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Bringing Up Baby: True Grit and the Unfortunate Spinsterhood Finale

Hailee Steinfeld, a white girl with brown hair, in True GritTrue Grit (2010) is the Coen brothers' adaptation of Charles Portis' novel of the same name, which tells the story of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a stubbornly moral and uncompromising girl who, in the year 1880, enlists the help of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to find and hang Tom Chaney, the man who murdered Mattie's father. I thought the film was excellent. The dialogue was witty. The acting was near-flawless. The set designs were stunning. And so I watched with both captivation and dread, hoping that no hidden shoe was poised to drop.

But drop it did, at the very end of the film. For reasons I won't get into here, Mattie's character was both unique and believable . . . believable, surely, because she was unique. But alas! Back to the shoe. True Grit concludes with a retrospective narrator, an older Mattie who recounts the adventure she had when she was fourteen. At the end of the film, the middle-aged Mattie discovers that U.S. Marshal Cogburn had recently died, and she decides to bury him in her family plot. In the film's final scene, Mattie stands before Cogburn's grave and says in a voice-over: "It is true I have not married; I never had time to fool with it." She then says a few more lines, and the film ends.

Films with female leads sometimes end this way. Did she get married or not? Did she have babies or not? The framing makes it clear that the real question is: Does she have a happy ending or no? Usually, this ending is trite and sentimental, but sometimes it isn't. If it makes sense with a particular character, fine. I'm reminded of Cold Mountain, in which the final scene is a flash-forward to Nicole Kidman with her red-headed little girl. In this case, the ending made sense. Kidman's specific character desired a child and the eternal embodiment (as her character would have viewed things) of her deceased lover.

But for Mattie, this ending is abrupt, awkward, and out of nowhere. The movie was about fourteen-year-old Mattie. Nothing she said or did communicated to the viewers her feelings about having children. Yet at the film's end, she's unexpectedly shoved into the "cold women don't want husbands or children" stereotype. What were they thinking?

Here, the plot thickens. In the novel True Grit, Mattie is indeed a spinster. Yet in the 1969 film adaptation (starring John Wayne), the filmmakers altered the ending. In this version, U.S. Marshal Cogburn's character visits the young Mattie soon after their adventures together have come to an end. Mattie is still young; there is no flash-forward. Mattie shows Cogburn her family's graveplot and suggests that since Cogburn doesn't have a family, he can be buried here one day. The end.

Why the change? It's impossible to know, but what's clear is the male filmmakers intentionally evaded the fact that Mattie became a spinster. In the Coen brothers version, this fact is left in, yet clumsily executed.

Blogger Kelli Marshall also disliked the Coen brothers' ending, and apparently she hit a nerve, because her post on this topic unleashed such a flurry of responses that she wrote a follow-up and was confronted on Twitter by film critics Matthew Seitz and Craig Simpson, both of whom predictably argue that Mattie's character is the admirable antithesis to the stereotypically feminine character. Simpson prosaically believes that Mattie's conclusion should be venerated because it is the opposite of the "Woman Has Kids! Yay!" ending, apparently not realizing that the precise opposite of a trope is also a trope.

My point is thus: The fact of Mattie being or not being a "spinster" is not important. What's important is that her spinsterhood be portrayed in a way that is organic to her character. In the novel True Grit, I suspect that it was. Yet the Coen brothers did not take the time to thoughtfully handle this aspect of her character, and their failure stuck out like a sore thumb. The ending was truly awful: the acting seemed off and the rhythm of the plot shifted from harmonious to discordant.

As one commenter to Kelli's post wrote, "I agree that the ending is deeply disappointing. I don't care that she's maimed, single, and alone. I care that she has no joy. No anima. No personality. The tone is downright wrong. I find the two characters completely distinct (young Mattie v. old Mattie), bearing no relation to the other."

The lesson? Don't skimp on the development of female characters just because the complexities are difficult to represent. We're going to notice. But I truly believe the filmmakers might not have.

Related reading: Kelli Marshall's original post on True Grit's ending , Kelli's follow-up post

Previously on Bringing Up Baby: Up All Night is Boring But Christina Applegat is Soooo Cool!, Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Care in TVLand

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Comments

17 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Wow. I did not perceive this

Wow. I did not perceive this ending this way AT ALL. I thought it was perfectly in line with the character and I loved it. As she said, she "never had time to fool with it." As a 14 year old, she was not joyful or childlike in the usual way and certainly didn't behave as most women would have at that time. She was out to apprehend the man who killed her father; that's a bold move for a woman, let alone a girl of 14. Plus, she was a woman without an arm in the 1800s. Probably not the best catch back then. After all, a woman had to raise children, keep house, cook, all kinds of things that most men probably thought she wasn't capable of with only one arm, even though I'm sure quite the opposite was true. How unlike a woman of that period to choose to be alone. Very fitting for her.

I have to agree; I thought

I have to agree; I thought older Mattie made perfect sense. She still didn't care what people thought of her, and still had the same sharp tongue.

