Grit for Girls

[minor spoilers, if it is a spoiler to give away the plot of a film based on a book published 50+ years ago] 

I was intrigued by one thing when I saw True Grit (aside from thinking it was a wonderful film), and that was the way the issue of sexual menace/attraction/risk for this young girl was handled (or ignored).

Sexual violence is something that is never mentioned as a danger for Mattie Ross. Whereas for a fourteen year old heading off with strange men in a film set in today's world, that would be an inescapable issue. Perhaps in a situation in which death from bullets or exposure were very real risks, stumbling into the path of a paedophile becomes a secondary concern. But I did notice, that while of course the two lead male characters were not going to take advantage of her (being the "good guys"), protecting her from such an outcome isn't something they mentioned either. Even when she was left alone - briefly - with the actual bad guys, who showed no interest in her in that regard either.

The Coen brothers mentioned in an interview the difficulties of dealing with the sexuality of the character, without sexualising her or the plot. On this week's NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Linda Holmes looked at this from the other side: focusing on the subtlety this demanded of Matt Damon's performance, in displaying as she put it "a hint of attraction" to this girl without seeming predatory. As Holmes rightly pointed out, if he had actually leered at the girl, he would have lost the audience completely.

But he was walking a finer line that that. Our main introduction to the character is when he has snuck into her bedroom while she is asleep, and tells her when she awakes that he thought of stealing a kiss, but that she was too young and not all that attractive. (some early version of neg-hitting? Telling her he didn't find her pretty in an attempt to make her more attracted to him?)

However, the scene that stuck with me as the strongest demonstration of the dilemma was when LaBoeuf (Matt Damon's character) tackles Mattie to the ground and starts caning her with a switch. While this is to demonstrate to her that she is a child, and subject to the discipline of the adults around, her response proves the opposite. She appeals to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to stop this, which he does. She makes that appeal as a woman, who it is completely inappropriate to treat in that way. A younger child would not have had such authority (imagine a similar plea from an 8 year old boy, who would have been told the punishment was well-deserved). This underlines the liminality of her adolescent state, and there is something inescapably sexual about a grown man spanking a teenaged girl.

Indeed, while negotiating the issues of the male characters' responses to Mattie, far more interesting was her responses to them. Such a precocious girl, in terms of her intelligence, doesn't seem to try to use female charm to persuade. But her asexuality is maintained when we see her as an adult. She has never married, not "having time" for such things. Her purity in this masculine world is the one element that stays.

Stanley Fish's review of the film in the New York Times emphasises its religious tropes, and its Biblical allegories are wonderfully layered. Indeed, the randomness of fate that is demonstrated is rather Old Testament in its ideas. He mentions that it succeeds more than the John Wayne version to be truly a film about faith: I think it also presents a different view. Whereas John Wayne was often figured as the saviour in such films (see how many times his character's initials are J.C. - including this film). I don't think the Coen brothers put Cogburn as the saviour. He is redeemed - perhaps - by saving Mattie Ross. But she is the one who leads him, and perhaps LaBoeuf, to salvation. At the same time she is the instrument of punishment for the bad guys. As Fish puts it, she has "faith in the righteousness of her path".

The Coen brothers have taken the child lead/narrator of a Western, and made her a feminist hero.