January 18, 2011

Mattie Ross: True Brat?

Filed under: Film,Gender,Media — Tags: , , , , — Rachel @ 7:53 pm

The following post contains spoilers for the film “True Grit”


This morning Rachel Simmons tweeted a link to a story on her blog – a high school girl’s take on the adolescent female characters in the recent films, Somewhere and True Grit.   I was pleasently surprised when seeing True Grit, that the star of the film is a smart, brave, headstrong, gutsy, no-nonse 14-year old heroine named Mattie.  Unfrotunately the high school blogger who penned ““True Grit” and “Somewhere” Star Girls but Fail Girlhood” didn’t see her in the same positive light.

In fact, Fiona Lowenstein describes Mattie as: one-dimensional, “caricature”, “annoying, impossible to relate to, and not at all believable”, “dislikable”, “a joke”, ” self-satisfied” “irritating”, “rude”, “arrogant”, “braided blowhard”, “grating”, “smug”, and “pushy”.

Even if Mattie does come across this way – let’s look at a few reasons why she might be such a “grating, pushy, blowhard.”  First, when the movie opens, her father has just been murdered by a handyman he had hired to help him.  Then she’s not taken seriously by the horse salesman who tries to screw her out of money that is rightfully hers because he sees her as some silly illiterate 14-year old girl.  She tries to hire Rooster Cogburn, but he also sees her as an idiotic adolescent.  The Texas Ranger La Boeuf informs her the only reason he’s not sexually assaulting her is because she’s so ugly.  Shortly thereafter Cogburn lies and leaves without her.  The La Bouef lies and says he’s taking Tom Chaney when they find him so he can get payout on a contract. Now what could possibly compel Mattie’s character to have a defensive, head-strong attitude?  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that she’s mistreated every step of the way.  Oh, and it’s not the guys who end up taking down Chaney and saving the day.  When Mattie confronts him, she shoots Chaney twice, on two separate occasions.

Additionally, Fiona places the entire blame for her view of the above characteristics of Mattie on the Coen Brothers.  Apparently before going on a completely uninformed rant, she couldn’t be bothered to google to find out any history whatsoever about the film.  Like, that it was originally a book published in 1968 by Charles Portis, or that it was made as a film in 1969, starring John Wayne.  To say that the Coen Brothers may have written Mattie (which they didn’t – Charles Portis did) as “a joke” is to have zero familiarity of the history of their work.  In fact, the Coen Brothers stuck more closely to the source material than the original film adaptation.  (In the John Wayne version, the men do ultimately kill Chaney and save the day.)

The unfortunate thing about Fiona’s post is that it has the potential to turn young women away from the movie, and the Coen Brothers other films, when her piece was neither constructive or researched in any way.  Furthermore, is this the type of post that belongs on the website of an author who uncovered girl-on-girl crime in adolescence?  Is calling a female character a blow-hard helping anyone?  I certainly don’t think so.  An uninformed voice is a potentially harmful one.


9 Comments »

  1. I have always respected and enjoyed your work. I’m surprised that you would go so far as to say I shouldn’t run the voice of a teenage girl on my blog if she hasn’t done all her homework on a blog post.

    To suggest that Fiona’s blog is not “constructive” is not really fair. When I first read it, I was surprised that the apparently confident and brash Mattie would offend Fiona. I wondered if Fiona was at all affected by our culture’s attitudes towards confident girls — though to know Fiona, who is outspoken and confident herself, would be to struggle with that theory. Still, isn’t it interesting for a girl to experience a strong girl character in this way? It is a good question you ask: Why doesn’t Fiona take into account the other aspects of the film that you mention? This is not “constructive” for the blogosphere?

    Even if Fiona attributes the presence of Mattie to the Coen brothers and neglects to mention the book from which the film was adapted — a valid criticism– her reaction to Mattie is 100% worthy of a fair hearing. And even if this book is an adaptation, the Coen brothers are certainly in part responsible for the personality they help create as directors and writers.

    You write, “Is calling a female character a blow-hard helping anyone? I certainly don’t think so.” What’s wrong with calling a female character a blowhard? Since when does feminist discourse need to put on the kid gloves with other women? That is not a discourse at all.

    You may disagree with Fiona — and you should, we both welcome it — but to suggest that the nature of my work is somehow not consonant with running this blog goes too far.

