ANALYSIS: She Reminds Me of He: Gender Ambivalence in ‘True Grit’

For mine, the defining moment of Henry Hathaway’s True Grit (1969) occurs towards the beginning of the film. Given the slip by the two men charged with hunting down her father’s killer, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) takes chase only to be refused passage on the river barge that the pair have boarded. Not to be outdone, as Ross is being lead back towards town she breaks free and atop her horse strides into the water, negotiating the currents to the other side. Watching this spectacle of defiance one of the men, Marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne), notes with his trademark drawl, “By God, she reminds me of me!” This catchcry, an identification rarely bestowed upon Wayne’s male co-stars throughout his iconic career, is all the more remarkable given Ross’ female adolescence. In simplistic gender terms, Hathaway’s True Grit initially holds out the possibility that women, and young ones at that, can be just like men.

This aspect of gender identification also underscores the recent Coen Brothers remake of True Grit (2010). However, where Hathaway’s version is quick to propose a potential equivalency between Cogburn/Ross – as association that tends to favour the former by the narrative’s end – the Coens’ version is more ambivalent in its play of gender roles. When Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) makes her defiant river dash this time around, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) remains silent. It’s possible that his line was excised in order to avoid any overt mimicry between this version and the former – Bridges also wears his eye-patch on the opposite eye to Wayne’s – but in the context of the film’s gender representations, the absence of his exclamation seems significant.

Despite both versions emphasising the shared characteristics of Cogburn and Ross from the outset – the stubborn demeanour, the insistence on justice etc. – the process of identification between the pair in the Coen Brothers’ film develops gradually. More importantly though, where Hathaway’s film presents its gendered recognition from an overtly masculine point-of-view – in declaring that “she reminds me of me” Cogburn projects Mattie’s character as a mirror of his own: the ‘she’ is defined only in relation to ‘he’ – the Coens’ version presents their association in more mutual terms. Even as Mattie requires Rooster in order to track down her father’s murderer, her steadfast insistence on the mission effectively saves Cogburn from himself and his actions (the drinking, erratic violence, resentment) which threaten to derail their manhunt.

And yet, for all the talk of revenge, the mission that structures True Grit – the capture of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – becomes increasingly surplus to the film’s central conflict between the two lead characters. It’s no coincidence that the eventual discovery of Chaney occurs more by accident than intent, and the subsequent confrontation between Cogburn and Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) feels deliberately underplayed and anti-climactic. The film’s ‘real’ focus and the subject of the concluding scenes, is the Cogburn/Ross relationship and the question that’s posed on their first face-to-face meeting. “They tell me you are a man of true grit”, Ross observes in an effort to hire the Marshall’s services. It’s this (somewhat intangible) quality that the film holds up as the measure of one’s character. True grit: you either have it or you don’t. The question as to who possesses “true grit” is ultimately what the film works to resolve.

In the context of the film’s gender schema, ‘true grit’ is defined in distinctly masculine terms; a quality characterised by toughness, heroism, stoicism etc. Yet even as these definitions reiterate an archetypal masculinity, True Grit suggests that such traits are not the exclusive domain of males. On various occasions, but most explicitly in the film’s final stages, Mattie’s resilience and daring defines her as the equal (if not the stronger) of her companions. She displays ‘true grit’, not solely with a firearm but with her words, which she wields with the speed and deadly precision of a gunslinger. And yet, while the film emphasises her steely character, there may be a temptation to interpret the penultimate moments of True Grit, in which a wounded Ross is carried in Cogburn’s arms towards safety, as a repudiation of her grit and a consolidation of his. To propose such a reading however is to dismiss the will-to-survive that is clearly shared in these moments. In other words, they both embody ‘true grit’. Thus, even as True Grit reproduces traditional masculinity (in the form of Cogburn), the representation of Ross simultaneously works to collapse distinctions between ‘he’ and ‘she’.

There is however, another point of distinction between these two versions of True Grit that warrants discussion in the context of this gender ambivalence: the resolution of the paternal void that instigates the narrative. While the Coen version condenses the events of the father’s murder through a single long take accompanied by voice-over, the significance of the death is weighted comparably in both films. The death of Frank Ross testifies to a rupture in the patriarchal symbolic (the family unit) and the collapse of a traditional hierarchy of power (in the absence of a rightful heir since Mattie has no male siblings). While such disruptions are frequently resolved in Westerns by delegating to a patriarchal institution such as the law (which seeks to restore the system through a constitutive act of justice), in True Grit these foundations are found wanting. When Mattie enquires as to the likely arrest of Tom Chaney, the Sheriff informs her that he has no jurisdictional authority to pursue her father’s killer. The ineffectiveness of the law leaves Chaney a free man.

