- I could see two of the actors acting.
- At first, Bridges’s “Rooster” Cogburn is over the top, too gruff; he just plain “overacts,” one reviewer claims.
- The dialogue sounds unnatural without the use of contractions.
- While most of the film defies traditional Hollywood representations of women (yay!), the epilogue does not (e.g., because of young Mattie’s independent nature, she’s “punished” later in life as a steely, one-armed spinster).
Later that evening, I engaged in a friendly debate on Twitter with film critic Matt Zoller Seitz and Craig Simpson about the way True Grit ultimately handles its lead female character and whether she was, in fact, disciplined for her activity in the film.
First, Matt explained that he didn’t feel Mattie wasn’t punished for anything. Rather, he claimed, “She lived to an old age and was independent; moreover, the voiceover makes it clear that she would have gotten married if she found some man she’d fancied (but didn’t).” Second, he reminded me of the scene in which Mattie humorously barks to a man who refuses to stand in her presence, “You can keep your seat, TRASH.” What’s not to love about this character, right? For the most part, Craig offered the same reading as Matt, maintaining that True Grit‘s epilogue is actually “the exact opposite of ‘traditional Hollywood.’ Had Mattie grown up, married LaBoeuf, and come out unscathed,” that would be conventional, he argued.
I completely understand Matt’s and Craig’s points here, and with some of them, I agree. As a middle-aged woman, Mattie retains the same determination or grit that she did in her youth. For instance, although maimed, she walks about town with her head held high, unconcerned what others think about her (see the “trash” line above). Also, according to her voiceover (as Matt points out), she elects to live alone; it is apparently her decision. Finally, revealing her grit and independence, adult Mattie has the authority and wherewithal to move Cogburn’s grave to her family’s plot so she can visit it often.
With that said, I still feel that the film’s ultimate portrayal of Mattie is rather conventional, in sync with Hollywood’s typical fare. As I wrote in the previous post, yes, Mattie’s final voiceover tells the viewer that she never found love or married because she “just didn’t find the time for it.” But what does the frame show us? Steeliness, resoluteness, unhappiness, disfigurement, the semblance of spinsterhood. To quote one of my friends/colleagues, “It bugged me that Mattie ended up a spinster bitch, right down to her hair pulled back. I wanted more depth, a sense that her grownup self had developed more.” Additionally, my colleague confided, “I was also annoyed when the voiceover said she hadn’t married. Why should that even need mention?” Agreed.
By now, many filmgoers are familiar with the Bechdel Test, “a quick way to gauge the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and [to see] how well rounded and complete those roles are.” (Watch a video here.) To pass the test, the film in question simply needs to respond positively to these three questions:
- Does the film have at least two women in it?
- Do they talk to each other?
- About something besides a man?
I would argue that between 80% – 90% of Hollywood films cannot pass the Bechdel Test (I’m basing this on any weekly Top Ten Box Office list). As the video above points out, these results demonstrate that complex and interesting female characters are grossly underrepresented or nonexistent in the film industry, which is unsurprising since most films are made by and for men.
With this in mind, I’d like to initiate a similar test based on my “Gender and Film” lectures, much of which derive from a chapter in Peter Lehman’s and William Luhr’s book, Thinking about Movies: Watching, Questioning, Enjoying. In honor of the authors, I’ll call this the Lehman/Luhr Test.
- Does the film contain female characters?
- If so, do they function as more than mothers/wives or whores?
- Are the female characters active?
- If so, does their activity revolve a sphere other than romance or domesticity?
- Do the female characters avoid being saved by a man? (Theoretically, “saving” generally eliminates a woman’s independent status, placing her more firmly within/under a man’s control.)
- Do the active female characters avoid scarring, maiming, rape, and/or death? (Such events often serve as punishment for independent and/or sexual women, marring her beauty/worth, i.e., her power.)
- Finally, do the women avoid gratuitous fetishization and/or objectification? (This implies a particularly male way of looking at a woman’s body, thus eliminating her independent status.)
If a film can respond positively to these seven questions, then we’ve got something to talk about — something unconventional, something unique.
So how does True Grit measure up?
Update 12/28/10: In my next post “Challenging Onscreen Masculinity,” I create The Lehman/Luhr Test for Men.