26 August 2011

True Grit and Winter's Bone

Not-quite a movie review:

I have certain issues with the trends in movies. On one hand, it’s nice that girls get to be part of the action these days, and aren’t always mere damsels in distress or MacGuffins* for the heroes. But on the other hand, I don’t always agree with or like the way this phenomenon is executed. Most of the time the women are no less objectified than they were when they were just dames to be rescued. Moreover, they are given unrealistic abilities that border on super-powers (or just literal super-powers) that make their heroism ring a little false. This is done for men and for women, but for some reason people think that when women are made unrealistically invincible it is 'empowering.' And I'm just not convinced that's accurate.

(*MacGuffin is a term used to describe an item that by its existence, or it’s having been stolen or activated, drives the plot-line. In poorly constructed stories it is usually a completely interchangeable item and you could absolutely get away with calling it “That thing” throughout the entire movie/book. “We must rescue the thing!” or “If we do not retrieve the thing, the world will end!”)

A Small Rant

So you have this recent rash of movies wherein a sexy lady—or a small girl, because that’s popular too—becomes the center of all the punching, kicking and bullet rain. On one hand, Bruce Willis’ John McClane (of Die Hard) is almost as unlikely a beast as one of Angelina Jolie’s slinky, cherry-lipped fighter-chicks. But there is a part of me that gets much more irritated when one of her lanky arms lands as hard a hit as one of Willis’ muscly ones. Ladies and gentleman, just because they added in a wince-inducing sound for the landing of the punch, does not mean that it would really land that way. In fact, I have this vague feeling that she would break her wrist.

Now, I’m aware that these types of movies do not purport to be realistic. I get that. So if Willis’ John McClane can escape a high-rise roof explosion by tying a fire-hose around his waist, to then shoot through a 35th story window, and make it in JUST IN TIME…why should I criticize the unlikelihood of tooth-pick sized girls throwing knock-out punches then striking a pretty pose?

Well, I’ll admit, one’s a fantasy same as the other. The latter is just THAT MUCH MORE unrealistic, while purporting to be just as likely, and I guess it begins to broach my limits for suspension of disbelief. Or perhaps it’s because, while I do not have experience with explosion-fire-hose-roof-rappelling-glass-shooting escapades, I do have experience with martial arts matches with guys. I’ve done Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MCMAP (Marine Corps Marital Arts Program) with men—guys my size and guys bigger than me—and I’m telling you THE MOVIES LIE even more than they thought you did. I have an affinity for punching things, mind you. I’ve punched my knuckles bloody on a 75 ILB bag, and that’s half (or less than half) the weight of an average guy—and much softer. And it wasn’t hitting me back or anything.

So I know I can carry a guy who weighs more than me (to a point). But not as fast as he can. Not that that isn’t frustrating. But things can be frustrating and true at the same time. I am not that stellar a fighter, by the way, so I have not beaten a guy bigger than me in a straight match. Or even in a crooked match, frankly. I have, however, beaten girls bigger than me on occasion, and (once) a guy my size.

Just trying to put it into perspective here. I like a little more realism in my action movies than that. Just a leetle more. Besides you’re gonna have to do more than give her some pretty trickle of blood down her cheek to make me believe that she got beat up.

On to the real subject of the day, Movies That Got It Right:

Not so very long ago I watched two films—True Grit and Winter’s Bone—in rather close succession and I was impressed with both for the same reasons, despite each film having a very different tone, because they have similar elements, themes and strengths. The main similarity is that they have realistic, admirable female leads. Action films with female leads tend to make me roll my eyes. These did no such thing. I don’t want to review the movies so much as I want to comment on the viability of the characters they present as role models. Brief summaries for each ought to do (no spoilers).

True Grit: A remake of an old John Wayne Western in which a young girl, Mattie, sets out to avenge her father’s murder. She hires a hard, old wastrel of a Marshall to help her accomplish the task, claiming she needs someone with “True Grit.” They reluctantly team up with a Texas Ranger who is searching for the same criminal and though both the Ranger and the Marshall try to get rid of Mattie, she is the one with true grit, and she accompanies them. Given the era (late 1800’s, I think) this would have been quite bold and surprising.

Winter’s Bone: Set in modern day. The protagonist, Ree, lives in a poor rural area in the Ozarks and takes care of her two younger siblings due to her father’s absence and her mother’s incapacity. Drugs in general and meth in particular constitute a huge issue in the area—nearly everyone participates in one or more of the following: the manufacture, sale, distribution or use of meth. This includes Ree’s Dad, who is due to show up for a court date, but who has disappeared. Unless he is found, Ree’s family’s house will be handed over due to it being part of her father’s bail bond. The film follows her as she tries to either find her Dad alive, or prove that he is dead, so as to save her family’s home.

Two Sides of the Same Coin:

True Grit has comedic moments here and there and a milder take on a rather serious subject matter. Winter’s Bone is the more harsh—the darker—of the two films. Yet both take their young protagonists very seriously, and treat their individual circumstances with an even hand.

Additonally both films:

1. Are realistic in how they approach certain things, such as disparity in strength, social codes and local culture.

2. Deftly handle linguistic nuances: the rural idioms of the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, and the westernness and almost jarring absence of contractions in True Grit.

3. Showcase a deep, driving love of family. Either to avenge the dead, or protect the living.

4. Have Protagonists that practically any young women could look at and say “I hope to God that I would be as strong and determined as she in such a circumstance.”

5. Have more or less incapacitated mothers, and fathers that are no longer in the picture (even though they drive the picture).