The failure of the legal system in the case of the father’s murder is mirrored in respect of Cogburn. Subjected to intense cross-examination in court where his penchant for violent apprehensions is called into question, Cogburn’s method of justice is presented in opposition to ‘official’ procedure. Once again, True Grit implies that the (patriarchal) institution of law has failed; criminals can walk free on a technicality. It’s no coincidence then, that in the Coens’ version, Ross and Cogburn meet properly for the first time within the courthouse. In accepting Ross’ offer of money in return for the capture and return of Chaney (justice), Cogburn usurps the institutional responsibility for restoring the patriarchal order: he becomes the representative of the law. However, because Ross insists on accompanying Cogburn, the paternal significance of the mission is multiplied. Cogburn becomes both symbol of the law and surrogate father. The restoration of the patriarchal order thus hinges upon the restitution of justice for the murder and the fulfilment of Cogburn’s paternal role as Mattie’s guardian (and by extension the biological son from whom he is estranged). As one father dies so another is remade. However, since Mattie is instrumental in both of these outcomes she becomes largely responsible for patriarchy’s symbolic regeneration. In a gendered context, her actions work to maintain a cultural order in which women are typically granted limited forms of agency. Or to offer a more blunt assessment, Mattie Ross becomes complicit in her own social oppression.

While such conclusions are easily drawn, what I find fascinating about the representation of gender in True Grit is the ambivalence that characterises the end of the narrative. Taking its cue from the Charles Portis novel, the Coen Brothers’ remake (unlike the Hathaway film) concludes with an aged Ross attempting a reunion with Cogburn only to arrive too late – the Marshall has passed away days earlier. Alone, disfigured – the stump of her amputated arm is concealed but noticeable beneath her dark attire – and direct in her response to the news of Cogburn’s death, the elderly Ross embodies a strikingly cold image of solitude. Even her resolution to have Cogburn’s body interred on her property alongside her father’s grave is voiced without the slightest hint of grief or sentimentality. The film’s final (and perhaps defining) image, of Mattie walking away from the headstones of her father/s – their deaths having framed the narrative – appears equally bleak.

How then, are we to interpret this ending? My initial reaction was that Mattie Ross is depicted as a victim. Her isolation and stone-faced gaze is in stark contrast to the spirited determination that defined her younger self. The underlying tone is one of immense loss – symbolised in part through her missing arm. Like the heroines of so many other western and film noir narratives, it’s easy to interpret Ross’ situation as her punishment for daring to move outside the proscribed limits of feminine behaviour under patriarchal rule; for standing up in a man’s world. On further reflection however, the significance of True Grit’s ending appears more complex. To simply assign Mattie the status of victim on the basis of her gender is to repeat a deeply ingrained double standard whereby rugged male individualism is contrasted with pitiable spinsterhood. Representations of the lone woman are rarely, if ever, accorded the same power or agency as a solitary man. Almost as rare are the depictions of those men, still alone and in the twilight of their lives. Typically, western films are content to let the hero ride off into the sunset. This is how Hathaway’s True Grit ends, with the departure of Cogburn from the Ross homestead. As a result, the consequences of this solo existence remain unexplored, deferred beyond the bounds of representation.

Rather than view the final shots of Ross as one of broken womanhood, it may be more productive to understand her plight in the context of this solitary masculinity and its mythical assurances of self-reliance. It should come as no surprise why True Grit places such an emphasis on Mattie’s acute financial nous (the administration of her father’s affairs, the hiring of Cogburn etc.); such myths are the fundamental tenets of Western (patriarchal) capitalism, a system in which she is positively involved. In keeping with the gender ambivalence that underscores the construction of her character (eg. the ascription of her ‘true grit’), the ending provides an image not of hollowed-out femininity but failed masculinity, and with it the broken promises of a once rugged individualism.

