I have heard some criticism about movies like Juno being that only the title character is a fully formed, intelligent girl. Juno is an anomaly in her world because she is smart and sassy and in control. Other movies or shows or books have a smart woman character who very rarely interacts with other women characters. Harry Potter generally falls into this plight in regard to Hermione Granger. No matter how great a character Hermione is, she is the only fully formed girl the books offer. We often hear about how great Ginny is, but the fact is the character has very little agency throughout the book series. We are told she is brilliant and to love her, but she never becomes fully formed. These sort of token women aren't really a step forward for women in fiction; they generally seem to be there because it is un-PC to have a movie or television show without a woman on it anymore. But Matilda is different. Roald Dahl created a world where we are introduced to more fully formed women than men. Mr. Wormwood is really the only man we meet who is of any note in the novel, with Bruce Bogtrotter and Nigel playing lesser roles for male representation. We have Matilda, obviously. But also Matilda's best friend Lavender, who is described as being "gutsy and adventurous"; Lavender and Matilda are the two girls in their age group given the most focus in the novel, and both girls admire in the other a keen sense of action; Lavender decides to play a prank on the Trunchbull in order to be a heroine like Hortensia and Matilda. These aren't girls for whom being the heroine of the tale is to wait to be rescued or for a man to take care of the monster but who expect to do it themselves and without reservation. The same thing can be noted for the character of Hortensia, who at the age of ten is still more interested in regaling newcomers with her tales of epic battle than she is in fashion or boys or expecting Bruce to be the one to come up with the really great pranks.
And the book goes beyond just putting forth good role models for girls into skewering anti-intellectualism. When Mrs. Wormwood tells Miss Honey, "You chose books. I chose looks" and proclaims that she is the one who finished better off, we are meant to recognize the ridiculousness in that statement. When Mr. Wormwood dismisses going to a university as a worthwhile goal, Miss Honey gets the last word when she retorts, "If you had a heart attack this minute and had to call a doctor, that doctor would be a university graduate. If you got sued for selling someone a rotten second-hand car, you'd have to get a lawyer and he'd be a university graduate, too. Do not despise clever people, Mr. Wormwood".
What the book succeeds in doing is presenting different forms of women. Women aren't universally praised; Mrs. Wormwood and the Trunchbull are examples of how women can be just as small-minded and evil as men. But the Trunchbull especially is placed alongside other women, and she is defeated by a girl as well. The book manages to be about girl power without minimizing that effect by repackaging it in a Spice Girls "We still care about looks and make-up" way. It is a book about an extraordinary little girl who encounters other noteworthy women. It is a book that manages to make a girl who is immersed in learning both approachable and successful, both happy and well-adjusted. It is a book about a girl who is proud of how intelligent she is and who isn't afraid to demonstrate that intellect, who has never absorbed the lessons set forth by society that intelligence is bad and is doubly bad to have if one is a woman. Because that message is the triumphant one in the book, because Matilda is so smart and active and in control and Dahl presents it as a good thing, Matilda succeeds in being a feminist tale, and a brilliant one at that.
Special thanks to my best friend, whose copy of Matilda I stole more than a few years ago...