And I'm not sure why you find fault with the Coen's sticking to the book rather than the other movie. I don't find that surprising in the least.

Going to disagree here

I was enjoying the film until it got to older Mattie at the end - what a jump from a desperate cross-country ride to her being an adult and totally dismissive of just about everyone. She was so concerned with decorum when the circus man didn't stand up in her presence - why? She certainly broke all sorts of rules herself at fourteen.

I'd have loved to see her married, implying that she had bravely forged ahead and broken more of society's rules about which women should get married, and to whom (after all, it was 1880 or so and being a bold single feminist isn't exactly in keeping with a happy-ish ending at that time - happily partnered feminist I would have been content with). I'd have loved to see sharp-tongued Mattie meet someone equally as unconcerned with society's opinions as she was. At least show her with some friends, some companions! I don't know why they went with the implication that since she was slightly different she was also isolated and distant. Disappointing.

I thought the end was meant

I thought the end was meant to be a statement on revenge. Revenge led Mattie to be a bitter person. It didn't bring her father back or make her happy. But maybe I misinterpreted it.

True Grit Resolution

I understand that you're saying that we didn't need to know either way, and that would have made no difference to the film whether we had or hadn't known what she ended up as but it seemed to be the Cohen brothers were
reflecting the book more so then the original film and really just trying to add more character to
the adult since she is only a focus for the last half hour of the film. I didn't think that particular character was
well cast and I agree that often in movies they give us useless information to define characters
more carefully, that in no way relates to what is happening in the film but I wouldn't say this is the
case since it was a obvious relation to the book and probably trying to pin point that they were following
the story line of the book. "What’s important is that her spinsterhood be portrayed in a way that is organic to her character.", I believe that it is organic to her character because of the fact that in the 18th Century, not marrying
or having a child was in fact a rebellion to the standard way of life and living at the time. She chose to live her
life the way she saw fit since she was a child through to adult hood. Making choices for herself, and not in
the way of the times. I believe they were trying to make this a point, basing it on traditions of that time period which is why they depicted her in the film as a spinster. I wouldn't say she has no joy, either. She's depicted as a stern, to the point person since childhood. If this wasn't obvious then I think it has to do with bad casting, then not developing the character as a female more appropriately.

Yes!

I had serious problems with the end of the film (and not just because of my abiding love for the John Wayne version). I felt it suggested that Mattie's spinsterhood was a result of the violent acts she'd witnessed and committed as a girl -- that violence had somehow "broken" her or made her less of a woman, both of which are rotten stereotypes of the single woman. I also think that last scene was meant to say more about Cogburn's character than Mattie's -- that Rooster was just so great, and her connection with him so intense, that Mattie had no choice but to become some sort of "vestal virgin of the Dude". What a nasty fate for a great character!

I agree

I got the feeling that Mattie was dissembling, she had no time for all that marriage stuff as a direct result of what happened at fourteen. I would have believed it if she was otherwise portrayed as a loved member of her society despite what had happened, rather than seeming set apart and a bit defensive because of it. And I thought I was the only person to think that she was being rather a groupie in thrall to the memory of the late, great Rooster Cogburn instead of going out and forging new relationships.

I have to disagree with this

I have to disagree with this article and agree with the other commenters. Maddie was a stern child, Maddie became a stern adult. Her mother couldn't read or do math, which Maddie didn't want for herself. She saw that not having an education had made her mother vulnerable to the world, especially after the death of her husband and Maddie's father. On her journey with Cogburn and LeBoeuf, she saw how foolish men (and people) can be, possibly turning her away from men. Further, just because she was stern doesn't mean that she didn't like men. She admired her father and Rooster. So maybe she never met a man who fitted her needs, maybe she thought marriage was a "silly" thing. Either way, Maddie was the same character throughout the film and I was satisfied with the ending.

What?

The opposite of a trope is a trope? That doesn't mean anything! The opposite of truth is falsehood; does that make them equivalent?

Given options in the time period, spinsterhood was THE option for independence. Another choice would be a modern fantasy. I didn't see anything unharmonious about the introduction of this aspect of the character. She makes the statement in a way that is consistent with the act of summing up her life since the time of the main part of the story. If you think it is out of character for her to say so, then I think we have drastically different understandings of both the character and of the historical period in question.

I'm confused by your point entirely. Really, it sounds like you're trolling for controversy by essentially reposting an opinion that you know stared a fuss.

Not exactly...

Hi Marlene,

I don't think Katherine means to say that Mattie Ross was wrong not to marry at the end of the movie, just that it's typical for female characters to get this kind of treatment in films. True Grit is about Mattie the fourteen-year-old—why do we care whether or not she gets married later in life? Katherine's point (as I understand it) is that it was incongruous with the rest of the film, not that it was unrealistic for the time period.

As far as the opposite of a trope being a trope not meaning anything, well, actually if you take the definition of a trope: "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations," then yes, the exact opposite any particular trope would still be a trope, assuming that it is present in our expectations (e.g., cold spinster vs. married lady with tons of kids). (Definition via TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage)

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Just to Clarify . . .

