Friday, February 26, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Destiny (Butter)

Wow, chickadees, we've made it to our fifth and final article of Strong Female Character Friday, Black History Month edition!* Already this month we've talked about Garnet from Steven Universe, Michaela on How to Get Away with Murder, Indra in The 100, and Isis from Bring It On. Now we're going to bring it home with a look at a character who demonstrates so much about the media's negative or narrow portrayals of young black girls but who also shows the potential for much better representations in the future. It's time to talk about Destiny in the little-seen 2011 comedy Butter!**

You'll be forgiven if you have no idea what I'm talking about and definitely haven't seen this movie, but for the record, Butter is a pretty great film. An ensemble comedy with a strongly female core of characters, the film is about a butter-sculpting competition in middle-America (Iowa, I think) and the various people and personalities who get caught up in it all. With hilarious roles and/or spectacular cameos by everyone from Hugh Jackman to Kristen Schaal, it's a fantastic movie about a super specific and interesting subculture and it's exactly as hilarious as a latter-day Drop Dead Gorgeous can be.

There's a whole host of fantastic characters in this movie, ranging from an uptight, insecure political wife, Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), to the bitingly sarcastic sex worker, Brooke (Olivia Wilde). But the real character who steals the show and who the whole film really revolves around is actually Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an adorable little girl who's been bounced around the foster system for years and has just been adopted by a nice white couple when she discovers her preternatural talent for butter carving. So, yeah, this is kind of a weird movie. But that doesn't make it any less good.

We meet Destiny for the first time at the state fair where she stumbles on a display of butter carving - it's the work of a butter sculpting master, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), a man so good at making stuff out of butter that he's been gently asked not to compete anymore because no one else can keep up. Destiny is just kind of wandering around the fair when she sees his display of a butter interpretation of DaVinci's Last Supper and wanders right into the cooler to finish sculpting the chalice. Everyone tells her to get out of there, that she's ruining the master's work, but Bob Pickler himself is mostly impressed by her talent and happy to see someone else love what he loves.

It's just the one moment, but we can see that Destiny is hooked. She likes sculpting and for whatever reason, butter is a great material to work with. It's a wonderful, sweet moment that propels the whole movie forward. So while Bob is gently discouraged from competing and Laura decides to carve in his place and defend their family legacy, Destiny goes off to meet her new parents, Jill (Alicia Silverstone) and Ethan (Rob Cordry). It's an interesting interplay, even if it is really not emphasized enough in the movie, how much Destiny is uncomfortable getting too comfortable in her "new home" and how anxious Jill and Ethan are about having her there.

Not that they're anxious because they don't like her or anything, but rather that the narrative makes clear how desperately they have wanted a child and how much they need Destiny to be happy, even if she herself isn't sure whether she can trust these strange white people. It's actually a really compelling storyline, even if it is one of the more minor plot points in the film.

In the process of Destiny settling in, though, they make sure she can ask for anything she needs, and one of the things Destiny informs Ethan she needs is butter. Sure, he says. We can get you some of that.

"Great. I'm gonna need like two-hundred pounds."

And so Ethan and Jill become Destiny's cheerleaders as she decides to enter the local butter-carving competition. Since there's no age limit there's nothing standing in her way and in the beginning at least everyone sees her as a cute kid who isn't much of a threat. 

The grownups have other problems going on, like Laura and Brooke's battle over Bob and the twelve-hundred dollars he owes Brooke for the "engagement of her services" let's say. No one really pays much attention to Destiny until at the first competition she carves Harriet Tubman sitting on a train to symbolize the underground railroad and all of a sudden they all realize she's freaking spectacularly talented.

I mean, this is a kid who's never had the opportunity for anything like this before in her life and who picked up a carving tool to start making masterpieces off the bat. Naturally, Laura, who has fought and struggled for her carving ability, deeply resents this. Since Brooke deeply resents Laura, she decides to help Destiny out of spite.***

Destiny, for her part, really doesn't care about all the politics and adult drama flying around over her head. She just wants to sculpt. She's found a thing that she's really good at, genuinely amazing, and she wants to do it. It's totally natural. Even better, she's now in a home where her new talents are encouraged and can be financially supported. So of course Destiny wants to keep competing, even when Ethan and Jill worry that the toxic environment around the competition is bad for her.

Because she is hella talented Destiny ends up going to the state level and competing against Laura in the finals. Destiny's final sculpture, a moving and touching portrayal of her mother as she remembers her, is so good that Laura feels the need to call in backup to sabotage it. In a stunning moment of brutality, she bribes an ex-boyfriend (played by Hugh Jackman) to melt the face of Destiny's sculpture with a blowtorch. In the morning when they discover the ruined sculpture, Ethan and Jill are incensed while Destiny is quietly crushed. All she wanted was to do the thing she's good at and do it really well. The judges won't let her resculpt it either.

