Daring to diss Matilda is about as terrifying as criticising Beyonce or One Direction; either move puts you at risk of being attacked by an army of full grown women who wouldn’t hesitate to rip off your face. So it is with serious hesitation that I’m writing this: I think Matilda is just a little bit…horribly sexist.
It’s not that I don’t adore it. As a precocious and friendless child, I turned to Matilda as my only companion. It’s amazing how many young girls say that Matilda helped them through getting bullied or feeling worthless; I even used to sign my diary as Matilda Wormwood.
Importantly, Matilda has been an amazing inspiration for so many young girls. In many ways, she’s a great feminist role model. She proves her parents wrong when they tell her girls can’t be clever; she outwits all the men in her family; she never feels she has to hide her intelligence to fit in. I’m always going to thank Matilda for helping so many of us realise that we can be clever, that we can be strong, that we can be brave. But it’s about time we faced up to the unfortunate sexism that, sadly, makes up a large part of this beloved book.
1. Only men can be powerful and nice
Miss Trunchbull is the most powerful woman in the book, and she is seriously unpleasant. She’s a bully, she’s threatening, and she’s controlling—and yet, when the male voice of “Magnus” tells her to do as he says or he’ll kill her, we’re all supposed to clap our hands. If that’s not bullying, threatening and controlling, I don’t know what is. Miss Trunchbull is eventually replaced as Headteacher by Mr Trilby, who we’ve never met before—but he’s a man, so we can assume that his power isn’t offensive to anybody.
2. Girls have to be pretty
One of the things that makes Matilda seem deceptively feminist is the abundance of awesome female characters who refuse to sit back and be shy and retiring little girls. Lavender is “gutsy and adventurous”; Hortensia’s hilarious pranks on the Trunchbull are legendary; Amanda Thripp is straight back on her feet after being literally thrown across a field by her hair. Their very presence in the book inspires young girls to be whoever they want to be—but there’s a catch. The girls still have to be pretty and feminine.
Lavender may be plucky, but she’s also a “skinny little nymph with deep brown eyes”; Amanda Thripp is so terrified of losing her beautiful long hair that she turns into a stuttering wreck. Miss Honey, one of the most important and clever women in the book, is described right from the start as so slim and fragile that she might break; worse, I think that’s supposed to be a compliment. She’s practically the first person in Matilda’s life to ever pay her attention, and yet the only nice thing Matilda has to say about her is that she’s pretty. Not influential, not inspirational, not life-changing… she has a lovely girly face, and that’s what matters.
3. Characters who fail to fill their gender roles are hilarious
Mr and Mrs Wormwood are nasty, but they’re also a source of constant amusement. Mr Wormwood is a small and ratty man who can’t even grow a good moustache, and a lot of jokes are made at his expense for being nervous and unmanly. Mrs Wormwood gets the same treatment: her dyed blonde hair and heavy makeup suggest she wants to be womanly, but her unflattering clothes and unkempt dark roots make her a comedy character. The fact that she is too tired to cook an evening meal for her family is portrayed as an amusing failing (even though she makes her husband breakfast every morning—which is more than I can manage). And when she makes comments like “A girl should make herself attractive so she can get a good husband”, we laugh because she’s actually “plain and plump”—as if the ridiculous sexism of the comments themselves isn’t enough to scoff at.
Miss Honey, on the other hand, manages to be a regular domestic goddess as well as intelligent and hardworking. In the last chapter, she’s casually working in the garden when she decides to adopt Matilda and become the perfect full time working mother. She’s pretty much the only grown woman in the book to escape ridicule, so clearly that’s what we’re all supposed to be achieving, you guys.
4. Characters who don’t want to fill their gender roles are completely disgusting
Miss Trunchbull is definitely a horrible person; I mean, the woman shuts children in cupboards full of broken glass and nails. But before we even hear about the awful things she does, we’re told to despise her because… she wears men’s clothes? Or is it because she became a successful Olympic athlete and is pretty proud of herself for it? Her “bull-neck”, “thick arms” and “powerful legs” are described in gruesome detail, as if they’re not just a legitimate part of being awesome at hammer throwing. The jokes at her expense include a child calling her “Sir”, and an innuendo about “what was going on inside the Trunchbull’s pants”, but those aren’t even the worst of them. The extreme transphobia becomes dangerously apparent each time Roald Dahl stresses the fact that she is supposed to be a woman. Every time Miss Trunchbull embraces her masculinity, Dahl makes a point of describing her as female and pointing out her “enormous bosom”.
Where Mrs Wormwood’s failed attempts to be womanly make her a laughing stock, Miss Trunchbull’s active decision to reject femininity makes her repulsive. People like her “do exist”, Roald Dahl warns, and if you ever meet one, you should ‘climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away’.