging from nearby trees, neither she nor her father ever considers plucking drowned creatures from the water and throwing them on the fire. Their unwillingness to do so points to the existence of implicit food rules, rules that the characters—if not their critics—seem to recognize and embrace. On the one hand, Hushpuppy rejects the feeding practices of the dryland, where “they got fish stuck in plastic wrappers and their babies stuck in carriages.” On the other hand, she refuses to eat carcasses in what she perceives as a state of decay, even though these animals may have been dead no longer than the steaming crabs piled high on the table. The attitude of the film towards carrion differs little, in one respect, from that of Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe’s European sensibility is reflected in his nauseated reaction to what he regards as the rotting hippo meat the Africans brought on ship. Uneaten carrion qualifies Bathsheeba’s earlier pronouncement that everywhere you turn is “meat,” that “everything’s part of the buffet of the universe.” Instead, carrion-eating is displaced onto the aurochs who, true scavengers, eat what they find.
That Hushpuppy both befriends and, in the end, dominates these ancient beasts, compelling them to bow down before her in a Disneyesque show of supplication, calls into question hooks’ contention that Beasts of the Southern Wild fails to exhibit an “us-against-them mentality when it comes to humans and nature.” hooks argues that the people in the Bathtub share a “complete celebration of their feral animal nature [that] binds everyone in a sacred contract: they are to resist domestication and civilization at all costs.” But Hushpuppy’s relationship to the animals around her, real and imaginary, cannot be characterized apart from the food web that mediates her experience of “nature” and “culture”; her Oddyssean journey ends, finally, with an awareness of her position at the top of a fragile food chain. “You’re my friend, kind of,” she says in a sentimentalizing gesture to the aurochs; they back away, as she goes with her fried catfish to help her father die. Like the women she meets on the riverboat, she counters his raw with her cooked, his violence with an act of mercy. At this point, she sheds the hypermasculinization that her father tries to inculcate in her. The formerly androgynous wild child comes into a “civilized” gendered identity, represented by the dangerous archaic creatures bowing outside her dying father’s door.
bell hooks may right that Beasts of the Southern Wild is indeed a relatively conservative film. Its conservativism, though, exists not only in its replication of strictly gendered beings, but in its depiction of “meat” as either something one kills or something one buys. In a film whose characters are so clearly devoted to the question of survival, and whose central character fries up cat food, the refusal to scavenge food must regarded as a choice. This choice marks the limits of the “animal” in this film or, more precisely, demarcates a clear species boundary, even if that boundary is expressed primarily in negative form: humans are the species that will not scavenge. This assumption is patently false, although scavenging studies have not received the same attention as those devoted to predation and agriculture. Far from being a “curiosity” of animal behavior, scavenging, scientists now realize, is a “key ecological process that must be accounted for” (DeVault, et al. 225). Thwarting any easy division between “culture” and “nature,” scavenging forces us to look more critically at our understandings of self and other, to confront more honestly our collective participation in an unsustainable and unethical food web dominated by the “raw” and the “cooked,” by $200 juicers, macrobiotic diets, organic beef farms, and endless exposure to food porn. Taking seriously the relationship between taste and waste means rethinking not only the human and the animal but the axis between the fresh and the decayed, between meat and carrion, between the edible and the inedible in ways that Beasts of the Southern Wild raises, but then consigns to an archaic past.
From an ecocritical perspective, we are all in some sense still citizens of the Bathtub, living in proximity to the trash, leftovers, discards, and the flotsam of culture—some 236 million tons produced annually in the United States alone—and struggling to determine what is, or should be, edible. In industrialized countries, wealthy people have moved garbage from the outskirts of towns, to landfills located in slums, and to towering mountains of trash shipped by barge to countries in the developing world. Given the polluting effects of so-called civilization, it is not surprising that a branch of environmentalism seeks to shift Levi-Strauss’ culinary triangle so that the people of North America reconsider their largely irrational responses to the “rotten,” a category no less historically conditioned than any other. Sandor Ellix Katz, of Tennessee’s Radical Faerie Community, joins other neo-punk food collectives in the world of fermentation, roadkill, carrion, and found meat (Katz). Freegans in particular advocate a scavenging lifestyle, largely in the form of dumpster-diving, rescuing and consuming barely expired food products from trash containers. While freegans are not necessarily vegan or even vegetarian, and may or may not be self-consciously feminist, their very existence exposes a blind spot in ecofeminism, which has long lead the way in arguing for an intrinsic relationship among food practices and broader conceptions of social justice. While ecofeminism might begin to consider the necessary, shifting, and unstable role of the “rotten” in our foodways, it has—for understandable reasons—focused almost exclusively on “moral veganism,” critiques of factory farming, anti-predation, and farm to table cuisine.48 This collective preoccupation with the raw and the cooked is part of a social agreement by which “culture” is associated with increasing levels of food preparation. As blogger Sarah Davis writes, “Our social agreements generally dictate that things (food, people, ideas) that are raw are also incomplete, and things that are rotten must be discarded.” Yet the triangle with culture and the cooked at its apex might be inverted, or turned on its side. “But suppose,” Davis asks, “you don’t agree with the elevation of culture to the top of this hierarchy? Suppose you consider modern society to have a polluting rather than civilizing effect?”
Beasts of the Southern Wild offers a glimpse into this third point on Levi-Strauss’ culinary triangle, but only a glimpse. It is usefully paired with Zai Batmanglij’s 2013 eco-thriller, The East—also filmed in South Louisiana—that features veganish anarchists of several races banded to combat international corporate violence against the land and people. Both films, albeit in completely different ways, begin from the position of environmental stress, if not near-apocalypse, and explore more or less radical ways of humans challenging the limits of acculturation, perhaps even going feral. While neither deals directly with the question of animal rights, both throw us into a liminal moral space and raise hard questions: if being “cultured” means leaving behind us mountains of bones and rivers of chemicals, stinking signs of civilization, how can we live? How can we eat in ways that let us sleep? bell hooks rightly argues that we need feminism. Developing a nose for the rotten, however, may also help us get out of here alive.
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“Beasts of the Southern Wild: The Auroch-Nutria Connection.” 29 June 2012. Web. 17 May 2014.