Then the great thing happens: the judges decide that the melting actually adds to the "haunting" quality of her piece and Destiny actually wins. Sure, it's kind of a deus ex machina fix to the plot, but it's still a moving moment to see this little girl finally get the kind of recognition she deserves. The end of the film shows her finally settling into Ethan and Jill's house and implies that Destiny is going to be all right. 

Yes, she still misses her mother desperately and the awful things she went through before coming here still happened, but she's with people who love her and she has potential and skills and talents that she can use for the future. She's going to be okay.

So. What's interesting in Destiny's storyline is how it really toes the border between a good representation and a bad one. On the good side, this is a story about a little black girl who is phenomenally talented in a very unusual skill-set and who pursues this talent with the full support of her guardian figures, eventually winning a huge prize and becoming well known as a very artistically gifted person. That's all pretty great. Destiny is an example of a black character who is just plain good at something and who doesn't have to settle for an awkward consolation prize so that the white characters can feel better. And she gets some of the best jokes, so it's not like she's there just to be a figure of sympathy and nothing else.

On the negative side, though, the film skirts around any insightful or deep examination of Destiny's inner-emotional state and pushes past a discussion of where she was before she came to live with Ethan and Jill. We know that she had a mother and that she loves her mother and misses her very much, but the details of Destiny's life are unclear. We pretty much only meet her when she, by being adopted by this upper-middle class white couple, enters into a completely new part of her life. We have no real concept of where she was before this and who she was there.

The problem here is that the film effectively erases any trauma Destiny might have in her background, and considering the implications we see in her story, we can assume there was some definite trauma here. The narrative also focuses more on her white adoptive parents and their needs than on her actual feelings as a person, therefore positing that whatever she went through is only relevant insofar as it impacts Ethan and Jill.

So while it's great getting a story about a talented young black girl, there's something a little uncomfortable in how her story is framed entirely around white people and how ridiculously better her life is now that she's been adopted. Probably. Only we don't really know anything about her life before. Destiny's story is cool and all, but it's not really about Destiny, and that's the real issue.

This movie feels like it was originally written to be the story of a plucky orphan learning a quirky skill but was rewritten when Jennifer Garner signed on, because you can't have Jennifer Garner playing a ridiculous role like Laura Pickler in your movie when she's just supposed to be some minor side character. So Destiny's role was reduced and the movie became more about the adult drama than the little girl at the heart of the story. Then again, this is just my suspicion. I don't know this for sure at all. 

At any rate, Destiny's story feels underserved by the film, even as it serves as the movie's moral center. I mean, this is Destiny's story. She's the underdog we're rooting for all along, the only sane person in a whirlwind of crazy. But we're not given enough information about who she is and what she really wants for us to feel like the story really plays. Ultimately I think this is why the movie doesn't work as well as it should. Destiny gets left behind.

And all of this is without even getting into the inherent race and class issues here, where Destiny's story is apparently only worth telling when she's adopted by a wealthy white couple, whereas her story as a poor black orphan is only vaguely relevant to the story. That bothers me, even if I do really enjoy Ethan and Jill as characters.

I meant what I said at the beginning: Destiny as a character reveals a lot about the worst of how we as a culture talk about race, but she also shows the potential for moving past that and creating characters who explore race relations without having to be defined by them. Yes, Destiny is designed to fit a lot of pre-existing stereotypes about little black girls in the media. She's an orphan and foster child who never knew her father. It's like the textbook understanding of a black child in pop culture and it's racist as hell. But then she's also a very talented artist who succeeds despite the obstacles in her path and pursues a very unusual goal without anyone making a huge deal about her being "too black" or "too female" for such a whitebread art form.

So it's a mixed bag. That's what I'm getting at here. I love the movie Butter but I can see clearly that it has some real, deep-seated issues that need to be addressed. And I love Destiny, but I would love it more if her character were given more autonomy in the storyline and weren't just defined by the white people around her.

I don't think it's impossible. I think we as a culture can have and appreciate characters of color, particularly black characters, who balance this need for representation of race that acknowledges racism in America and the need to have stories that aren't all about race. I think that's a feasible goal and I think that it kind of has to be if we want the world to get much better.

Destiny might not be a perfect character, but she's still worth praise - she's a little girl with a very weird dream, and she manages to get a happy ending. Some days that's all you really need.

*So, generally there would actually only be four articles in this series, but because this is a leap year and the timing worked out just right, Masculinity Monday got five posts and it only seemed fair that SFC Friday get the same amount. Equality!

**Are you upset about awesome movies totally slipping past your notice because Hollywood doesn't give them the props they deserve? Then you should be a voter in the 2015 Undies, a film award to find the best underappreciated movie of the past year!

***This gives rise to one of the best lines in the film, when Ethan tells Destiny in all actual seriousness, "I'm not sure I want you hanging out with strippers." Rob Cordry's delivery is so dry and good and the moment is so well-timed it's just... It's great.


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