In closing, I wish to return to the dialogue I described at the outset of this analysis (“By God, she reminds me of me”) and compare it to one of the opening lines from the recent True Grit in which Mattie Ross voices, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. Nothing is free except the grace of God”. Far from being incidental, the references to God in both of those examples demarcate the patriarchal frame of each film’s gender constructions. Besides the etymological similarity – “By God” being an abbreviation of ‘By the grace of God’ – both lines provide a context through which to consider the cultural/narrative status of female subjectivity that informs each film’s ending. In the former, Cogburn’s comparative exclamation delineates the cultural and ideological limitations of female identity: literally ‘By God’ (under patriarchy) and ‘…me of me’ (in relation to man). The latter line, constituted through a paradoxical logic (‘You must pay for everythingNothing is free except…’) is equally restrictive. Even if the film intends us to perceive that ‘only God’s grace is free’, in the context of a gendered reading where God=Patriarchy, woman’s identity remains bound to man/masculinity as its only referential form of agency. If feminine agency is the price one pays for the freedom of God’s grace, then perhaps the Coen Brothers’ True Grit leaves us to ponder in the cold light of mourning, was it truly worth it?

Filed under : Analysis

6 Responses to “ANALYSIS: She Reminds Me of He: Gender Ambivalence in ‘True Grit’”

  1. Jon Coutts says:

    Wow, brilliant piece. I came across this in preparation for a paper I’m writing on True Grit for a masculinity panel at an upcoming conference. Yours is the best review I’ve read to date. Well done.

  2. Josh Nelson says:

    Thanks so much, Jon. Best of luck for the conference!

  3. Alain Arnaud says:

    Thank you for your analysis, I appreciate.

    I can’t exactly understand your text (because of my English) but I’m surprised that you don’t mention the Laboeuf character. The desire romance goes together with friendly romance. Like two faces of the love in Coen’s ‘True Grit’. Analysis and commentaries never mention desire and love and the character of Laboeuf: why? It’s what the Coen’s brothers bring to Portis and Hathaway. The grace (of god) in ‘True Grit’ is one same love in two parts (Philia and Eros?).

  4. Josh Nelson says:

    Hi Alain,

    While I appreciate your input, the lack of reference to LaBeouf in the above analysis is a consequence of my focusing on the issue of gender ambivalence and the two central characters of ‘True Grit’ (Cogburn and Ross). While a case could be made that LaBeouf’s presence in the narrative is there to potentially anchor Ross within a traditional heterosexual pairing, I would suggest that by ultimately refusing their romantic union ‘True Grit’ again takes leave from the typical gender structures of the Western.

    Had I analysed the relationship between Ross and LaBeouf specifically in terms of desire and romance (as you are suggesting) then there is plentiful evidence to support such an approach. For instance, when LaBeouf tells Ross, “While I sat there watching you I gave some thought to stealing a kiss, though you are very young and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt” the film suggests that LaBeouf’s romantic desires for Ross are bound together with his parental desires for care and punishment. This is again evident in the later scene where he spanks her on the river bank. In this sense, LaBeouf serves as both illegitimate lover (because of the age difference) and surrogate parent to Ross (since Cogburn is initially ill-equipped to adopt that role). A similar case could be made for the way the Cogburn/Ross relationship develops.

    Although such an analysis would require far more detail than I’ve allowed here, perhaps this duality is what you are approaching when you refer to the two faces of love in ‘True Grit’.

  5. Molly says:

    Wonderful analysis! Best I have read so far! How do you feel about Rooster Cogburn in an archetypal sense? I’m writing a paper and need some help, any ideas? Thanks!

  6. Josh Nelson says:

    Thanks Molly! I think the question of Cogburn’s archetypal significance is an interesting one, particularly in light of the two cinematic incarnations.

    Wayne’s Cogburn, while showing the age-weary cracks of a more traditional archetypal Western hero is still a dominant male presence, which the film’s ending, at least in part, serves to reassert.

    By contrast, as the archetypal hero Bridges’ Cogburn seems somewhat less convincing and becomes increasingly unstable as the film wears on, despite the climactic acts of violence and self-sacrificing courage. His representation feels closer to the male types found in Revisionist Westerns like ‘Unforgiven’, in which the depiction of masculinity is often caught between a nostalgic violent past and an obsolete future.

    I’d probably need to consider the question further but off the top of my head those differences (and the way each conforms or differs from the archetypal paternal role in light of Mattie’s father’s death) might be something worth exploring.

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