True Grit: The Good and the Bad

True Grit, the second novel from author Charles Portis, is turning 50 this year. The book is undoubtedly a success. It has been the inspiration for two films, a 1969 classic starring Kim Darby, John Wayne, and Glen Campbell, and a 2010 remake starring Hailee Steinfeld (in her first on-screen appearance), Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon. The book is also largely responsible for the size of Portis’s cult following (though his four other novels certainly help).

 

This poster for the 2010 film adaptation of True Grit shoves Mattie off to the side.

 

What gives True Grit its staying power? The book attempts to turn the Western genre on its head. In place of the typical cowboy action figure there is Mattie Ross, a 14 year old girl pursuing Tom Chaney, the criminal who murdered her father. She is aided in her quest by some more recognizable Western figures: Rooster Cogburn, an old US Marshal who’s known for pulling his gun well before asking any questions, and the ‘gentlemanly’ Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.

There’s been plenty of discussion (50 year’s worth) about the extent to which True Grit is or is not a feminist book. Charles Portis is notoriously wary of interviews, or really any kind of public appearance, so he hasn’t had much to say on the matter. At first glance the novel might seem revolutionary for its invention of Mattie Ross, but a strong female character, even a protagonist, does not a feminist work make. All these years later, and with the 2010 adaptation now well in the past, it’s worth turning to the book itself to see what it may reveal.

The novel’s narration may be its most notable feature. The book opens, “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” One brief line introduces the entire plot of the novel and establishes Mattie as an aged narrator telling of her girlhood days (while also conveying her terse speaking style). Sentence for sentence, the book remains this tight, with sentences performing multiple functions and not once, even at the height of the action, losing sight of the years that have passed for Mattie since the story she is telling. Throughout the novel, Mattie’s voice is remarkably consistent. Regardless of where the book may stand politically, the narration deserves recognition.

That’s good because as a progressive depiction of gender in fiction, True Grit doesn’t quite hold up. Early in their adventure, Rooster and LaBoeuf are against Mattie coming with them to search for Chaney. Their concerns are somewhat tied up in gender concerns, but largely their protests hover around Mattie’s age and inexperience. “What if something happens to her?” LaBoeuf asks Rooster. “Her people will blame you and maybe the law will have something to say too.”

Mattie forces her way along, and she proves herself by not only shying away from the violence and hardship, but leaning into it. She shoots Tom Chaney not once, but twice, the second time sending “a lead ball of justice, too long delayed, into [his] head”. How’s that for cowboy shooting? Mattie is determined, brave, and strong. Though she doesn’t land a killing blow on anyone by the end of the novel, there is no doubt of her “grit”.

True Grit has a lot to say about masculinity and the violence inherent to it. Mattie is embraced by Rooster and LaBoeuf despite her being female because she is willing to engage with aspects of their understanding of masculinity. The book doesn’t challenge notions of gender by proposing that Mattie should be accepted by the men around her without acting as one of them. Instead, it simply expresses that Mattie can behave like a man if she chooses. Even that is troubled somewhat by the consequences she faces for her engagement in the male world — the loss of her arm and horse. In its time True Grit‘s depiction of a female in a traditionally male position was revolutionary, but now it reads as an outdated gesture towards feminism.

In 1968 True Grit was revolutionary for both the strength of its narration and its portrayal of a strong female protagonist. The narrative is not less powerful today than it was then, but it is less radical. Feminism is about more than women being allowed to act as tough men. True Grit should still be admired, both for its literary merits and for its progressiveness in the context of its time, but on the latter, it’s time to do more.