Friday, April 26, 2013

"Go, Matilda, Go" - Amanda Woolston on Matilda, Stereotypes, Strong Female Characters, and Adoption in the Movies

"What if you asked other adoption bloggers to share about the movies that have been important to them?" 

I'm really glad my wife came up with that question. Adoption at the Movies is hosting an ongoing, sporadic series of guest posts about the intersection of real-life adoption and movie-adoption, which has so far featured Lori Holden on The Blind Side, Social Jerk on Precious, and Shannon LC Cate on Rosie O'Donnell's "A Family is A Family is A Family"

Today, Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston of The Declassified Adoptee and The Lost Daughters (and honestly, a few other places - Amanda is everywhere!) shares about a movie that inspired and empowered her as a preteen. Enjoy!

“Go, Matilda, go!” I whispered excitedly to myself.  I watched the screen as the little girl pointed to various objects in her living room, bringing them to life.  Matilda danced in a circle as household items flew playfully around her in her telekinetic grasp.  Music from the family stereo played a happy tune as Matilda set a deck of cards swirling around her like confetti caught in a whirlwind.  Matilda beamed happily, one of her first expressions of pure joy in the movie.  She had a superpower, and nothing was going to stop her now.

Matilda Wormwood (played by Mara Wilson) first appears in the movie Matilda (1996) at her birth.  The movie is based off of a book with the same name.  Her parents immediately express their disappointment over her gender; a disappointment that translates into continuous belittling and neglecting of Matilda throughout the movie.  Matilda’s other brother proves to be no greater an ally, often berating the little brown-eyed girl himself.  Matilda’s father (played by Danny DeVito) is a dishonest used car salesperson.  Her mother (played by Rhea Perlman) stays at home by day and attempts to supplement the family income by night by playing bingo.   Matilda finds more trouble when she starts school as her new friends and their kind teacher are confronted daily by the antics of the mean principal, Ms. Trunchbull.  Matilda soon develops a superpower; she can move objects with her mind.  She uses her telekinesis to help solve problems and protect her friends.  At the end of the movie, her parents leave her in the hands of her teacher, Ms. Honey, who adopts her upon Matilda’s request.


I cheered for Matilda when I watched this movie because I identified in some way with her experience.  

As I am an author and speaker about adoption, it might surprise some to learn that her adoption was not what drew me to Matilda’s character.  Unlike Matilda, I had parents who were interested and involved in my life.  But what her parents—and her principal—represented to me were bullies.  They were people who were unable to see the inherent worth of a bright and kind child.  I watched this movie when I was twelve years old and was being teased at school that year.  Like Matilda heard from of the adults in her life, I never looked right, dressed right, or said anything right according to some of my peers.

What an empowered little girl Matilda became.  She spoke in full sentences before she was two, she taught herself to read, and she read every book at the library.  She could quantify large mathematical equations in her head.  She also could move objects around her with her mind, just by squinting at them.  She used her superpower to protect other children from the mean school principal, to rescue her teacher’s childhood doll from an angry relative’s house, and just to have fun.

Matilda did not become adopted until the end of the movie when she asked her teacher, Ms. Honey, to adopt her.  When agreeing to the adoption, we see Matilda’s parents’ first expression of fondness towards their daughter.  They verbalize that she is different and they’ve never understood her.  They quickly make a getaway in their car—running from police after one of her father’s many bad car deals had gone wrong.

Adoption & Child Welfare
As an adoptee who was surrendered and adopted as an infant, I did not relate with Matilda’s choice as an older child to be adopted.  I wished Matilda’s family could be fixed.  I also wanted her to be happy and in an environment where she was loved.   At twelve, I understood that this was not a representation of actual original families who surrendered a child to adoption.  Matilda’s parents’ were a purposely exaggerated caricature of average parents and their problems.
This doesn’t mean that this can’t be a talking point for children about adoption and to implore what children watching the movie already know about adoption.  Children may want to discuss what parts of Matilda’s experience reflects the experiences of children living adoption, and what parts would not.  Most children, in all types of adoption, are loved and wanted by their original parents.  Children are not surrendered to adoption for “being different” or through any fault of their own.  Most, like Matilda, are also loved by their adoptive parents.  Ultimately, the narrative of each adopted child should be respected and honored.