    Comment by Rachel Simmons — January 19, 2011 @ 4:49 am

  2. @Rachel

    I wasn’t disputing allowing Fiona to blog on your site, I was simply questioning the merit of a post that criticizes a film without any context, research, or constructive criticism. Because the post doesn’t contain any context for Mattie’s behavior in the film, and instead resorts to baseless name-calling, I don’t believe it’s constructive, but that seems to be a difference of opinion.

    The issue with the Coen Brothers is that they’ve shown a pretty good history of not portraying female characters as a “joke.” Mattie’s character in the film is quite revolutionary, considering the context of the time period and location that the story takes place in. To reduce her to an “irritating, self-satisfied, rude, pushy” girl is, in my opinion, pretty short sighted and a little unfair. I can’t help but think of the connection to the negative attitudes feminists must deal with on a consistent basis – too loud, too outspoken, rude, pushy, etc. In fact, many women and feminists viewed Mattie as a fantastic role model for her out-spoken, head-strong attitude, something that is so rare in the mass media, that it garners a write-up on various blogs.

    To associate these negative attributes to a brave, strong, willful, and out-spoken young woman is to do women of all ages a disservice. One must consider the other side of the coin – if being out-spoken is a negative characteristic, would Mattie be viewed in a positive light if her behavior was quiet and obedient?

    In terms of the “blowhard” comment, I think there’s plenty wrong with it’s use. I’m not saying anything needs to be treated with kid-gloves, I just think it’s reductive and one-dimensional, especially with the complete lack of context of what propels Mattie’s attitude and behavior in the film.

    I’ve read your books, and frequently check the links you post on twitter. What you write and post tends to be well-researched, thoughtful, constructive critiques on growing up as an adolescent female in the U.S. So I was a little surprised to see a link to a post on your blog that displayed neither.

    Comment by Rachel — January 19, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

  3. I wonder if we see the “new” Mattie as a great female character because we’ve seen the “old” Mattie (the john Wayne version) and THAT character was whiny and annoying?

    I saw the original True Grit years ago, and when I was in a very anti-woman state of mind (and emotionally abusive relationship… hmm, funny how those two go together, isn’t it?), but I recall Mattie being very annoying and coming across as a silly little girl who wouldn’t shut up about her lawyer. (Maybe her childish qualities were accentuated by the fact that a 20-year-old woman was playing a 14-year-old girl?)

    In the Jeff Bridges/Coen brothers version, Mattie has that should-be-annoying quality because a 14yo should not have that power or authority. She should not boss people around; it’s out of place, and unusual, so it makes us see her as a bossy kid, but, as mentioned in this post, her circumstances force her to be that way — and in this version, she was successful in her endeavors. The first time we see Mattie she haggles with the horse-dude and WINS. She pulls the lawyer card, but she *accomplishes* something with it.

    In the new version, the men acknowledge that Mattie holds her own camping out with them and braving the elements (can’t remember if this is addressed at all in the John Wayne version).

    In the John Wayne movie, “true grit” clearly is meant to describe Rooster. In the Coen brothers movie, it refers to Mattie.

    After seeing the new movie, which I also heard follows the book more closely (it’s actually a movie adaptation of the book, as opposed to “a John Wayne movie”), I really want to read the book, because I *like* the character of Mattie now. I didn’t after watching the John Wayne movie — I felt THAT Mattie was meant as a joke.

    However, do I feel this “new” Mattie is a strong, feminist character because she is, stand-alone, or because *in comparison to the original portrayal* she comes across as strong?

    With regards to whether Fiona should have done her research, I agree that when she sat down to write the post and before calling out the Coen brothers she could have looked up some info, or at least noticed, while watching the movie, that the movie is an adaptation of a book, as noted in the credits. HOWEVER, even though the characters come from a book, the director and writer — both roles filled here by the brothers — can and do take liberties in how they interpret the characters; the actors make their own character choices, too. (A few years ago, my husband and a good friend were cast in two different productions of the same Christmas play. The two shows, even though they were the exact same script, were completely different, and the characters were portrayed completely differently by the actors.) Therefore, the Coen brothers do get the “blame” (or credit) for how Mattie comes across in their version.

    And, do we think the average moviegoer — especially female, non-John-Wayne-fan moviegoers — are going to do heaps of research before going to see the movie? In a way, Fiona’s “unresearched” reaction to the film and the character is closer to what other young women will see in Mattie than what those of us who were disappointed by the original have seen.

