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Girl Grit: Feminism, Westerns, Sherlock, and Erasure

For reasons almost entirely irrelevant to this post, I have been mucking about with Westerns of late. I’ve seen a rather obscene number of That Sort of Film due to having grown up in California (they’re history! Srsly!) and having a Western-obsessed ex-father-in-law. I’m less hep on the literary front, but no slouchy stranger to it, I promise.

So I come from a place of some authority when I tell you that True Grit is really, really good. Both the book and the recent film adaptation–let us not speak of the original movie. Look, I know it’s JOHN WAYNE ZOMG and a classic and whatever, but it’s a ridiculous over the top movie that robs the novel of all it’s uniqueness and power. It cannot trust the words of the book, the simple power of the story. And they CANNOT STOP with that horrible theme song. Dmitri turned to me and whispered: “Did they…back then…did people just not know how to act yet?”

I think that says it all. Yeah, I don’t care for the Duke. What a shock. Clutch your pearls.

Whereas the Coen Brothers flick is pretty freaking great. It is miles more loyal to the book, which is GREAT, because DAMN, that book. It’s got this dialect thing going that is just easy and fluid and fabulous, it’s a tight, emotional, gorgeously written thing. A perfect marriage of style and content.

And what do you know, there’s a Strong Female Protagonist in it.

Watching TG for the third time–and it’s few enough movies I can do that with and not be bored–it struck me that this is a novel written in 1968, about the mid 19th century, in a genre notoriously hostile and uncaring toward women, by a dude who was born in 1933, and it’s got a complex, interesting, active female protagonist who is never punished for being a girl, who tells everyone who talks down to her to fuck right off, who moves the plot herself and in fact gets to shoot the man who wronged her. She is the point of view character and though she ends up a spinster, she dismisses any notion the audience might have to feel sorry for her or see that as a meet end for a girl who steps out of place, saying she never had time to fool with marriage. Her sheer amazingness does not preclude the presence of Rooster Cogburn, a compelling and iconic male character, nor the badassery and redemption arcs of the men in her company. It simply exists. (Though oddly I’ve seen people refer to Mattie in both film adaptations as a sociopath, which seems to miss the point entirely and say something quite ugly about the kind of people who think a girl doing what everyone in revenge plays have been doing since they were invented means she’s a sociopath.)

Yes, she’s 14, and many writers have fallen into the trap of believing a young/sexually immature woman can be allowed a freedom and level of interest older/mature women cannot, but I used to be 14 (crazy!), and I’ll tell you what, that’s well past the innocence of pre-adolescence. Mattie Ross, without a chain mail bikini or a giant sword or any need to reassure you that she’s just a girly girl at heart, tee hee, kicks ass. She does not give two fucks, and the text supports her in not giving them. It gives her space to work out her own story. She is neither impossibly strong, superpowered, crazy hot, nor wishing for a boyfriend.

You know, in 2012, the number of films and books that allow women to do this are vanishingly small.

Aliette de Bodard wrote an excellent post about the invisibility of women in Sherlock–but even more about how this is kind of a new thing, male writers just erasing women from their fictional cosmoses entirely. If you look back at Doyle, his contemporaries, his predecessors, though women might be harpies or evil or simply rewards for men, they were never just absent the way they are in portions of current television and film. People had mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and so did everyone they knew. You couldn’t just blot them out because you weren’t “interested” in them–every Greek play has one, some several, Shakespeare even at his bro-iest (surely Love’s Labour’s Lost?) still has multiple chicks on stage. Yes, older works are often misogynist and ugly. But the disturbing trend of showing only dead, silent, or supremely unimportant women briefly and then rushing back into a universe peopled only by hot men is (perhaps) our own special invention. At least it’s the addiction of a significant number of creative minds.

And I can’t help thinking that even in Serenity, the Future!Western authored by the Sainted Whedon who can do no wrong, does not allow River to fight the Operative herself. She can mop up Reavers offscreen–Reavers who are brutal but not official representatives of the government that harmed this girl nor out to get her particularly–but the great man-to-man battle that decides the narrative of the film, that’s for the big boys, kid.

A 1968 novel does better. The sheer centrality of Mattie, given that she has the classic bromance Big Men swordfighting with their egos around her, astonishes me, even though it shouldn’t. If Steven Moffat got ahold of this, she’d be a petulant, shouty superhot annoyance while the real story became Cogburn and LeBoeuf, who would naturally get all her best lines. Eventually we’d find out that Mattie’s brother sent her to do all this in the first place and planned it all. (I still cannot forgive that assassination of Irene Adler.)

