Is “True Grit” glamorizing or criticizing hyper-masculinity and violence?
Heading home today, so not much time for blogging. But I wanted to link this Feminist Frequency to discuss how I disagree with it, which is rare when it comes to Feminist Frequency. In this, Anita denies that Mattie from “True Grit” is a feminist character for two major reasons: 1) Mattie never changes, so she’s less a character with development than a “type” and 2) Mattie is just a traditional hyper-masculine Western character in a woman’s body, and feminism is about critiquing masculinity as a form (in part), not reinforcing the idolatry of masculinity. I think that Anita may have a point when it comes to other characters in less thoughtful pieces than “True Grit”. Action films that center around traditional cold-hearted hyper-masculine characters that are nonetheless held up as ideals aren’t particularly feminist, even if the character is female but is traditionally masculine in this way. And I think you could make an argument that this means that in the “tough girls” genre, it’s Buffy that’s more feminist in this sense, since she does incorporate “feminine” qualities into her work—cooperation, empathy—and in doing so, makes clear why those qualities are values.
I just don’t think any of this really applies to “True Grit”. I think Anita’s analysis fails on one major point, which is that she assumes that “True Grit” is a typical Western that valorizes the hyper-masculine, violent, cold-hearted world that it portrays, and that is a profound misreading both of this film and the Coen brothers’ larger body of work. In watching a Coen brothers movie, it’s usually important to really pay attention to the ending. Often the ending of their movies are comments on everything you just watched—think of how “Raising Arizona” and “No Country for Old Men” both end with characters describing dreams that point to the reading of all the events that happened before.
I think you could argue that “True Grit” is a typical, mindless Western without the ending that shows Mattie without her arm and seeking the people she’d had this adventure with in order to make sense of her life and failing. I’d probably argue with that, but a case could be made. But with the ending, I think it’s pretty clear that the point of the movie is to condemn the brutality of this world and to argue that it destroys the people in it, including Mattie. Throughout the film, we admire, rightly, her spunk and her determination. But the questions comes up—Anita brings it up!—of whether or not that spunk and determination should be applied to this single-minded task of getting revenge. Anita asks this, and it’s clear that she thinks the Coen brothers didn’t intend for that question to be asked. I’m skeptical. Obviously, we can’t know what’s in their heads, but the way that the movie is made, I think we’re not only supposed to ask if Mattie was right to be so stubborn in this particular way, but we’re meant to conclude that she actually destroyed herself in the process.
After all, look at adult Mattie. First of all, she’s missing an arm, just as Rooster is missing an eye. Coen brothers movies are heavy with symbolism, and I’d argue that the missing arm and eye symbolizes the part of their very humanity that has been erased in all this brutality. Having missing body parts isn’t exactly a new way to symbolize internal brokenness, but goes into mythology. But it’s more than just that. Adult Mattie is portrayed as ghostly. She has no family, no connection to the world. She has become Rooster. She realizes as she ages that he’s the only person in the world that means anything to her, because they share this….and he’s dead and gone. She has nothing.
So Anita says that the movie doesn’t question the value of revenge or capital punishment, and I say that in fact it not only questions it, but comes down—as Coen brothers movies usually do—on the side of arguing that violence destroys not just the person who is acted upon, but the person who does the acting. And the argument that Mattie doesn’t change is also false. Mattie starts off the movie as a spunky, intelligent young woman with a bright future. She ends the movie as a broken shell of a person who will disappear from the face of the earth having done nothing of value with her life. And the reason for this is because she chose to enter a world of violence and revenge instead of doing something more valuable—which other characters repeatedly ask her to do—with her multitude of talents.
Contrast her, then, with Marge from “Fargo”, who is a more direct feminist character of the sort that Anita is asking for. Marge is not a broken person, because Marge is interested in justice and peace, not revenge. Marge isn’t a violent person. Marge deals with the world of criminals and violence, but she is not of it. Mattie carries her missing arm as a symbol of what’s wrong with her, but Marge carries her hugely pregnant belly as a symbol of what’s right with her. Mattie only brings death, but Marge is bringing life.
Is Mattie a feminist character? I don’t know if you can really apply ideology in that sense to feminist characters, nor should you. But Anita spells out what she considers important in a feminist story—interrogation of the notion that traditionally masculine characteristics (emotionally inexpressive, aggressive, dominating) are superior to traditionally feminine characteristics (emotionally expressive, cooperation, affectionate)—and I think that “True Grit” is absolutely that story. The violent, hyper-masculine Western is portrayed as leaving those who engage with it as broken, sad people who have no connection to others and who die unloved. Doesn’t get more critical of traditional masculinity than that. On the gender front, what makes this all very dark and tragic is Mattie has no real options, as a woman. Traditional femininity doesn’t serve anyone well in this harsh environment, either. But I’d say that’s just it—the Coen brothers routinely object to the very existence of soul-less, violent environments. Even so, it’s clear that nurturing is considered a higher moral good in this world. Rooster’s saving grace as a human is that he saves Mattie’s life. He abandons the world of the Western for a moment to nurture a child. And that’s basically the only good thing he ever does in his life, and it’s traditionally a feminine thing to do.