    Comment by Criss — January 19, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  4. When I first read your blog about my blog, I was concerned that I might not have gotten my point across clearly. But your response to Rachel Simmons’ comment actually reassures me that we are, in many ways, both referring to and concerned about the same things. You write that to reduce Mattie to an “irritating, self-satisfied, rude, pushy” girl is shortsighted and unfair. This is, in fact, exactly my complaint with the film’s treatment of her character. Why not portray a three-dimensionally assertive, smart, confident girl in a way that doesn’t come across as a robotic caricature? As a self-confessed assertive, outspoken girl myself (as anyone who regularly reads my blogs knows about me), I’m offended by the lack of subtlety and dimension to this character. She is no more a realistic representation of confident girlhood than the caricatures of feminists you allude to are realistic portraits of strong women.

    You’re right that the use of the word “blowhard” is “reductive and one-dimensional.” I used the word specifically because I was looking to describe the reduction and caricature of a potentially three-dimensional character who is made one-dimensional. If this is the only problem you had with that word choice, then we’re on the same page. If, however, you found the word shocked you or made you feel like you were witnessing some sort of girl-on-girl crime, then I would ask you to re-asses that double standard: would you have been as angered and caught off guard if the word had been used about a male character? I believe we are in dangerous territory when we start to act as if women need to handle one another with kid gloves.

    It has been said that my blog post was “unresearched,” because I failed to mention the 1969 version of True Grit, or the original book by Charles Portis. I do, in fact, introduce my analysis by writing that the film is a Coen brothers’ remake. However, I don’t believe True Grit’s background as a book or a remake takes any responsibility off the Coen brothers. If we accept your argument that the Coen brothers are not to blame, then no filmmaker who does a remake is ever responsible for his or her product. But the entire point of a remake is to, well, RE-MAKE the movie. Because a remake is an interpretation of the original, the film-makers are forced to evaluate and make choices, perhaps even more than with an original production. What to keep? What to revise? What to accentuate, and what to play down? If, for example, the 1969 version of Mattie’s character was one-sided, that does not mean the Coen brothers’ version of the character has to appear this way. I also have to agree with the previous responder, who stated that most teenage girls—or people, for that matter—will not be watching True Grit after having seen the original and read the book. These people may be left with the same impression I had—one of disappointment at a one-dimensional caricature of a character I had high hopes for. Does their not having watched the original movie or read the book make their impression any less valid?

    You have also asserted that I don’t provide context for why Mattie acts the way she does. That’s probably because I don’t believe we, as audience members are provided with that context. As for the “extenuating” circumstances that supposedly cause Mattie to behave in the way she does, most of them occur after our initial introduction to the character, during which she behaves as a one-dimensional caricature of what might have been a bright, headstrong girl.

    You ask if I am familiar with the Coen brothers’ films. As a matter of fact, they have made some of my favorite movies, such as Fargo and Burn After Reading—two films that humorously depict characters that we, as the audience, are obviously supposed to laugh at.

    What I hoped to make clear in my blog post is that I believe that real girls are no more Mattie than they other the other side of the coin – that is, Cleo from the film Somehwere, who I write about in my blog, as well.

    In any case, I’m happy that my blog got people talking – and thinking.

    Comment by Fiona Lowenstein — January 19, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  5. I am a 62 year old white male and I both enjoyed True Grit and found it a fascinating portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age story. When I was Mattie’s age ( early 1960’s) boys became men by going out and slaying a dragon and girls became women by being initiated into sex through the aid of a physically attractive, slightly older man, with questionable character. After all men were off to make war and women were off to make babies. The formulation of appropriate rituals of initiation in which boys become men was later greatly popularized by the poet Robert Bly and his presentations on public television. Many men’s groups were started by various organizations that are popular to this day. Center to the rituals is that a man must leave his family and show great personal fortitude and bravery in sleighing some sort of dragon. He may not come back alive, at least metaphorically, so if he does he has earned his manhood. This is pretty much what happens to Mattie. Boys who are beginning the ritual often appear cocky and later are chastened and humbled by the terrible experience of slaying their dragon. Think of the young rebel soldiers charging through the field in Gettysburg. I bet there were no proud, boisterous, rebel yells on either side at the end of that day. In my mind the movie is about a hero ( young Mattie). We aren’t expected to like her for her personality; we are expected to admire her for her behavior. Later in her life we might find that she turns out to be a perfectly likeable personality but young people on a mission are not likeable they are necessarily obsessed. I think a telling point in the movie is that Mattie clearly attains the respect, admiration, and platonic love of her two older male associates by the end of the movie.
    We are at a time of tremendous change in women’s role in our society. For example a commission has recently recommended that women be allowed into combat. Who would you like leading your platoon into mortal combat Mattie Ross 1969 or Mattie Ross 2010? Women are approaching equality in the work place and the recent recession has been dubbed a mancession because women frequently hold jobs that are more recession proof as well as holding traditionally male jobs such as being an engineer with the appropriate training. Many women will choose to be predominately providers and soldiers rather than predominately baby makers and these women need role models. Perhaps True Grit is a bitter pill but it is the right medicine.

