Why Roald Dahl’s Matilda is so relevant in today’s political climate

Posted by for Life

This Roald Dahl day, Elizabeth Day explores the parallels between Matilda Wormwood, Greta Thunberg and the young girls standing up to the political bullies of 2019.

“I think that the fundamental message of Matilda, is that no matter how small you are, or how small an action you take, it can have the biggest effect,” says author, journalist and How to Fail podcast host Elizabeth Day when asked by stylist.co.uk what makes the Roald Dahl classic so special.

It’s 2019 and we’re still hard pushed to name a wealth of characters in book or film that are both considered to be strong and brave and little girls. But, in 1988, Dahl’s now iconic book, Matilda, was published and a literary icon was born who encapsulates both those things and so much more. 

Being brave, true to herself and just a thoroughly good egg, Matilda has continued to inspire generations of girls to stand up to bullies and do what they know is right. Even when they’re told “I’m big, you’re small – and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The book may be 30 years old but according to research by the Roald Dahl Story Company its major themes are more popular with children today than ever, with bravery not only being voted as the most important characteristic to have by 7-16 year olds but being counted as a weapon for younger generations to beat climate change.

A survey of 1,500 British children for Roald Dahl day has shown that above popularity or success, being brave is the most important thing to today’s youth, with ‘standing up for what I believe in’ (51%), ‘always being myself’ (36%) and ‘standing up to bullies’ (35%) being the top defining characteristics.

Greta Thunberg and Matilda, both icons of bravery in 2019.

And rather wonderfully, it’s girls that are leading the charge. Survey participants voted Matilda as the second biggest icon of bravery, putting the fictional character next to 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg who came number one.

Day, who is a long time Matilda fan, says that not only is it heartening to see young people pick two girls as their icons of bravery, both with such strong morals and messages, it’s interesting to see how their battles with bullies mirror each other.

Drawing a comparison between the kind of bullies that exist in Matilda’s world versus Thunberg’s, the author says: “I think Roald Dahl’s writing speaks to every individual, but particularly to children who might feel that their voice isn’t as important as an adult voice, when actually it really, really is.

“We see this with people like Greta Thunberg who obviously came out top in the poll. She’s 16 and she’s making the most extraordinary difference to our entire planet and I think that’s the message of Matilda. This makes the book enduring, because we live in an era where bullies don’t just exist in school, but in politics too.”

Matilda finds the strength to stand up to Miss Trunchbull, the unhinged, horrid headmistress at her school. But Thunberg’s opposers are, well, a little bit higher in profile. As now a globally renown voice in climate change and a challenger of governments who refuse to acknowledge the crisis our planet is in, Thunberg has been taunted, patronised and (attempted to be) silenced by journalists, politicians and even world leaders.

While sailing from Plymouth to New York on a zero-emissions yacht to attend the UN climate summits in America in August, for example, Thunberg was targeted with some nasty tweets mocking her cause and making fun of her Asperger’s syndrome.

Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, tweeted a picture of Thunberg on the yacht with the caption: “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August…”

While Australian News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt penned a savage takedown at the beginning of August, claiming she was “deeply disturbed”, “freakishly influential” and a “young and strange girl”.

The fact that both of these grown men have felt the need to use words like “freak” in their pathetic attempts to insult Thunberg are not coincidental, and appear to reference that she is on the autism spectrum.

As we know, bullies are scared of those who are different and will always go for a low blow like this to upset their target, over a well-constructed and fair argument. 

But just like Matilda, Thunberg continues to speak out and do what she knows is right. Not only has she discredited her bully’s taunts, critising them as simply having “nowhere left to go” but she’s become a voice for people on the spectrum, calling her autism as a “super power” for its ability to make her think outside the box.

But although being brave is about standing up for what you know is right, Day says that as Thunberg and Matilda both embrace their special abilities, it’s about “being unafraid to be yourself.” Which is something we could all stand to remember, at any age.

“Sometimes we all feel scared. Everyone feels fear, everyone has points in their life where they don’t fit in. But if you can, be more Matilda and stand up for what you know is right,” says Day.

“Stand up for what you know is right but also stand up for who you are as an individual, and that way happiness and a sense of fulfilment lies. I think bravery isn’t just about being unafraid for others but also about being unafraid to be yourself.”

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You can see Elizabeth Day at Stylist Live LUXE on Friday 8 November. The first 100 people to book using code LUXEELIZABETH will get £10 off their ticket.

Images: Roald Dahl Story Company 

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a senior digital writer for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about homeware (particularly candles), travel, food trends, restaurants and all the wonderful things London has to offer.

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