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.

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