Tuesday, December 28, 2010

First Impressions, cont.: True Grit

Anita, inspired by not just your thoughtful review, but the mere act of going to the movies (with your SO! not for the "Mommy and Me" film! [I'm still traumatized by having to see Made of Honor at such a showing]), I and Jaspret used the movie tickets we were gifted by our friends Jenn and Jamie and went to see the new Coen brothers film, True Grit.

There are already many glowing and very well-written reviews of the film, but I want to focus on an aspect I think you would find particularly interesting - its promotion of a brand of feminism rarely seen in Hollywood today.
Certain white women advancing at the expense of people of color is not a new feature of Western feminism. During the British colonial period, white British women could escape the confining dictates of Victorian domesticity by traveling to the colonies where racial privilege endowed them with power and authority unavailable at home. British feminists in the late nineteenth century often drew on Orientalist depictions of "Eastern female oppression" to bolster their own cause or argue for their own rights as white women. Some southern white women in post-bellum America reproduced racial stereotypes to argue for their inclusion in the KKK, and suffragists exploited the specter of a minority voting bloc to make a case that white men needed white women to have the vote. Even Margret Sanger, finding herself rebuffed by the Socialist movement, fell in with the American Eugenics movement in her effort to legalize birth control. There are numerous, more contemporary examples as well. Second wave feminism may have been more careful in its language, but nonetheless women of color were often reduced to ciphers of those features feminism wanted to ajbect.

This storied history is why I was dismayed to see a similar equation at work in True Grit. I don't know if anyone is calling the film feminist, but I think one of its most appealing features (and there are many) is that it refigures the masculinist world of the Western, calling into question the reductive simplicity of its most beloved figures (the stoic cowboy, the outlaw/hero) and providing an authentic female protagonist who comes to embody the personality trait celebrated in the film's title. But for all of the filmmakers' attention to detail, and their challenging of traditional generic conventions as well as more general Hollywood gender depictions, their portrayal of people of color seems to belie this self-consciousness.

There are not many characters of color (not necessarily an issue in and of itself). Those that are portrayed fall into two categories: 1) characters that help give "local color," and 2) characters that help establish the female lead, the brave, pious, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (played by an amazing Hailee Steinfield), as an unique embodiment of true grit. Included in the first group is a Native American criminal who is denied a chance to speak his last words before being hanged, a wizened Chinese grocery store owner who rents a dirty cot to Jeff Bridge's Rooster Cogburn, and a stoic Native American who takes a dead body after Mattie cuts it down, and then later sells the body for a few dental mirrors and snake oil.

Ok, so nothing new here. We've definitely seen these characters before, but in that their function is to provide a sense of period authenticity, fine, whatever (although the fact that the first instance was played for laughs becomes troubling when combined with a later scene that I'll get to in a minute). It's the second set of characters that really led to this post. The first in this group is the black manservant whose indecision and wavering act as a foil to Mattie's determination, and establish her as authoritative in the first moments of the film. She quickly dispatches him back home, and sets out alone to avenge her father's murder and set his business in order. The second is a young black stable boy who looks on in awe as Mattie manages to tame a wild pony, and in response to her request to thank his boss, replies something like, "no ma'am, I'm not even supposed to utter your name" (a line that also elicited light laughter).

The last two characters in this group are two young Native American children who are sitting outside a general store. When Mattie and Cogburn ride up to the store, they find the children taking turns swatting a horse who has been tied up outside. The camera focuses on their blank faces, bringing to mind centuries-old stereotypes of "dirty, lazy, no-good Injuns." Roused by the cruel treatment of the animal, the gruff Cogburn jumps off his horse and strides over to the children. He unties the horse, and forcefully throws the boy onto the ground. Walking into the store, he then pushes the complacent sister off the fence she had been sitting on as well. The audience laughed both times! It was the laughter that really made me uncomfortable (incidentally, a similar scene of child abuse against Mattie had not caused laughter). It seemed to indicate that the scene had been interpreted as evidence for Cogburn's inner humanity (a facet that is relevant to his eventual relationship with Mattie), and that the use of racist stereotypes had been accepted in the service of providing a foil for Mattie's integrity (a reading that seemed to be seconded by the final shot in which the children's faces are contrasted with Mattie's, as they stare at each other in uneasy silence).

In college, I became notorious for ruining perfectly entertaining films by pointing out their inherent racist/sexist assumptions. You know, something like "Are you kidding me? The Mummy is completely Orientalist, and not in an ironic, self-mocking way." Not surprisingly, I wasn't the most popular movie date! But, I don't know. I think it's important to call out popular, Oscar-buzz producing films for this kind of thing. Especially when they are really good films that are doing something meaningful (providing a complicated, rich, beautifully textured female protagonist), but at the same time reproducing other kinds of problematics.