    Comment by Joe Roehl — January 30, 2011 @ 11:50 am

  6. I am a 30yo female, outspoken as well as highly intelligent, have been studying film as an art form for 15 years, and have followed the careers of the Coen Bros, auteur theory, since “Raising Arizona” was released in 1987. Yes, I enjoyed bizarre films even as a child. I majored in film at University of Memphis, worked 5 years in an underground/indie video store, and have viewed over 20,000 titles to date.
    Without being pushy, rude, or grating, I can safely say I am an authority in film theory.

    In some ways I do agree with Miss Fiona regarding the one-dimensionality of most of the Cohen Bros female characters. Francis McDormand seems to be the only actress to escape this flatness and lack of dimension in the Coen’s female leads…mostly due to her sheer ability, timing, self awareness, and comedic/dramatic brilliance.

    However, perhaps it would be more constructive if Fiona and others would highlight how the Coen’s could have better constructed and portrayed this character rather than simply tearing at it’s weaknesses. We as a culture tend to be apt at deconstructing philosophical weaknesses pertaining to an archetype or model. Yet most lack the ability to reshape the vivisected philosophy,or character archetype in the case of Mattie, into a logical, realistic, and authentic thought-form.

    I would be far more interested in hearing how Mattie’s character could have been improved upon, how the Coen’s could have better conveyed this character archetype to suit Fiona’s sensibilities as a young and modern feminist, and what logical steps could have been taken in order shape this character into a worthy 4 dimensional entity..remember time is the 4th dimension film is capable of capturing.

    Hate to quote Wiki but it seems highly apropot in this case of alternate perceptions regarding the very same content in “True Grit”.

    “Deconstruction generally tries to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; that any text therefore has more than one interpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibility of these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point.”

    In essence, we could sit here and blog all day about the flaws of the Coen’s charachter portrayal of Mattie, yet we will never come to an agreement becuase we are all viewing the very same content through a different reality tunnel, filtering these interpretations through separate nervous systems, and we all have a range of varied experiences which shape our perception of the content.

    I think we may all disagree over whether this characterization was portrayed accurately and authentically.
    The point is moot as it is an opinion and a perspective. Whether the viewer had access to the original content makes not a bit of difference in this case. Fiona was commenting on the Coen’s interpretation…not the author of the book or the original screen adaptation.

    Although I disagree with her use of certain descriptive adjectives to describe Mattie’s character, I do think her perspective as a 14 yo girl is a valid opinion and assessment as there are very few accurate film characters that portray 14 yo girls as they truly have the propensity to behave and think.

    It irritates me slightly that older men feel the need to comment about the state of mind of a character that they cannot truly identify with in any experiential way. Fiona was speaking from an authentic perspective about how she feels Mattie is not indicative of herself or any other realistic multidimensional character in her age group or gender.

    To attempt to tell her that her opinion is misguided is like attempting to force her into that single dimensional flat caricature that many directors impose upon females. I think you gentlemen may have more effectively made her point for her rather than providing details as to how she was inaccurate in her assessment.

    The way in which she conducted herself in her responses proves that she is multi-faceted and capable of critical thinking..an attribute in which you purport the Mattie character to be capable of, yet you have no experience or basis in real life comparison.

    I close by quoting from Sophia Coppola’s adaptation of “The Virgin Suicides”

    Doctor: What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.

    Cecilia: Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.

    Comment by Barrett Rowan — February 11, 2011 @ 12:05 am

  7. I thought the character of Mattie Ross was excellently portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld. Moreover, I believe that character may come across as rigid because she is repressing a lot of emotions beneath a desire to fulfill what she believes to be her duty. I loved this movie! She wasn’t annoying, she was funny and brave and entertaining!

    Comment by Anon — June 28, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

  8. I loved your post.Really thank you! Cool.

    Comment by Mikayla Fann — January 16, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  9. If just I can meet real life Mattie Ross, I will marry her

    Comment by essenza — June 9, 2013 @ 8:50 am

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