Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Barbie to a Ken: My Look at WALKABOUT by Betty Araya

I remember the day the switch went off in my young, naive mind. I began questioning what I now know to be true: I was merely a product of my socialization. My opinions were those of my parents, the same as the ones I secretly heard them argue during dinner parties. My style was that of the photoshopped model, whose insincere smile plastered on the cover of the catalogue fooled me into claiming as my own. The person I chose to show the world was no different than my classmates, who I constantly looked to for approval.

One day, at the ripe age of fifteen, I went to school where I mindlessly copied down the words of my instructors, trusting that I was learning. I sat at lunch with my peers, believing my conversations were substantial. I returned home, sat at my desk, and regurgitated the information my teacher shoved down my throat. I began choking on all the mendacity our capitalized, righteous, bureaucratic society was forcing on me to keep me in line. Like The Girl in Walkabout, I was destined for the fate planned for me before I was born. I was and would be someone's daughter, someone's sister, some man's wife. And like The Girl, I chose the familiar radio instead of the larger world.

Walkabout is a cautionary tale about what happens to most women in Western civilization. We are submerged in a system that religiously uses the banking concept of education, the modern pedagogical approach which is stumping our intellectual growth and identity formation (Freire, par. 2). We are forced to conform to a society that will shame anyone who dares to question their way of life. We alienate anyone who deviates from our cultural and behavioral norms. Director Nicholas Roeg uses minimal characters that symbolize the various corruptions of the first world mentality. The story line is centered around The Girl’s journey through the Australian desert while she searches for the way back to her world. Faced with various obstacles that challenge her to question what she believesrather than what she is told to believeshe dares to follow her heart, rather than the pop-sugar quiz she took online, during the most crucial part of her life.

This cinematic revolution reminded me I am going to have to keep an open mind regarding all that I do not understand. I realized I am The Girl, and the desert is the world I live in. Roeg uses symbols to shed light on the various obstacles that women have to go through to have an identity different than the ones we are force-fed. The movie begins by depicting the earliest stages of socialization in a family, ending with the inevitable outcome most women are cursed to embrace: becoming a Mrs. to a Mr. For me, the tragedy in conforming to mainstream society is that, three generations from now, my family will no longer be immigrant Ethiopians living in America, but Americans who, caused by the fear to accept who we are, cautiously assert that our lineage began in Africa.

The three main characters that hold the most significance to The Girl’s walkabout is the father, the brother, and the native. The father represents the earliest forms of socialization we are exposed to as well as the detrimental effects of living an entire lifetime striving to please conventional society and the western mindset that is furthering racial hierarchies. Socialization first begins with family. The father tells his daughter to arrange the picnic, while the son plays with his action figures, which represents the gender roles that our families unknowingly impose on us early on in our lives. He also tells The Girl to look after her brother, planting in her mind she has a role of a mother simply for being female as the boy is not her son. This notion that she is a caretaker sticks with her throughout the entire film. In addition, the father is every teenager’s worst nightmare. His dehydrated skin, bloated belly, and bulbous nose hint towards his inevitable alcoholism. He has invested more energy in chasing money then experiencing life; all he has is his bank statement to comfort him at night after spending the day at his mind-numbing, boring job. He is a sorry excuse of a father, who has spent his entire life sexualizing women and cannot seem to draw the line with his daughter. He also represents the flaw in Western civilization as a wholewe would rather burn and die then entertain the idea of living life differently than we are used to. That is why I believe Roeg had the father blow himself up so early on, causing the children to flee. The Girl needed to realize the fate she was destined for if she continued to be guided by social structures to tell her how to think.

The Boy in the film represents the same mindset that The Girl is taught. He is still pure, like most young kids in our society who see a smile, where most others see a skin color. They see a heart, where most see a hair texture. The Boy has not yet suffered through thirteen years of brainwashing, also known as the K-12 program. He asks for a name, where most adults give a label. The Boy does not automatically assume everyone is like him: white. For example, in the scene with the water, the boy realizes he must explain what he wants for the native to understand him whereas The Girl believes the suitable solution is to stick her nose in the air and demand the black man give her what she wants (Roeg, 00:36). This scene was so powerful because it portrayed how similar we all are. We all need food, water, shelter, and companionship. The only thing that differentiates us is our distance from the equator which determines our complexion. The only reason we cannot understand each other is because of our locations on the map and the methods of communication we have adopted. Our geographic differences are what spark the different cultures we all practice, which is actually a beautiful thing. The Boy, the part of society that still has hope, helps his older sister come to terms with the fact that the high society she proudly identifies with will serve her no purpose in the Outback. It will not even get her the simplest thing required for survival: water.

