True Grit, Mattie Ross and Feminism?

March 9, 2011

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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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.

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19 Responses to “True Grit, Mattie Ross and Feminism?”

  1. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I look forward to your videos! Get out of my head already!!! This is such great stuff, and I’m so proud to see you spreading this message that we are not a stereotype, and we’re just as bad-ass in our own (each individual) way, and just as worthy of value for more than some vapid, empty ‘ideal’ that holds us down as servile and secondary.

    Keep it up!!

    – a computer-programming, sci-fi/action loving, sports-playin, gender-role breakin, femme fatale that loves what you stand for!

  2. Hi,

    I just accidently came across your work and I must say: Thank you! I’ve watched a couple of your YT-clipps. They are amazing. You rock!

    As a father to a girl (currently age 7) I struggle everyday with letting her get a fair view of what a woman is (or at least can be if she isn’t too badly messed up by this society). Most of it I do by letting her know how great she is, or relating to women around us, but I often long for a movie (or other cultural outlet) that she will be able to enjoy later on that is respectful of women (don’t get me started on media for kids…grrr).

    Your work is so important to show both the current dreadful state of media but also how easy it would be to do it right.

    You bring hope.

    Thankfully,
    Tomas

  3. Congratulations on this new video. Not only I enjoy watching your (shared) opinions, they are a really nice source of inspiration and reassurance.

    I just wanted to add a comment here to suggest a review of the 2009 remake of “V” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1307824/). I’m a follower of the series, and I am really enjoying the evolution of Erika, one of the main characters. I think she is one female role who is actually succeeding in breaking a lot of the unwritten rules that female leaders usually fold to. I’d love to hear your opinion about it :-).

  4. [...] seen in female movie roles, I’m just not convinced that she’s a feminist character. Read More: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/03/true-grit-mattie-ross-and-feminism/#more-1396 "Benjamin, in 'Paris, Capital of the 19th Century' writes of the prostitute as a [...]

  5. [...] seen in female movie roles, I’m just not convinced that she’s a feminist character. Read More: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/03/true-grit-mattie-ross-and-feminism/#more-1396 "Benjamin, in 'Paris, Capital of the 19th Century' writes of the prostitute as a [...]

  6. Mattie is also determined, brave,loyal, and inquisitive — these seem like qualities and emotions that are valuable but not gender specific. Also, the men in the story are prideful, arrogant, foolish, and self-pitying. The strongest character in the story is Mattie. Ultimately we see that Mattie is (grateful) and affectionate toward Rooster. Respectfully, I think it was a more complex portrayal than you do. I think the character was designed for the harsh environment and bad men of ‘Indian Country.’

  7. Terrific blog by the way. I was directed here by Feministing.

  8. You’ve taken the thoughts out of my head!

  9. I just wanted to leave a comment to let you know how inspiring your blog is. I’m a teacher, I have very young students, and I’m always alert to the messages I send boys and girls and try to give both of them tools to develop as whole persons, not just gender stereotypes. It’s so difficult to fight society, school and parents! Your blog is great, and your videos are wonderful. I keep parading you on Facebook.
    Thank you!

  10. I do really enjoy your blog, but I have some points to raise about your comments on True Grit. First, the movie didn’t give background to Mattie’s character but not all stories need to give you the full history of each character in order to tell the story. After watching True Grit, I imagined that Mattie had a great relationship with her father and perhaps, on one of their nights out camping in the woods together (which she did mention in the film) he may have mentioned should the family ever lose him in his line of work that it’s Mattie’s responsibility as his eldest child to seek vengeance. In a setting like the old west, that’s a possibility.

    Second, Mattie did show a range of emotions. The first time she rode Little Blackie she was genuinely happy, and she was in despair when her horse had to die so that she could be saved. I disagree when you say that she showed no grief over the death of her father – she missed him, and perhaps she didn’t need to demonstrate the depths of her sorrow in an obvious fashion (would crying have made her more feminist?) but her determination to avenge her father is a demonstration of the depth of her feelings.

    Third, you said, “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.” Don’t you think that for her time period, Mattie was pushing beyond the societal norms and challenging gender roles? She was a young girl riding into the wilderness to seek or witness vengeance with two law men. She was fearless. She did not marry and lived her life as she saw fit, without filling the role of a farm wife which was probably expected of her. I also wonder if the Coen brothers were trying to portray her character as she was portrayed in the novel (I haven’t read it but I think that was their goal based on some articles I read) and they cannot be blamed for trying to stay true to the story by not giving a 21st century twist on her character.

  11. I really like what you are asking of feminist characters–that they not merely display traditionally masculine traits but show complexity. I know you claim that these are rare, but do you have any examples of fictional representations of women that “prioritiz[e] values such as cooperation, empathy, compassion, and non violent conflict resolution in a world largely hostile to those values”?

  12. [...] This woman is brilliant.   LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  13. [...] to stop by MCF for a chat…I’d love for us to talk Brit TV, quibble a bit about True Grit , and look at how comedy might rearrange the spread of traits (am hoping to get a copy of her [...]

