Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Where the Wild Things Really Are: Winnicottian Reflections on the Film Beasts of the Southern Wild

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Where the Wild Things Really Are: Winnicottian Reflections on the Film Beasts of the Southern Wild

Article excerpt

If Max, of Sendak's (1963) Where the Wild Things Are, is the quintessential child of classical Freudian psychoanalysis, then Hushpuppy, the 6 year-old protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild (Gottwald et al., 2012), is the baby of current relational trauma theory.

Max had it easy. We're not quite sure what inspires him to don his wolf suit and "make mischief of one kind or another". Oral aggression? (He does threaten to eat his mother up.) Oedipal issues? Be that as it may, when Max is exiled to his room for bad behavior, he manufactures a fantasy in which he cavorts gleefully with his internal wild things, gains control over them, and ultimately decides to surrender the thrill of uncontrolled instinctual abandon for the security of home and family. He returns to his safe little room and finds his supper waiting for him and "It [is] still hot."

Max has the good fortune to be held, in a Winnicottian sense, in a safe, reliable environment that can survive his destructive rage (Winnicott, 1971). Max is able to use symbolic play to master the stresses and strains faced by any child as he navigates through the developmental waters leading to maturity. His imaginary boat trip to the land of the wild things takes place in a transitional space (Winnicott, 1951). With the security of an indestructible and containing environment bracketing his experience both before and after his voyage, it becomes safe for Max to venture into the world of fantasy play, and fantasy and reality remain clearly differentiated for the reader. We can assume that underlying Max's capacity for symbolic play is an ability to exist in the paradoxical intermediate zone that Winnicott called "transitional space". By this, Winnicott meant the ability to enjoy illusion and to contain the "doubleness" of fantasy and reality (1951).

Not so for little Hushpuppy, however. Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, who live "off the grid" somewhere in the vicinity (but not really) of New Orleans, in a sultry, swampy, isolated region that its residents call "The Bathtub".

Hushpuppy and her Daddy live in adjacent, squalid, rickety shacks precariously perched on what look like woodpiles atop patches of land that appear to have sprung from nowhere. They eat dead chickens pulled from a picnic cooler and cooked over an open fire. At one point, when Hushpuppy's father doesn't return when expected, she dons what appears to be an adult size welder's mask and gets a flame going on a decrepit stove with a blowtorch. Frying up a gelatinous, bubbling concoction of some sort of brown, meat-like product from a can, she dryly comments that, "If my daddy don't come home soon, I'm going to have to start eating my pets", referring to the dogs, pigs, and chickens running wild around their home.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Hushpuppy's mother has abandoned her and her father, although the circumstances of her mother's departure are vague. Her father tells her that her mother just "swam away". Unlike Freud's little grandson Ernst, who struggles with separation by repeatedly throwing away a symbol of his absent mother, saying "Fort!" ("gone!") and "Da!" (back!") (Freud, 1920, p. 14), Hushpuppy's abandonment is too huge, and her remaining parent too fragile, for her to master separation and loss in this typical childhood fashion.

Unlike Max and Ernst, Hushpuppy does not engage in symbolic play. Winnicott (1951, 2005) understood symbolic play as an achievement that grows out of the child's ability to exist in a transitional space, which requires the experience of a "good enough" mother-infant relationship. What makes the relationship 'good enough' is the mother's ability to hold the infant, with all the complex physical and psychological implications of that word. Intrinsic to Winnicott's notion of "holding" is the idea that the mother initially adapts to the baby's need by presenting herself in a way that allows the baby to have an experience of omnipotence. …

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