All this is depressing as hell. Encouraging, I suppose, that the Coen Brothers made this film in 2010, that movies like Hanna still get made.Television is a worse state, and frankly most popular SF/F is incredibly dire on the sheer visibility of women, let alone any kind of 201 treatment of their stories. What. the. hell. It should be better by now. It was supposed to get better.

But I never thought I’d say that I wish more creators displayed the feminism of a 1960s Western.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

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This post is kind of the flip side to my complaint about Scorsese movies, particularly Gangs of New York as it happens. If all creators are going to be concerned about are Teh Menz, I would prefer that they just write their boy's stories as boy's stories and leave out women entirely, i.e. stop trying to graft The Token Love Interest To Preserve Heterosexuality onto the plot. Or else really integrate her and give her something to do, but please, anything but that horrible shadowy half-life that so many female characters seem trapped in.

Or acknowledge the fact that the world contains women, and not just one the Protagonist wants to fuck.

Making them just Boy Stories seems to be the trendy tack on this question--but that just creates a universe where women don't exist. And I don't see that as a solution.

Scorsese can bite me. Get over your mafia boner and we'll talk, Marty.

And I can’t help thinking that even in Serenity, the Future!Western authored by the Sainted Whedon who can do no wrong, does not allow River to fight the Operative herself. She can mop up Reavers offscreen–Reavers who are brutal but not official representatives of the government that harmed this girl nor out to get her particularly–but the great man-to-man battle that decides the narrative of the film, that’s for the big boys, kid.

Sometimes, like here, you're simply being wrongheaded.

I mean, stop and think about it: Mal barely manages to defeat a single man, and he gets his ass kicked in the process. River takes out innumerable reavers, and doesn't get a scratch. Oh, and then she sort of makes a fool of Mal in the final scene. Now...who's the greater hero?

Edited at 2012-03-14 10:27 pm (UTC)

*shrug* Sometimes we disagree. I'm hardly the only person to read it this way--River, while fascinating, is someone I see as consistently denied a voice in what happens to her, possibly denied a voice at all that's not cutesy nonsequiturs, and finally denied the ability to fight the battle that matters, against her actual tormentors. I see how th Reavers are meant to represent what the Alliance does, but that doesn't cut it for me.

I love Firefly, but I don't think any of the women come without hugely problematic writing. Obv YMMV.

John Wayne was at his best when he played a blatant sociopath. Not too many movies were willing to showcase him that way.

Love the new True Grit.

Reading this, I really, really want to read both versions of True Grit against The Searchers -- another movie with issues of female agency going on.

I've seen a similar complaint about LOTR-- that even though medieval stories weren't kind to women, at least they didn't leave women out of the story to the extent that Tolkien did.

Except that women aren't left out of Tolkien's narrative. They're behind it. Everywhere that women appear to be absent, it is explicit in the text that they have been sent away which means they do, in fact, exist. The only women in Minas Tirith are healers for the same reason Bergil is the only boy (because the city is under siege and civilians have left). Eowyn is the only woman who rides out with the Rohirrim because all the other women are left behind to run the country. We see no dwarvish women because no dwarf woman identifies herself as female to outsiders. Galadriel may not have much book screen-time but her name comes up every chapter of Frodo and Sam's journey in Mordor proper as an off-screen force protecting the Ringbearer. Hobbit women are the political protesters who are highlighted during the Scouring of the Shire -- Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is heralded as a hero for her willingness to protest against her son and Rosie Cotton is at the forefront restoring the Shire.

Women aren't a huge part of a story of military action and a secret journey, but women exist and Tolkien clearly thinks about them overall and that they exist, when you take the appendices of the Lord of the Rings into account as well as his expanded works. Women very clearly exist in Middle-earth and do things that aren't being romanced dudes (he has a lot of women who run countries in his extended worldbuilding, for example), though Peter Jackson seems to have forgotten this.

Sorry, the "women don't exist in middle-earth" complaint is a pet peeve of mine. I confess to being a biased Tolkien freak and a medievalist, though, and having a very particular (that is to say, medieval) sort of interpretation of Tolkien's societies.

Loved the new version of that movie! I think what we get nowadays is "kick-ass" females which means sexy women who get to do physical activities (hence the 'kick') but are not really given the agency or importance necessary to produce a Strong Female Protagonist. That's because most creators of fiction fixate on 'Strong' Female (give her the capacity to do back-flips) but forget Protagonist.

Hence people say, "oh, those chicks in 'Sucker Punch' are strong females cause they have swords and fight robots and shit." Um...no.

Edited at 2012-03-14 10:43 pm (UTC)

It's also a lot easier to appreciate "hot female kicking ass" without actually having to, y'know, empathize with her. Heaven forbid.

