True Grit, Mattie Ross and Feminism?

March 9, 2011

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Author:

Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

Mattie Ross is the star of the award winning film True Grit.  She is a remarkable character being cast as a strong, tough, independent, and determined young woman.  While I think Mattie’s character is (unfortunately) rare in major Hollywood films, many people have been quick to call her a feminist character… I have a slightly different take.

If you were to create your own fictional female character, what traits do you think a good feminist character would and wouldn’t embody?

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For full video transcript click here >>

Mattie Ross is the star of the award winning film True Grit.  She is a remarkable character being cast as a strong, tough, independent, and determined young woman.  While I think Mattie’s character is (unfortunately) rare in major Hollywood films, many people have been quick to call her a feminist character… I have a slightly different take.

If you were to create your own fictional female character, what traits do you think a good feminist character would and wouldn’t embody?

Related Links and Articles:

Transcript

Mattie Ross is the star of the award winning western film True Grit by the Coen Brothers. This is a remake of the 1969 film staring John Wayne which is itself an adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis’ novel. The 14 year old lead character is played by Hailee Steinfeld, who much to my surprise was only 13 when filming the movie. This is a significant and welcome change from the original casting where actor Kim Darby was 21 when playing Mattie Ross.  It’s always nice seeing young actors playing lead roles in serious films, especially young women because they are offered so few of these.

WIthout giving too much away, this is a classic western narrative about the search for revenge, self reliance and independence in a harsh and unforgiving land.  The movie follows Mattie on her quest for revenge against the man who killed her father.  To help her in this venture, she hires notorious U.S. marshall, Rooster Cogburn, known for his ruthless grit.  The marshall initially dismisses and ridicules Mattie because of her age and gender, however she convinces him of her competence and they set out on the trail to find the killer.

For those of you who haven’t seen True Grit, there’s gonna be a few spoilers ahead.

What’s so captivating about Mattie’s character is how witty and smart she is, and how daring, self reliant, and independent.  She’s full of confidence in herself and her abilities in a hostile male dominated world.  These are traits rarely ascribed to female characters let alone teenage female characters. One of my favourite scenes comes early on when Mattie successfully negotiates with an unscrupulous horse trader.

CLIP
Mattie: “And I want $300 for papa’s saddle horse that was stolen from your stable.”
Man: “You’ll have to take that up with the man who stole the horse.”
Mattie: “Tom Chaney stole the horse while it was in your care, you are responsible.”
Man: Laughs, “Ya, I admire your sand (?) but you’ll find I am not liable for such claims.”
Mattie: “You are the custodian, if you were a bank, it were robbed, you cannot simply tell the depositors to go hang.”
Man: “I do not entertain hypotheticals, the world as it is is vexing enough.  Secondly, your evaluation of the horse is high by about $200.  How old are you?”
Mattie: “If anything my price is low, [name of horse] is a fine racing mare.  I’ve seen her jump an 8 row fence with a heavy rider, I’m 14.”

Mattie is a breath of fresh air, as Rebecca Keegan points out in her LA Times article,  “Given that female adolescents are frequently depicted on-screen as vapid (“Mean Girls”), angst-ridden (“Twilight”), pregnant (“Juno”) or merely decorative ( “Spider-Man”), Mattie Ross is a remarkable role. She never shakes out her braids in a makeover montage, swoons over a cute stable boy or frets about the daunting task at hand.”

I wholeheartedly agree however, I’ve been a little dismayed by some mainstream media articles and some blog posts that are quick to label Mattie a feminist character. Personally, I think this is a bit of a leap. While it’s certainly true that Mattie possesses a number of admirable traits rarely seen in female movie roles, I’m just not convinced that she’s a feminist character.  Here are the two main reasons why:

1. All characters need a good story arc where they are one way when the story starts and they learn a lesson or change or grow or regressing or something. The point is that the character has transformed from the place they were at the beginning of the story to some place different by the end.  For all intensive purposes, Mattie is basically the same person from the first scene to the closing credits.  From when she first steps off the train, she maybe a little bit naive but she’s still fairly confident, self assured, independent, and emotionally cold.  During her experiences traveling with Rooster and LaBoeuf, she retains all of those traits and seems fairly unaffected by the danger, brutality and death all around her.  As an adult she seems to have changed very little if at all, and that leads directly into point #2.

2. At no point in the film do we see a real range of emotion such as sorrow, despair or grief for the loss of her father. Mattie’s entire reason for being (as far as we are shown in the new movie) is to seek the death his murderer, an outlaw named Tom Chaney.  She is unwavering in her conviction that justice can only come through the hanging of Tom Chaney in the town square.  In fact the whole film frames the murder of Chaney as justice whether he meets his end via the state, the U.S. Marshals, or by Mattie herself.  It is never questioned that maybe an eye for an eye is not such a good idea.  We don’t see Mattie questioning capital punishment ie. the death penalty or really  considering any other potential forms of justice.  Even after she kills Chaney she still shows no emotion, in fact, no one in the movie seems to be emotionally affected by brutality, death or the suffering of others.

As we know, all people regardless of gender are capable of the entire range of human behaviours but since we live in a male dominated, male centered society traits stereotypically identified as masculine are most valued and consequentially more celebrated by Hollywood while traits stereotypically identified as feminine are undervalued and often denigrated.

This maybe one of the reasons why people are quick to adopt Mattie as a feminist character and other female pop culture characters who are considered strong and tough. The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more then women and our fictional representations simply acting like men or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and the using violence as a form of conflict resolution.

In my feminist vision, part of what makes a character feminist is watching her struggle with prioritizing values such as cooperation, empathy, compassion, and non violent conflict resolution in a world largely hostile to those values.

I think feminist characters should, like feminists in real life, push beyond the societal norms, challenge gender roles and the institutions that actively work to maintain them.

And let me be clear here, this is not to say that I don’t want characters who are flawed, because I do, I want characters who are subtle, who make mistakes and don’t always do everything right.  But I want those characters to fit into over arching themes where they’re not stuck into stereotypical roles such as the damsel in distress, the girlfriend, or the love interest or on the other hand I don’t want them just to recasting tough male roles for a woman to play which we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.

In True Grit, Mattie is certainly subverts expected gender roles by being witty and smart and competent and independent yet she’s not challenging the set of patriarchal archetypal male values ever present in most mass media narratives – she’s actually adopting them.