  14. Really love the post and the blog! I completely see your point. Yet, I do think that Mattie Ross does change in the movie. It is a subtle change. Sure she is not very emotionally expressive, but I think there is a certain emotional arc that is fascinating and has us wondering not only about this period in our history, but also about this specific girl and what revenge and familial loyalty means to her. Yes, it seems she has been raised by her father to support certain masculine ideals, but by excluding her as a feminist, I believe we are then forced to exclude so many other wonderful female characters and historical figures from the past who were forced to utilize masculine characteristics and ideal to gain a certain amount of power for themselves and for women. Now, I believe you that we should be supporting present-day female characters whose characteristics fall in line with those you mentioned, but I think it would be unfair to exclude past female characters who could not rely on these characteristics to prove themselves to their patriarchal societies.

  15. Great post; I am all about the idea that a female character simply behaving like a man or in a “tough” way doesn’t necessarily make her feminist.

    However, I feel that your expectation that Mattie Ross should question capital punishment in a film taking place in 1880 is a little unrealistic. Of course it would be nice if every movie character looked straight at the camera and made a reasoned, principled stance against the death penalty (I might actually start paying LA ticket prices), but this is a remake of a film adaptation of a book that, again, takes place in 1880.

    Also – and I know it doesn’t necessarily make things better – but I don’t recall feeling like any of the characters in this story had any kind of meaningful arc. They were all pretty flat characters. In fact, the only story they gave us any real closure on was Mattie’s. I do agree with you that she shows very little emotion, but what would the ideal Mattie Ross have looked like for you? How much emotion is acceptable before someone says, “surprise, surprise, another female character who needs men with guns to save her.”

    “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.”

    Doesn’t Mattie Ross do all of these things? Doesn’t she verbally outmaneuver and outwit a crooked horse trader trying to take advantage of her? Isn’t taking up weapons and a horse and riding out into the wilderness challenging gender roles, not to mention gender roles in 1880?

  16. I found your site recently and love it tremendously. One thing though that I feel I have to express – I STRONGLY disagree with the assessment for the women & the Oscars segment that “Silence of the Lambs” is about a man. It’s about Clarice Starling, and very obviously so. Yes, when people think of the film, they think of the more sensational characters, but, based on the feminine strengths/traits as listed in this video (cooperation, empathy, etc.), and the requirement that a main character should have an arc, clearly Clarice is the main character in “Lambs.” No doubt about it. The entire film is about her coming to terms with a new position and a new case that make her uneasy, but she faces each obstacle regardless. Even when acting heroically (hunting down Buffalo Bill inside a dark house), she is shown as scared (emotional) to the point of shaking uncontrollably – but she gets the job done anyway. This makes her brave, like a normal person (male or female). And not some unrealistic myth of heroism that we imagine as fearless and unwavering. And yes, she’s an attractive woman, but she’s not eroticised or overly feminine. She’s just a normal woman. Clarice kicks butt as a great character and she deserves the recognition.

  17. [...] this video to see [...]

  18. “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.”

    So, what I’m getting here (and I may be misinterpreting you on this one), is that being emotionally inexpressive, having the need for domination or competition, & using violence as a form of conflict resolution are traits that are primarily male. That it’s wrong, or acting too male for a woman to conceal her emotions, striving for or desiring competition, or even being violent (although I would say non-violence is certainly the way I lead my life). How exactly? Women are competitive. Women can hide how they’re feeling. And women have been violent. Why does that mean they are adopting so called “male values”? Why can’t women behave that way, and still be considered to be behaving as women? You made competition and emotional distance sound negative. Why? What is so wrong about those traits? In excess, sure, but if someone wishes to be more reserved or enjoys being competitive, what is so wrong with that?

    And how is a character struggling with “prioritizing values such as cooperation, empathy, compassion, and non violent conflict resolution in a world largely hostile to those values” make a feminist character? Wouldn’t a feminist character be a woman treated as an equal to her male peers simply by virtue of being a human being? Again, maybe I’m misinterpreting what you said, but that’s what I’m gettign here.

    Anita Reply:

    Within our society and as reflect in our media, certain character traits are assigned to a gender, this is not the way humans *actually* are, we all, regardless of gender, have the capacity to embody the full range of human behaviours and traits. But in the media certain traits are clearly still identified as masculine vs feminine. For example, emotional inexpression is considered masculine, while compassion is considered feminine. And along with that division there is a value assignment. Masculinity and masculine identified traits are more highly valued in our society, and thus are more highly valued in the movie’s narrative.

    When we examine strong female characters, often times those characters we are quick to identify as “strong” are ones that embody mostly male traits, and we celebrate that, instead of examining and deconstructing what specifically we are ascribing value to.

    As for your last question I think the goals of feminism is more then achieving equality with men within our current social system but the liberation of all people, in a society free of oppression.