112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Resurgence of the Gothic as Mode: Autonomy, Abjection and Female Gendering in DeVito's Matilda

Alyssa Clark, San Diego State University

Adapted from the Dahl classic, Danny DeVito's film Matilda embraces the Gothic mode to critique American conceptions of gender. Matilda's exploration of inverted social norms, reclaimed gothic environments and satirical portrayal of American society culminate in an enlightening critique of the dangers of American gender oppression through an analysis of Agatha Trunchbull's characterization. 


Upon its debut in 1996, Danny Davito's film Matilda delights in the Gothic's ability to unleash culturally repressed anxieties, revealing not only the national fears of 1990's American subculture, but also attempting to answer the question of why the Gothic is enacted as a reoccurring tool for cultural expression throughout contemporary Childrens' texts. The Gothic genre has continusouly permeated throughout diverse cultural existences, reappearing to haunt individuals within the social whole, exposing respective national anxieties, fears and repressions, regardless of racial, class or cultural distinctions. Appropriations from Gothic studies and commonly regurgitated gothic stereotypes have transformed the Gothic into a cultural weapon, a living and breathing "other" used in both literature and the media to awaken national and individual sensibilities; especially in a time where numbness and conformity plague the adolescent journey. The return of the Gothic, regardless of temporal and topical issues, becomes a significant catalyst for igniting critical conversation and prompts the resurrected question: why is it that the Gothic constantly returns to Children's literature? Scholar Jerold Hogle attempts to understand this question of the longevity of the Gothic's existence, “as a major and by now long-lasting force in the production of Western culture and in the ways symbolic formations deal with conflicting beliefs and many other kinds of cultural anxiety. Now we are more regularly viewing ‘Gothic’ in various forms, from older ‘romances’, tragedies, and poems to short stories, films, paintings, revisionist novels, some forms of journalism, video games, and a growing volume of popular fiction...”(Hogle 17). Matilda proves to be a prime example of the use of Gothic as mode, presenting a social commentary on the heteronormative American family and the liminality of gender prescriptions through the film's dramatization of identity and exploration of repossessed gothic environments; not only revealing the victimization of the abjectly-marked villain Agatha Trunchbull, but exposing the harsh realities of female gendering within the patriarchal whole on a mcaro-social scale. Matilda's characterization of Agatha Trunchbull as the threatening female villain inevitably reveals larger American anxieties about the destabilization of the heteronormative patriarchy, as Agatha's journey throughout the film depicts the individual non-conforming female's struggle to assert her autonomy underneath political and social gender prescriptions of American society, and how ultimately, gender is used as a political tool by the privileged to maintain the status quo.  

Davito presents a chilling social commentary on the constant social ignorance towards these marginalized characters with his satirical happy-ending, demonstrating the detrimental ramifications from internalizing the “if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist” mentality. However, Davito forces us to render beings like Agatha not only as existing, but as the real victims in stories like Matilda. Moreover, Davito suggests that these questions not only exist, but are  in desperate need of answers: Will our society continue to remain quiet about the ongoing marginalization of Agatha, and women like her? Will we, as a nation, continue to enable this cyclical line of patriarchal gender oppression?