A 19th Century Girl With “True Grit”

By Olivia Hull
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.
-From the 1968 novel True Grit, by Charlie Porter
A comparison between two versions of True Grit, 40 years apart, shows how much has changed for women in Hollywood. Upon the murder of her father, 14-year old Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld, age 13, in the 2010 movie version) sets out to avenge his death. Mattie hires a U.S. Deputy Marshall named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, whom she is convinced has “true grit” and who is known to be the meanest of the Marshalls in the area.  She proves she has grit herself when she insists on accompanying the Marshall into the dangerous Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to “see the thing done.” She also settles her father’s financial affairs in town and when Cogburn sets out without her the next morning, races after him, triumphantly riding her horse through a raging river while the men look on in disbelief. While her mother can “barely spell the word ‘cat’”, Mattie has always managed her father’s assets and as an adult owned and managed a bank of her own. She does all this without provoking sexual attraction; the audience sees more in her than her good looks.


In the 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit (1969), which is more loosely based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, Mattie appears much older and has breasts. (In fact, Kim Darby, who played the role, was 20 years old at the time.) Darby sports a boy haircut (signifying a simplistic “tomboy” persona) and anachronistic clothing. Her manner of speech, though often trying to be threatening, is mostly soft and gentle.
In contrast, Hailee Steinfeld’s character has a deeper-throated voice with which she speaks with the conviction of a lawyer and the wittiness and speed of a Gilmore Girl. Her vocabulary and grammar stem directly from the Holy Scripture and is free of contractions. She commands the attention of the adults in the movie, even Rooster Cogburn, who proclaims ironically, “a man will never work for a woman unless he’s got clabber for brains!” Although he affectionately, and in a somewhat demeaning manner, calls her “baby sister”, he comes to admire her and consider her his partner; she holds her own.
The two Mattie’s have differing destinies. The 1969 Mattie plans on having a family, while the newer Mattie version “never finds the time” to find a husband. How radical would this have seemed in 1969! In 2010, it seems, Hollywood and the rest of America is ready to a watch a female heroine who isn’t sexualized. She’s a pre-teenager, on the brink of puberty. She’s sassy but naïve, mature well beyond her years, and yet still retains the occasional petulance of a young child. Mattie Ross narrates the movie, so the story is told through her perspective, showing that the author and directors consider her viewpoint most important.
In the new version, Mattie doesn’t flinch at the hanging of three men, nor does she hesitate when asked to climb a tall tree and cut a hanged man off one of its branches. She believes in the justice of the bible, an eye for an eye, and hasn’t a weak heart. She even has the cojones to spend the night at an undertaker’s. “I felt like Ezekiel in the valley of death,” she says. The character in the Coen brothers’ movie is neither diminished by her age nor by her gender nor is treated as a sexual object. Clearly the audience is ready: in the fifth week of its release, True Grit has grossed an estimated $128 million, the Coen brothers’ highest grossing film so far.


Olivia is a Sophomore at Barnard College and is a Staff Writer for the Nine Ways of Knowing.
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