The only real reason I was excited to watch the 2013 Academy Awards this past week was to catch a glimpse of Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who captured my whole entire heart with her incredibly rich portrayal of “Hush Puppy” in the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” This untrained, break-out little actress’ performance is riveting as the only child of a tough-love father who is terminally ill and hell bent on preparing his daughter for the rigors of life in the “The Bathtub,” an isolated island off the Louisiana coast. Hush Puppy endures some harrowing experiences for such a young child on top of an already hard life. She has a whole variety of gargantuan beasts to battle in this story, and we are left to wonder which of those beasts are the bigger and most threatening– the imagined or the real. Her father, Wink, is not a pillar of parental perfection by most folk’s standards, but I am convinced that he loved Hush Puppy and felt he was doing the best he could for her.
I say all of this to point out that the role of Hush Puppy is no walk in the park. And yet, Quvenzhané Wallis nails it…and then some.
Quvenzhané Wallis beat out 4000 other girls to win this role. She was 5-years-old at time of audition. Her personality was so compelling, according to the filmmakers, that the director rewrote the script for her. She was even given final say on who would fill the role of Wink, the father.
Lots of power for a child just beyond toddlerhood.
Given that this girl is already a force to be reckoned with, I imagine she is perhaps not so easy to parent. We know the perils that can befall child stars. History tells us that her chances of coming out the other side of childhood fame with all of her vital parts in tact are essentially slim to none. (If you need a reminder of the dismal record of normality among child stars go here). There are so many forces against it.
And here she is the youngest nominee EVER in Oscar history. A whole lot of pressure comes with that– being teed up for public opinion and online meanness. Everyone knows that too much attention, good and bad, is bad. It is a warping, fish-bowl-focusing kind of abuse. I would be remiss is I did not acknowledge that as I write, I am a part of the media machinery that can and will cast dark shadows on this girl’s life forever forward. Even if she disappears from our view, we will be relentlessly in pursuit of her as one intriguing story or another over time.
Sabrina James, of CNN.com Parenting, lamented yesterday in her article “Quvenzhané, the C word, and innocence lost,” the unfortunate incident on Twitter. James says “I wish the headlines could have been different today.” Well, my response to that is– our headlines could have been different. One of the headlines that spotlighted, and thus further promoted, a reprehensible Twitter tweet was James’ own article (and by this very paragraph, now mine). The people responsible for their poor judgment on Twitter took down their despicable tweet. But we won’t let it die and disappear, will we?
If we really care about Quvenzhané as we claim to, we will admit that we are part of the forces that make her parents’ job hard, almost impossible, and we will pledge to help her keep her innocence in the shark infested world in which we are so glad she now inhabits. If we want to continue to see and love her and her work, and if we want to continue to enjoy watching her grow up, we owe it to her to quiet our own noise and focus on all of the good that has surrounded her, so that we drown out all of the rest!
And so, with my own pledge to be a part of Quvenzhané’s village of support going forward, I just want to point out that I think Team Quvenzhané is on top of its game. And even though it’s early and the little powerhouse is still young and new to the scene, her parents have already done some important things right. Namely:
1. They let her be a girl. Even though Miss Wallis is always impeccably put together, she is (at least publicly) wonderfully appropriately dressed. At the academy awards, she wore a little girl designer dress and her trademark puppy purse. When asked why she chose her outfit, she answered, “because it’s sparkly and poofy.” But she answered in a way that signaled me (an old mother of daughters) that she was not given carte blanche to make the choice alone. Team Quvenzhané (mother, sister, with the help of Giorgio Armani!) are making choices that remind us with each appearance that we are dealing with a young child here.
[Check out this interview with Andre Leon Talley, where she sings, “Fashion is my kryptonite!”]
2. They make sure she can hold her own in an interview. Though Miss Wallis is known as a very self-possessed child– precocious, to say the least, she has the polish of a child well prepared. When she appeared on Good Morning America, she was comfortable and confident. When asked if she wanted to continue to act when she grows up, she said, “of course, you get to do fun things like go one Good Morning America” and then she gave George Stephanopoulos a fist bump. He was totally taken off guard and charmed. On another occasion, when a reporter asked if she had a date for the Oscars, implying that she should consider Denzel Washington, she reminded him that she was only nine-years-old. She did this in such a way that made the reporter look (and feel, I’m sure) quite silly. Rightfully so.
Quvenzhané is here for the long haul. She is a mega-talent who has her sights on bigger things in Hollywood She has already been cast to play the lead in “Annie.” I wish her all of the best. And if my wish is at all sincere, I need to make sure that my little tiny space in the media sphere is uplifting- uplifting for her and for all of the little girls like (and perhaps wholly unlike) her. My pledge is that if I am going to make noise, it’s going to be a positive, empowering noise or nothing at all!