6. Male “mentors” who are less than moral, and less than worthy, but remain important to the protagonists.

7. Showcase both necessary flouting and manipulative/pragmatic utilization of local rule-of-law.

8. Pay attention to practical details of daily life and survival under harsh circumstances.

Keeping up Appearances:

Regarding the gorgeous, well-dressed fighter-girl-type…you have NOTHING on the ladies depicted in these films.

These young women, though both quite beautiful in their own right, are kept somewhat plain for the roles they play. Steinfeld in True Grit has her hair in thick braided pig-tails—no foolishly flowing hair here—and she spends essentially the entire movie dwarfed inside a thick winter coat. Granted, she is quite a young actress still, so trying to make her sexy would have probably just been awkward. However people have tried it on 11-14 year olds in movies before. Anyhow, Lawrence of Winter’s Bone is also dressed in thick warming layers throughout the entire movie and though her hair is left down, it comes off as though it’s because she cannot be bothered to mess with it: more important things are happening than her hair. It even looks a little stringy and untended here and there.


And Ree:

Why am I emphasizing their respective appearances? I’m pointing it out because blessedly little fuss about it is made by comparison to movies like The Matrix, where the girl is tough and all—but she’s constantly in tight-fitted clothing in case people get bored of watching her be tough. (Don't get me wrong. I like that movie--the first one, that is--and I like that character.)

In True Grit and Winter's Bone, these girls are characters, not objects, and that is the essential reason I’m calling attention to their lack of glamour. Now, you shouldn’t have to dress a girl down to show her strength of spirit, but in the case of these films, I think it served well because it perfectly fit the scenarios in which they found themselves. And I suspect that to be the case for such circumstances broadly speaking. I hesitate to post pictures from boot camp or deployment to prove my point, but I found one that will suit:

See those gams? Yup that's me. Bling in the boots, helicopter-grease-stains on the cammies and eva’thing. Doing gritty work normally doesn't  permit you to wear fancy stuff.

Now, I read an article by an on-line e-zine writer, who guiltily noted that he wasn’t sure he was being any less sexist by cheering the onslaught of super-powered, tough chicks in movies and video games. Because they were all gorgeous, coifed, sexy, leather-clad tough chicks, so there was no loss of the original purpose (back in the day of damsels-in-distress): to look “hot.” (I’m generally not a fan of the use of that word. It implies a complete disassociation of person from body and is, therefore, not a compliment unless that person knows you really well and their regard for you as a person is long-since established. It is not a compliment in passing or new acquaintance. I have a tendency to chastise my little brothers should they be so foolish as to use that word about a girl they barely know in my presence. The youngest thought me silly.  I think he rolled his eyes. He's good with the ladies, so this is as yet unresolved.)

Regarding Violence:

Perhaps this is a silly reason to get irritated, but nevertheless I do get irritated when someone in the movies gets beat up and it doesn’t seem to really affect them at all—or it doesn’t really mar their appearance in a realistic way. It seems silly to me that they should continue to look fine, just with some delicate drops of blood on their face. What about bruising and swelling? Well Winter’s Bone remedies that nonsense by making its protagonists injuries painfully realistic.

(This is much the milder of the photos)

In True Grit, when Mattie first shoots a gun, it knocks her back, as it very likely would. These young women are taking on daunting tasks, but not blithely. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work out as planned. Mattie knows when to fight, when to yell for help, when to sit back and wait for the right moment...and when to shoot.

The Best Role Models are Those That Can Exist in Real Life:

The reason I’m making all this fuss over these films and over their depiction of young women is because it stands in contrast to a lot of the other stuff out there. Much like many irritating aspects of post-modern feminism, films and novels often try to portray strong women by falsifying them, their circumstances or their capabilities.

I believe that a New York cop could be a good shot and could throw a good punch, but I doubt he could jump onto and then off of a moving fighter jet (Die Hard 4: greatest, silliest scene). I believe that a young woman can take a brutal beating and recover, refusing to give up on protecting her family and their home, but if you make her knock out a guy with her pinky she becomes just as silly that fighter-jet scene. And if over-the-top action-thriller is what you’re going for, that’s fine.

But if you’re trying to show a strong person facing hardship—someone to respect and admire—and you have the gall to call them a role model for young women—it’s best to show them at a real-life level of strength.

So I point to these two films as examples of strength of character, untainted by fantasy, wish-fulfillment or Computer Generated Images. The virtues and gritty determination shown by these characters is not out of reach. It's not something to day-dream about, but something to truly have.


  1. I LOVED this one. You were witty, funny and snarky!! Tada, well done!

  2. Love the beatings in Brick!
    I really wish the right people will read your blog and realize that their empowering of women is merely falsifying them. A lot of women's strength comes through our ability to endure and keep moving forward (e.g. childbirth) not through our, as you put it, super-power ability to beat up guys bigger and stronger than us.
    I really liked this one, I wish a lot more people would just think like you...no wait, not really, because that would be terrifying...but you know what I mean.

  3. Yeah, Brick is another one of those where the character gets beat up and it starts to really take its toll. I might review that one on here some time.

    The funny thing is, though I say all this, I'm COMPLETELY that girl who wants to get in fist-fights and BE those characters (the John McClane types...or like Brendan in Brick, who is a little closer to this side of realistic). I'm just advising that people who have that same bizarre bent as I be a little more pragmatic in their approach. Part of why I like BJJ is because it's a sport that a smaller person can use to their advantage. The thing that can give a smaller person an advantage over someone superior in strength or size? Superior training. And that takes a LOT of time and effort. And wiliness.

    The strength can come in a lot of different packages, and I just really thought these movies stood out among the crowd of others that just put a girl in a spandex cat-suit, give her matrix cgi moves, and call it a day. Even John McClane had to walk through glass and suffer some, y'know?

    Thanks Brandi for calling it witty! It makes me feel all warm inside.