The Secret World of Arrietty: For the Activist and the Child in All of Us

by | February 27, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Ariettyby Jessica Critcher

To say that this has been a strange few weeks in the women’s rights movement would be an understatement. The Susan G. Komen foundation pulled its support from Planned Parenthood, and then doubled back with a faux apology in a manner of days. The president promised he would make birth control covered by all insurance, and a few members of religious communities cried discrimination. They then proceeded to lose their minds and host a panel on birth control and reproductive health, specifically without allowing any women to speak. An amendment currently being pushed argues that any employer can object to covering any medical procedure on moral grounds.

More and more states are pushing personhood bills, which would give fertilized eggs all of the legal rights of human beings.  The state of Virginia narrowly escaped a bill that would have forced women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory vaginal probing, or as I prefer to call it, state sanctioned rape. And don’t even get me started on the Republicans currently vying to run for president. I might just start screaming. I keep checking to make sure. Yes, it’s 2012, not 1512. No, this is not The Onion. This is the current climate of the women’s rights movement in my country.

Understandably I’ve been anxious. It’s been hard to write lately, for example. I feel too preoccupied with whether or not I will continue to have access to birth control, or indeed, bodily autonomy. I worry about the women I know who’ve had miscarriages, or those who might have them in the future, and about the sadness they would feel at being interrogated for murder under the conditions of zygote-as-person. Even though these ridiculous bills will not pass, the fact that they are actually being proposed is still depressing.

Meanwhile, I am writing less. My novel languishes in its awkward, unfinished second draft. I sit and hesitate on opinion pieces, wondering just how much rage is publishable. While my family planning has not been interrupted yet, my energy is still being wasted in keeping track of politicians and which or how many of my rights they want to take away. The effect is the same: my voice has to travel further to reach the global conversation. It would be irresponsible to ignore, but it’s not exactly helpful to let it eat me up inside.

I needed to escape, if just for an afternoon. So I went to the movies and saw The Secret World of Arrietty. The film comes from Studio Ghibli, the makers of Ponyo and Spirited Away, just to name a few examples of their stunning work. They are known for producing strong female characters as much as they are for beautiful animation and captivating stories. The movie is based on The Borrowers, a novel by Mary Norton about tiny people who live in secret among humans. As I sat wide-eyed, munching popcorn in a theater full of children, I allowed my expectations, both as a feminist and a lover of stories, to soar. I was thrilled to see them met and surpassed.

Firstly, as with every Ghibli film that I have seen, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. While much of the film revolves around Arrietty’s friendship with Shawn, a human boy, she also has a rich relationship with her mother. Shawn’s two female guardians also contribute substantially to the plot and dialogue.

Secondly, neither Arrietty’s gender nor her tiny size is ever presented as an obstacle. From the start she is brave and capable, eager to learn the skills and trade secrets of “borrowing” that her father teaches her. She leaps and climbs up tables and curtains. She even scales a house with relative ease, and is not flustered by birds or insects. The only time she is ever in need of Shawn’s protection is when he was the one to put her in danger.

One detail that bothered me about the film is that the only person of color is presented as a sort of wild man. Spiller, the only other borrower Arrietty has ever met besides her parents, speaks broken sentences and wears an assortment of rags. He is confounded by things like towels, and does not understand why Arrietty and her family are repulsed that he would eat a raw cricket leg for dinner. I am guessing that this is due to the fact that he grew up in the wilderness without a family rather than the fact that he is brown. While he is a bit, shall we say, rustic, he is nonetheless smart and resourceful. He is also very kind and brave, risking his own safety to help Arrietty and her family on more than one occasion. His strange habits, while they may be confusing to Arrietty, do not make him any less worthy of her friendship or kindness.

To me, this is a story about making friends with people who are different than we are. It gives girls and women the chance to see female characters with strength and agency, something we are rarely afforded in films. It is a story about survival in the face of adversity, and the idea that, “sometimes you have to fight for the things that are worth fighting for.” Seriously, if that scene doesn’t get your eyes misty, you may be made of stone.

In short, this film was exactly what I needed to recharge from the exhaustive work of staying sane in the current political climate. As if to confirm this, I was greeted this morning with a video from Fox News complaining that the “liberal” media is trying to “indoctrinate” children into “Occu-toddlers.” If my praise for the film isn’t enough, its condemnation by Fox News should convince you of its merits. I left the theater feeling positive that I could stand up to my foes, no matter how big they think they are. While that is not something I didn’t already know, it’s always nice to be reminded.

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  • Hi Jessica–thanks for your review. I too was absolutely enthralled by Arietty (my company, Princess Free Zone, goes beyond the gender stereotypes by offering alternatives to princess for little girls)– and her ability to persevere with an uncanny sense of compassion and bravery. It is so great to see a character for girls that is complex and human. I had one criticism as well–it was Arietty’s mother who seemed like the epitome of an hysterical female–every scene she was either yelling, pitching a fit, or fainting. At one point the very calm, terse father says something to her like, “Don’t get hysterical.” And I also get your point about Spiller and blinked at that. Otherwise, a great film for all kids to see.

  • Jessica Critcher

    I know what you mean about her mother. But she was really the only woman in the movie to act that way– I saw it as more of a personal trait than being indicative of her gender. And her paranoia is justified! They could easily be squashed, and she actually gets abducted. :) Speaking of that, [POSSIBLE SPOILER] when she gets captured, her husband was weirdly absent. I was confused about where he was, but pleased to see Arrietty step up to save her.

    The Amy Poehler / Will Arnett parenting team was so adorable. I kept thinking of her on SNL: “Don’t tell me what to do!”

  • ken

    Arrietty was a beautiful film. There is not nearly enough real films for female empowerment (and I don’t include Pixar’s Brave, in which women can only be “strong” if they take on man-associated tasks and reject any traces of femininity.)

    And Fox news should die.

  • yo

    I think you have down played the significance of the Spiller character and the films use of a long standing stereotype of Aboriginal people in film. Yes, he was depicted as brave and resourceful but also uncivilized and “different”. This representation of difference is what perpetuates inequalities in Canada. The film Reel Injun does a great job discussing this issue.

  • I’ll have to take a look at that film. Thanks for the suggestion. I didn’t mean to downplay this issue, but intentions aren’t magic.

    One thing your comment got me thinking about though– Spiller is only “uncivilized” if we use Arrietty’s family as the standard of what civilized means. Americans used the argument that Native Hawaiians were uncivilized as an excuse to illegally occupy the islands and overthrow their government, when in fact they had sophisticated systems of agriculture, language, government, worship, ect. They were just being examined through an ethnocentric perspective.

    And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Spiller’s English is a form of Pidgin. Alternate forms of English such as this are often looked down upon in favor of standard English, which usually ends up privileging white people. I’ve had conversations about this with people who grew up going to public schools in Hawaii, and I’m sure it happens other places as well.

    Thank you for giving me so much to think about– the next time I watch this film, I will examine this issue more closely.

  • Michelle Chen

    About Spiller… First he is not the only poc in the movie, all humans in there are all Japanese, the dub changed all the names into English names by the characters didn’t suddenly became white. Also, in the original version (where everyone spoke Japanese), he spoke with perfect fluency even tho he speaks a much less formally than other characters. If there is a problem then it’s either the problem with translation/interpretation in the dub. Criticising a Japanese film based on its dub is kinda ethnocentric.