As a supremely bookish child, I adored Matilda. Like Lisa Simpson, and later Rory Gilmore, she offered my younger, awkward and too-often-anxious self an example of a girl I not only recognised, but could aspire to be. Ferociously determined and fiercely intelligent, she pushed against expectations and bullies, guided by a profound, almost supernatural, sense of what was right. I would tie a hair ribbon in the style of Mara Wilson and set off to my local library every Saturday morning; though armed with a rucksack, rather than a wagon. Somewhat ironically, when I went to Matilda The Musical a few weeks ago, I was still wearing a rucksack – an incidental coherence (I’d been working on my laptop during the day and went straight to the theatre) which felt like a subtle rite of passage. Matilda, grown up.
The show itself is as brilliant as its reviews, and I left with the urge to both take my little cousins the very next day and find a way to distort time so that they would never have to grow up, never have to face school bullies or mean teachers or being misunderstood. The choreography is clever, the staging exceptionally intelligent – wooden letter blocks were used as steps, stools and spelling devices - and Tim Minchin’s lyrics display his characteristic genius. But one song in particular, ‘Naughty’, stood out. By ‘stood out’, I mean it was stuck in my head for days (a few weeks) and I listened to it on constant repeat, getting dressed, in the shower, on my commute.
After being locked in her bedroom for the insolence of reading, Matilda sings: “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. If you always take it on the chin and wear it, nothing will change. Even if you’re little you can do a lot – you mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you. If you sit around and let it get on top, you might as well be saying you think that it’s okay – and that’s not right. And if it’s not right, you have to put it right.” It’s an anthem which not only characterises the resilience and justness of the protagonist, but feels like a kind of rallying cry, to put it right.
A few days before seeing Matilda The Musical, I saw Rebecca Solnit in conversation with Bonnie Greer at the Southbank Centre, as part of a press tour for her newest collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions. Though some of the essays were first written years ago, they are characteristically, uncannily, pertinent. She meditates on the nature and force of silence, on sexual violence, on male culpability. The talk happened days after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and in the weeks since then, wave after wave of allegations, personal testimonies, anecdotes (and few-to-no confessions) of sexual assault have emerged.
While discussing the present state of things - about the overwhelming number of women who have endured, and kept silent about, sexual violence - Bonnie Greer (the fearless playwright, campaigner and original 1960s feminist) made a striking admission/ lament/ observation: We were there. We knew what was happening. We had it happen to us, yet we didn’t say anything. We didn’t stop it then, and now it’s still happening to the next generation. If these weeks of #metoo, the tides of heartwrenching anecdote and re-lived trauma, the frustrations and the shame, have shown anything, it is that we are the generation to stop this. We are the ones who can, will and are changing things.
Without wanting to minimise the seriousness of the current climate with a messy analogy, we have the potential to be the Matildas in an era seemingly dominated by Trunchbulls. Hence the digression: I couldn’t get ‘Naughty’ out of my head, I think, because it seems so specifically pertinent to what is happening now, to what women and girls are recognising and resisting and, shamefully, still enduring. In The Mother of All Questions, Solnit writes, “Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
To watch this tiny, talented girl totally own a stage, to see a little girl as the hero - bold, brave and bookish – this has influence. While drawing correspondence between a West End musical based on a children’s book and a the work of a feminist essayist may seem convoluted, both have cultural impact: both affect the way – specifically women – see themselves reflected in the world.
Both Matilda Wormwood and Rebecca Solnit fight to have their voices heard, fight to tell the stories of other women, fight for other women’s stories to be believed. That they are appealing to different demographics should not discredit one or the other: those little girls identifying with Matilda grow up and [hopefully] read the works of writers like Solnit, like Ijeomo Oluo and Roxanne Gay and Gloria Steinem. But the fact that a vast span of ages of girls and women are now mutually hearing the message that they have a voice, that they don’t have to accept silencing and injustice, is a kind of magic.