Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Mattie Ross is my new feminist fictional hero and what the YA heroines of today could learn from her.

By: Ceilidh of The Sparkle Project

Gather round the fire/blog while I tell you the tale of a no nonsense teenage girl who fights adversity, prejudice and the harshness of the world in order to exact revenge on the man who killed her father. Her name is Mattie Ross and she is the protagonist of Charles Portis’s celebrated but oft forgotten novel “True Grit”, and the movies of the same name, and I highly recommend her story to every YA fan out there who’s sick of simpering love obsessions and stalker romanticists.

I’m not a Western fan. I grew up watching colorful cartoons, roaring adventure movies and galaxy fighting rebels so the guns ‘n’ cowboys genre held no interest for me, especially since I really couldn’t understand a word half of them were saying. So it’s sort of ironic for me, as a book loving feminist YA nerd, to now hold a Western novel from the 1960s as a fantastic example of a strong teenage heroine in literature. After what feels like an eternity of trudging through books with simpering heroines, described as brave and smart but displaying traits that are anything but those, who obsess over boys, the lack of boys in their life or the all consuming relationship that defines them as a person, it’s strange that I had to turn to a Western novel that’s older than my parents to find a teen hero to look up to. Luckily, Mattie offers me everything I ever could have hoped for in a YA heroine, even if the genre doesn’t quite fit (the book is perfectly suitable for teenage readers, although the language does take a bit of getting used to. I also highly recommend the Coen Brothers’ recent adaptation of the book, which is much better than the John Wayne version and actually centres the story around Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie and not the show-boating Wayne in full John Wayne mode. Steinfeld was robbed of an Oscar even with the category fraud, but that’s a post for another blog.)

The men of Westerns are generally depicted as swaggering figures of masculinity, the manliest of men who can drink you under the table then shoot the hat off your head before you hit the ground. While some characters do fit this description, notably Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshal Mattie hires to help her in her quest, the hero of our piece is the exact opposite of this supposed heroic figure and still manages to be braver and stronger than any man in the story. She’s highly moral, stubborn, old fashioned, very mature for her age, determined to the point of single-mindedness, practical and not one to let a little thing like her age, sex or the constraints put against women in the era get in her way of completing a typically masculine task of revenge. On top of being the exact opposite of a Western hero, she’s the anti-Western woman and all the better for it. She’s got a sharp tongue and an even sharper mind, neither of which she is afraid to use.

Right now in YA, predominantly amongst the most popular novels (mostly paranormal romance), the typical teenage girl seems to be a simple creature mostly concerned with the men in her life and how she can act around these men. We’ve all bore witness to the Bella Swans, the Nora Greys, the Zoey Redbirds and the increasing numbers of so called heroines who care about nothing but the obsessive, all consuming love in their lives, which often ends up eliminating everything else from their lives, including friendships, family, ambitions and even life itself. Love and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive, but when it becomes the sole defining characteristic in a character’s life, it’s hard to defend them. With Mattie, romance just doesn’t enter the equation, and this makes me way too happy. How can a character kick arse when all she does is worry about a guy who treats her like dirt? Even if romance isn’t in the equation, why is it okay for young women to let men walk all over them? Watching Mattie fight back against the sexism, ageism and general ignorance of the men around her is not only highly satisfying, it’s damn entertaining!

One of the reasons I love Mattie Ross so much is that she’s human; for all her moments of extreme precociousness and bravery, she’s still just a kid. Sure, she’s smarter and braver than I’ll ever be but she still feels real. Her strength is unbelievably inspiring, even coming from a fictional character; even when she’s fighting against everything thrown against her, she doesn’t give up. When she’s humiliated and fighting against the impossible, she rises up and keeps fighting. She doesn’t let anyone push her around, even when such things seem inevitable. She fights for respect and rightly earns it, instead of having complete adoration handed to her on a silver platter. She’s highly spirited and, as cheesy as it is to admit out loud, a complete joy to read about. While Mattie describes Cogburn as being the one with true grit, it’s clear that such compliments are more deserving closer to home. The heroines of today could learn a lot from Mattie Ross.


  1. Wonderful post, Ceilidh. I have yet to be introduced to Mattie beyond your piece and a few scenes from the 2010 movie, but I definitely love the idea of a no-nonsense heroine! Why can't more heroines pride themselves on morals, integrity, and inner strength rather than just their love lives? YA novels make it seem as though all females are concerned with only love and romance -- and that couldn't be farther from the truth. (Romance should only be a nice little bonus in a story if it must make an appearance at all.)

    (Also, from the few scenes I've seen of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, I think she would be pretty great in playing the role of Katniss Everdeen in the upcoming Hunger Games movie.)

  2. I should read the book! I didn't know there was a book, just that my mom loved the original movie. I'm pretty sure I saw bits of it but long, long, long ago. In a previous century!

    Er, anyhow.

    She does sound kind of like Katniss.

  3. I think it's sad that people from another century had a better idea of how to construct an feminist ideal than we do. I was discussing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with somebody today, and I was saying how it's this amazing, progressive book with a heroine who's way ahead of her time. And now we've got all these authors wanting to return us to the Dark Ages where women are beautiful and well-coddled and only fit to be worshipped chastely. Ugh.

  4. Great post. I like what you ladies are doing, trying to turn the world of YA literature upside down.

    Mattie Ross is probably my favorite heroine ever. I read True Grit twice, back to back, already. I love everything about the story, Mattie especially. I keep wondering why True Grit wasn't required reading in school.

    I find it ironic that my favorite fictional heroine was created and written by a man. In 1966. I'm boggled that women, especially popular YA authors, don't write their heroines to be like Mattie Ross. She's a girl anyone could look up to.

  5. Awesome, Ceilidh. Now this is a heroine I'd love to read.

    I agree with Vinaya. It's so sad that books written centuries ago convey feminist ideas better than contemporary ones. I've always been curious, if YA is a genre that encompasses all books with teen characters, wouldn't that mean that the majority of books by Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters also deserve a place there?

  6. I'm agreeing with you storm and fire. Wuthering Heights is more feminist than the majority of YA, and it's not even meant to be feminist! It's not that well written, but it tells a better story. The Bronte Sisters don't get half the respect they deserve. Yet people like Stephanie Meyer make millions dumbing them down.

  7. Great blog. Thanks. I like your general point but need to qualify it - you're talking (aren't you?) about some YA heroines.
    There are plenty of kick-ass and well-written heroines in books for younger readers and young adults, including some best-sellers.
    Is it more a case that some of the big name books let us down? The problem is they get a lot of attention and - arguably - have an impact on a greater number of young women (Bella, I'm looking at you). It's wonderful that so many 19th and 20th century heroines still stand up as exemplars, often in the face of overwhelming social constraints, but I'm not sure that it's fair to argue they are not matched by women characters created today.
    That said, I do think paranormal in particular can lend itself to a proliferation of female victims - it doesn't have to (Buffy, now I'm looking at you) but it's a trope and there is a lot of it around.