"Though oddly I’ve seen people refer to Mattie in both film adaptations as a sociopath, which seems to miss the point entirely and say something quite ugly about the kind of people who think a girl doing what everyone in revenge plays have been doing since they were invented means she’s a sociopath"

I agree completely. I've read similar comments about Hit Girl from Kick-Ass and Arya from the Song of Ice and Fire series. Both are pre-adolescent/adolescent girls who engage in violent acts out of revenge and survival. If these young women are sociopaths than we should require all action heroes of any gender who kill indiscriminately for a "just cause" to be defined as sociopaths. This list would then have to include classic icons of action badassery such as John McClain, Rambo, Sarah Connor, and people Bruce Lee played. Yeah these are all adults but if you're going to apply the term "sociopath" to kids you can definitely apply it to grown men and women.

If we're willing to accept that sometimes hard decisions must be made, and that those hard decisions will occasionally (or frequently) mean murder, in the case of male action heroes then the same concessions should be made for female action heroes. It's not like you see McClain, Rambo, or Douglas Quaid contemplating the moral implications of their combined hundreds of killings. Like. Ever.

And yeah. I am a huge 80s action nerd.

I'll be cynical and say we call them sociopaths because we can't sexualize them. If they can be sexualized, (say the girls in Sucker Punch), then we are willing to accept them as 'normal' folks. But there's something unsettling about the female child killer because she's not there to be eye candy.

Loved True Grit. (Though I must confess I enjoyed both movie versions.)

Oh and also:

"She is neither impossibly strong, superpowered, crazy hot, nor wishing for a boyfriend."

That is something that really impressed me about the character of Olivia Dunham on the Fox Sci-fi show Fringe too. She's not exactly dowdy but her appearance is all function and very little sex appeal (unless ill fitting suits and loafers are your thing). They did enter into compulsive male-female partner will-they-or-wont-they territory later on but just the fact that Olivia was allowed to be an FBI agent first and the sexy blond chick trotting around the city kicking balls somehow while wearing 3 inch heels never was awesome. For example, Kate Beckett in Castle is cool but honestly? Do police detectives really wear heels that high in real life? I can barely run in kitten heels. By understating Olivia's appearance, the show allowed the audience and the story to focus entirely on her personality (or lack-there-of for the majority of the first season), her abilities as an FBI agent, and her story arc. It was like suddenly everyone was going, "Oh yeah! Olivia's awesome because she can do this and this and this" and not, "That blond chick on Fringe? Yeah remember how great she looked in the red number for the jewel heist episode?"

What's also irritating about Kate in Castle is that she starts out much closer to an Olivia, and gets more and more glam as the seasons progress. Put season one Kate against season four Kate, and the difference is startling.

My only bone to pick with your analysis here is that the death of Irene Adler is Holmes canon, straight from Sir Arthur himself, though he only refers to her death off stage and in the sentence at the beginning of A Scandal in Bohemia where Watson refers to her as the late Irene Adler. Even from the beginning of that story, she was already dead.

That being said, fuck canon and yes, I am ridiculously huge Holmes nerd. Aside from the awesome Carol Nelson Douglas novels, I do not see why everyone has to keep killing her off! If you're gonna re-imagine the verse, you can totally keep her alive!

But then, y'know, you'd have to write a female character who is as smart as Sherlock fucking Holmes. And apparently we can't have that.

That's not what I meant. I meant the idea that Moriarty planned all her moves for her. That's character assassination.

Good point about even Whedon nodding on this sort of thing, though to be fair it seems like a long time since I've heard or read anybody honestly claiming he can do no wrong. Dramatically, I actually think the bit with Mal vs. the Operative would have worked better if Mal was beaten, or at least really on the ropes and not able to pull a come back, and the Operative is monologuing a little bit more on his whole 'greater good' riff, when River, who has managed to make her way to the antenna array after mopping up the Reavers, pipes up with a quiet "Excuse me" from the shadows - and then proceeds to systematically take the Operative apart physically AND rhetorically.

"harpies or evil or simply rewards for me,"

I know what you meant, but can only read this with a distinct emphasis/elongation on me.

Also, I'm now totally going to watch True Grit, which is not a sentence I previously would have imagined writing. Thank you.

Yes. I liked the Coen Brothers Mattie MUCH better than the John Wayne one. Much more true to the story and the character of Mattie than the first movie.

Your comments about the "sociopath" interpretations of young women who kill reminded me of Mathilda in Leon/The Professional. In a film where everyone is a killer or maladjusted of some stripe or another, the way people cringe away from her because of her age (and, I think, her gender) fascinates me. Sociopathy is such a specific thing, and while Mathilda clearly has psychological issues of all kinds (if nothing else, she is a traumatized child BEFORE the murder of her family), she remains capable of deep emotional insight and a nurturing empathy that rules her out of the sociopath diagnosis.