I really appreciate everyone's comments; they've given me a lot to think about. I do want to clarify though that I did not find fault with the Coen brothers decision to keep this ending and stick closer to the book. In fact, I think it was an excellent decision. I just thought it wasn't executed well. Feminist reads notwithstanding, the ending was jarring (to me) and I found the acting not tip top, and it seemed this was because because the older Mattie wasn't developed. I certainly wasn't trolling for things to complain about; I truly thought the ending was bad upon my first watching and was trying to grapple with how such a great film suddenly lost its flow. I read somewhere that in the book version, a lot more time is spent on the flashbacks, and the older Mattie makes more sense (assuming you think she doesn't make sense, which many of you do). By 'makes sense' I don't mean the facts of her life (which are from the book), but the depth with which she was portrayed. To reiterate: I have no problem at all with Mattie being a spinster, and I completely understand how that fact of her life makes sense given her personality, circumstances, and the time period. I did have a problem with how this part of her life was awkwardly handled (in my opinion), and I think the already-existing trope of the fifteen second "she didn't get married" ending made it easier for the filmmakers to think less carefully about how to execute the end.

Katherine Don

While True Grit is about

While True Grit is about Mattie the fourteen year old, the narrator is the older Mattie. When I experience that in a film, I have a fixed idea in my mind of the older narrator and wonder what happened in their life since the experience that comprised the main plot. In that sense, it seemed organic and natural for the viewer to "meet" their narrator and see how her life has developed. And to me, it would seem more false to thrust upon her a husband and kids without the film dwelling on romance at all than to do what it did: show a strong, independent woman who lives life on her terms. I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief in the theatre and feeling so thankful that they DIDN'T turn her into a married woman.

I agree with both sides...if that's possible

I agree with the article but also with some of the commenters. Basically, I agree that it is somewhat fitting for the character to have ended up with no children; she's a very unique girl, especially for her time, and is obviously never headed down the traditional feminine paths of her time. I'm undecided about whether or not I think she would've ended up without a partner at all. I can see it both ways. But if she was written to end up as a spinster, great.

But I also agree that the ending of the movie was terribly executed. They didn't have to change the content of it, the facts that she's alone and that she buried Cogburn in the family plot. But the tone and pace were totally jarring and I left the theater feeling confused and unresolved.

And I certainly agree that Mattie was a stern child, but we also saw her at a very particular moment: her moment of determination to avenge her father's death. We don't know how she was on an average day in her life. Maybe it doesn't matter; normal days in her life aren't the content of the book (I assume) or the movie. But I still don't think she would necessarily grow up to be as flat and really kind of boring as she seems to be at the end of the film. I haven't seen it since theaters, so I don't remember all the details, but I mean, we do see her laugh at some point in the film don't we? She's certainly not without personality.

fine with spinsterhood, but not her seeming unhappiness

I liked the ending of the John Wayne much better because the tone was consistent; the characters remained chipper bizarre adventure-friends. I don't mind if Mattie became a spinster (although I agree that "did she marry?" shouldn't be the main question asked about a female character's ending). Whether or not she marries is fine with me, as long as the character seemed happy and retained the spark that made her so awesome as a girl. Older Mattie was stern, as was younger Mattie, but older Mattie seemed unhappy and bitter. I don't mind her being a spinster, but that they made her an unhappy one. Yeah, life would have been hard with one arm back then, and defying social convention by not marrying may not have been easy either, but did they have to have those challenges suck out her soul? Where was the sass?

Hey, thanks for the shout-out

Hey, thanks for the shout-out to my (controversial) post. :)

your issue lies with the source material

Although I can totally see your point that the story seeks to make clear that she did not marry and therefore plays on whatever preconceptions the audience may have on spinsterhood. I would argue however that your issue lies with the source material not the adaptation.

I know that as with the film the book is told from the perspective of the older Mattie remembering this journey. The way the Cohen brothers chose to portray this was through her narration which, at the end of the film meets up with the narrater and the story reaches its conclusion. If you had no issue with the narration for the rest of the film, I don't see why, at the end of the film where, because time has caught up it turns to direct exposition this is suddenly clumsy?

Would you have preferred her to have been talking to someone else? And if so, who? You could use some visual device to try and show this back story, but that would either come off as even more blatant and clumsy or, if subtle it would probably get missed by many of the audience.

If you skip it altogether, I think you change the story completely. It may still be a good story, but it won't be the same story.
Because the tale is told from her older point of view, the life she has lived since these events bears direct relation to the way she remembers and tells the story. And in turn effects the way we reflect on and remember the story we have just been told.
Did she really hold such a moralistic high ground at the age of fourteen or is it just the way she remembers herself?

I can see there is a point to be made that this story may rehash sexist old stereotypes although I tend to disagree.. but even then that point needs to be made about the book which was written in 1968 not in a faithful retelling of it.

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