Matilda’s parents were the villains of the story as was her principal—who was also Ms. Honey’s aunt.  This is repetitious of common societal stereotypes where the original parents of adopted children, as well as step-parents, are painted in a poor light.  Persistently portraying certain people as villains is inaccurate and unfair.  My four-and-a-half year old recently asked “is he just bad?” after observing a chronically villainous character on one of his favorite preschool shows.  I explained to him as best I could explain to a four year old that people face challenges that influence how they behave.  Rather than labeling someone as “bad,” as perhaps his show had encouraged him to do, we talked about the worth that every person has.

Speaking of repetition, once again, this is a movie in which all of the main characters, including the heroes, are white.  Except for brief appearances here and there, there are no positive portrayals of people of color.  This movie excludes diversity in many ways.  I believe it is important to discuss diversity and inclusiveness with children and to spend time listening to their feedback on being excluded and unrepresented in the television and media outlets geared towards their age group.
One of the most important aspects of this movie to me as a 12 year old girl was the positive portrayals of strong women.  Matilda and Ms. Honey are the heroines of the movie.  They are strong, incredibly intelligent, resilient individuals.  They brainstormed ways to effectively solve their own problems.  They considered their own needs as well as the needs of others.  A good discussion point with children viewing the movie is to implore their perceptions of Matilda.  In what ways is Matilda strong?  Is Matilda someone they might like to be friends with?  Why or why not?

I adored this film when I watched it as a young girl.  Matilda was a survivor and a hero.

Since the context of this post is movies that intersect with the topic of adoption, I will close with one final thought about Matilda the adoptee.  She has superpowers, like many adopted characters in media from movies to comic books to novels do.  So often, adoption storylines are used to answer for the origins of an adopted character’s power.  The mystery of their origins, the lack of disclosure of their biological parentage and pre-adoption life, is used to explain an adopted character’s behavior, their vices, and their superhuman abilities.  This gets old for many of us who did have origins, by nature of our adoptions, which were a mystery to us.  We constructed the meaning of adoption throughout our life’s story--a tough enough task without having to figure out a superpower on top of it.  Matilda is a different portrayal of an adoptee.  The roots of her superpower are not within shrouded origins or mysterious DNA.  She has a superpower because she is a survivor, because she is strong, and because she is smart.  This is one reason why I adore Matilda.


Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston is a social worker, writer, and speaker whose writing on adoption has been published in the U.S. and several other countries. She has provided information directly to State legislators as well as Congressional staff on adoption policy. She has also written testimony and editorials on adoption legislation in more than eight States. Amanda engages others in the discussion of adoption through workshops and presentations at conferences and universities.

Amanda was a featured mom activist on Mother's Day at Yahoo!Voices in 2011. She was also named in the "Top 20 Adoption Blogs" list (2011) and on the "Blogs We Love" list at Adoptive Families Magazine.  She is also a BlogHer syndicated writer.  Amanda is perhaps best known for her popular adoption blog, The Declassified Adoptee.

Amanda is the founder of Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights, the Vice President and Director of Outreach of The Adoptee Rights Coalition, and a founding member of Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative.  Amanda is an editor at Land of Gazillion Adoptees, and a regular contributor at Adoption Voices Magazine.  Amanda is also the founder of The Lost Daughters, a collaborative writing project featuring the voices of over 30 adopted women from all walks of life.

Amanda was adopted in 1986 through mono-racial  private, domestic, infant adoption from a foster care program managed by the largest adoption agency in the U.S.  She identifies as a Christian Universalist, an unapologetic feminist, and a humanist. She's also a nature photographer, dedicated Etsy shopper, lover of chocolate covered potato chips, a brown belt in karate, and an increasingly decent cook.  She lives with her husband of six years and their two children in their home in Pennsylvania.

Enjoy this post? You might also enjoy these Adoption Movie Guides of other films with courageous girls playing central roles:


  1. Oh, I loved this movie back in the day, before I knew adoption from the inside. I liked the strong character who was able to stay kind even amid bullies.

    I appreciate knowing how this film can come across when viewed through adoptee eyes. I think I'll watch it with my children and see what comes up.


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