I've been chewing on this post (and its comments, you have such interesting readers) for a bit.

Oh now there's a movie I do love.

Loved Hanna SO much. Hated the Moffat take on Irene Adler.

And you have persuaded me to read "True Grit".

I think Sherlock is girls in drag.

Okay, seriously. When I saw Star Wars in theatres when I was 7, I wanted to be Han Solo. I was mindblown when he kissed Princess Leia. I thought the whole series was over, hell, life was over, when he was dropped into the carbonite. My friends and I researched cryogenics to find out if he could survive. when he was all weak like a newborn puppy when he was freed, I was PISSED that he didn't come sauntering out of that carbonite coffin and blast Jabba right between the eyes.

I think the Sherlock thing is visual transvestism. female viewers can identify with the characters while simultaneously wanting to bang 'em.

I want to read/watch True Grit now. My dad likes westerns, maybe we can have a daddy-daughter bonding moment.

I'm curious: have you been watching Once Upon A Time? I'd love to have a discussion about that show in a feminist context. But I don't really know where to get started.

Okay firstly, assassination of Irene Adler? I don't recall that from the stories at. Yes it has been a while since I read my Holmes, but I would have thought that would have stuck.

Secondly, I can understand why you have serious issues with the original movie version of True Grit, but it has a place in my heart because when I saw it in my youth there were few movies with such a strong complex female character, and even fewer in a western, so yes it may be imperfect, but for its time it still was important.

Irene Alder is put to death by Taliban fighters at the end of the Moffat A Scandal in Belgravia. In the original story, Watson calls her "late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory" at the end of the first paragraph. Remember, the conceit of the original stories is that Watson is writing them up quite some time after the events happened.

My desperate hope was that Moriarty would be a woman. When that didn't happen, my disappointment was such that I have not yet watched the second series. I am getting very tired of the Moffat world.

That was also my hope. I think we both forgot who ran the show.

The Battlestar Galactica reboot has squllions of female characters who do all sorts of cool stuff. And everybody is fucked up and a fool for love, not just the women!

I wish I had something more constructive to say than "this! +1!" but it's too early in the day.

You rock pretty hard, lady. One day I'll make you dinner.

Yes. One HELL of a book, both times I've read it. First, about 5 years ago after starting to write a weird Western at a workshop, and then again after seeing the new movie version in the theater. A great movie.

But the book. Oh, the book. Everything you say about Mattie is spot on (I hate that phrase, but can't think of anything more appropriate right now), and I also love how unromantic the setting and time are made to be, as opposed to your typical Western.

And the spare writing style! I could go on, but I won't.

BTW, have you read 'Lonesome Dove'? The female characters aren't as front & center as Mattie, but they're marvelously characterized, IMO.

Lonesome Dove should be on its way to my house as we speak. ;)

And though the writing is spare it's highly stylized. I'm fascinated by this combination.

So have you watched Deadwood yet. At least in that one the sexism is something that Milch is commenting on as in the proscribed lives of proper women vs. the proscribed lives of the prostitutes (who make up most of the women in season 1) with Calamity Jane who is very masculine in appearance and speech.

I have seen Deadwood and I love it, for the first two seasons anyway. Another amazing application of stylized writing. And yeah, the text doesn't forgive the sexism or glory in it like some HBO shows.

If Steven Moffat got ahold of this, she’d be a petulant, shouty superhot annoyance

Might I please say that, with this single sentence, you have won the Internets?

The new companions have bothered me immensely (even Donna, who was the best of them all), but I couldn't quite articulate *why*. Thank you for articulating it.

You know, the best writer of classical westerns eas a woman... not to mention that Hawks' Rio Bravo and its two lesser remakes were the work of Leigh Brackett, but have you ever read Dorothy M. Johnson? Only two books of stories, but among those stories are "A Man Called Horse", "The Hanging Tree", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"... what they thought of women in the real West can be seen by the fact that two of the western cowboy states were the first ones to give women the vote, and that can be seen in Johnson's stories, she was a great writer ("Scars of Honor", one of the best stories I ever read)... and what passes for a movie these days is best left unmentioned and unwatched, with rare exceptions like the True Grit; the first movie was Duke hamming it up (he had some fine roles, but this one isn't one of those) directed by Hathaway, a routine and unimaginative director... Duko finally got that Oscar he deserved for Searchers and Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but not for that one

Wayne did get the Oscar for True Grit. The screenplay for the original film, for all its flaws, was also written by a woman.

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