The native represents many things for The Girl, but most importantly, he symbolizes hope. In the endless ocean that is Western civilization, he is the promise of land in the horizon. When she and the native first meet, she is in trouble. She has been taught to view herself as a damsel in distress, and he must play the role of her savior. It is for this sheer fact that she begins to fall for him. She thinks a man’s role is to take care of a woman, and it is the woman's job to need to be taken care of. She completely forgets all she accomplished on her own thus far. Despite her desires for him, The Girl could never get over his skin color. The scene where all three of the children are swimming naked is intentional. Roeg portrays the taboo of having affection for someone who looks different from you. In this scene they all look so happy and free, showing us how liberating it can be to forget the societal norms implanted in our brains and do what makes us feel good. Although I have learned to love being a woman of color, the scene made me imagine how different life would be if I was just a girl, instead of a black girl in a white society. The native also represents the detrimental effects of colonization. He graciously accepts the British kids and attempts to teach them about his way of life. He does not request they conform; he simply coexists and helps when he can. When he saw the hunters kill for sport, he saw his culture diminish before his eyes (Roeg, 01:17). He accepted what history has continuously proven to be true, which is that he has two options: conform or die. He unfortunately chooses death. Despite her desires to embrace him, The Girl turns her back on the native and what life could be like outside the lines. Perhaps she is too scared to be different or  scared she might actually like it. In either case, her lack of bravery haunts her, which we saw in the flashbacks at the end while in the embrace of her husband (Roeg, 01:37).

In my walkabout, the father is the man behind the glass at the DMV absently stamping documents. His vacant expression is what inspires me to strive for knowledge rather than the approved symbol when I swipe my credit card. I crave infinite knowledge, rather than infinite zeros on my account balance. The father in my walkabout is also the sea of white faces that covered the hallways I ambled in school, signaling me out as the dark one. The Boy is the potential I still have, a reminder that it is my choice to resist the constant nudge by society as I begin questioning the world around me. He reiterates that I hold the upper hand in this power struggle, because I am in control of my mind. The native represents the ghosts of immigrants to America. Although I did not resort to hanging myself once acknowledging the power Western civilization has, needless to say, the native represents the fight so many immigrants and minorities have already given up onpreserving their own culture.

I moved from Ethiopia to America when I was four years old. In the States, Ethiopia, one of the earliest civilizations, is more known for poverty than its overwhelming communal culture. I moved to a melting pot of different cultures and a society that stresses individualism, with little preparation for the culture shock I would face. I was unready for a country that defines one's value by one’s ability to contribute to the federal reserve rather than who we are as people. It is a system that believes in creating robots as early as five years old, rather than providing tools to discover an identity of one’s own. Until my teenage years, I was not striving to find myself, but rather to paint over all that made me me: my caramel colored skin, my distinct features, and my curls. I sought to match the white girl who sat next to me in my reading circle in elementary school, the white girl who insisted on touching my hair at lunch junior year to further emphasize my difference, the white girl who was never ridiculed for who she is because at the end of the day, America was hers and I was the alien who chose to invade. 

The Girl in Roeg's drama, like many other millenials obsessed with iphones, social media, social approval, and the Kardashians, chooses the easy route, the mindless route, that further feeds the biggest issue of our time: ignorance. Walkabout is what happens to most teenagers in our society, and it almost happened to me. I am now eighteen years old, attending a prestigious university spending my days focusing on my passion. I have grown to have confidence in myself, but it was not effortless to get to this point. It was not without vigorous effort, tears, and crippling self-doubt that I blossomed from a girl whose stomach dropped when the teacher read out my full name to one who now proudly introduces herself. It was a difficult journey to grow from someone who straightened my wild curls to one who proudly wears my mane. I alleviated the insecure, misguided child I was by embracing what made me different instead of trying to conform.

I do not want to recite what I read in a textbook to prove I have knowledge. I do not want to repeat what I heard my family says to prove I have beliefs. I do not want my identity to be simplified to boxes I check off on a job application. I refuse to spend my life with the mindset that my greatest accomplishment will be the day I say “I do” or the day I have a child. I deny the ending The Girl in Walkabout had, because no matter what our society tells us, I will never sit quiet and look pretty. My walkabout has taught me to treat each person as my equal and embrace that they offer me. It has taught me that the six o’clock news does not cover all that matters in the world. It has forced me to accept that living in America does not require that one become a homogenously white American. It has left me yearning for the day I look in the mirror and only see myself, rather than the array of people I have been taught and forced to be. Although I can still feel the residue of my unwilling socialization clogging my throat, every day I am closer to dropping my radio. I am closer to embracing who I am, where I came from, and the values I hold. Every day I embark on this relentless journey, and the identity I fear the most is growing further away, that of being a Barbie to a Ken.

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. The "Banking" Concept of Education. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Walkabout. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. Perf. Jenny Agutter, Jean-Luc Roeg, and David Gumpilil. 1971.

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