LOS ANGELES — “I am about to embark on a great adventure,” says the hero, tucking a Colt revolver into a flour sack, donning a wide-brimmed Stetson, and riding out into the wilderness on the trail of a killer. Smart, stoic, and purposeful, this avenger is a stock Western movie protagonist in every way but one — Mattie Ross, the central character in the film True Grit, is a 14-year-old girl.
Given that female adolescents are frequently depicted on-screen as vapid (Mean Girls), angst-ridden (Twilight), pregnant (Juno), or merely decorative (Spider-Man), Mattie Ross is a remarkable role. She never shakes out her braids in a makeover montage, swoons over a cute stable boy, or frets about the daunting task at hand tracking down the man who shot her father, with assists from a crusty federal marshal (Jeff Bridges) and dandified Texas Ranger (Matt Damon).
True Grit, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is the second film to be made from Charles' Portis 1968 novel of the same name. The first, which hit cinemas in 1969 and was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused more on John Wayne's federal marshal, aged Mattie to be played by 21-year-old Kim Darby, softened the hard edges Portis had etched into her character, and added a hint of romance between Mattie and the Texas Ranger.
While the differences between the two movie Matties say something about her filmmaker fathers, they reveal even more about the eras from which they sprung. The Coens' Mattie is a tenacious new kind of teen heroine jockeying her way onto movie screens.
She's the product of a film industry in which young women are infiltrating traditionally male genres like action films; female directors and producers are wielding increasing creative influence; and the culture is moving from a sexed-up, dumbed-down model of female adolescence to one marked by smarts, strength, and scrap.
“Most teenage girls in movies are more like Valley girls,” says Hailee Steinfeld, 14, the precocious Hollywood newcomer who plays Mattie. “But Mattie, she's driven, determined. This character is about getting the job done.”
Other gutsy adolescents hitting movie screens recently include Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), the 17-year-old, wood-chopping, squirrel-gutting Ozark girl who must track down her meth-dealer father to save the family homestead in the art-house hit Winter's Bone, and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), the purple-wigged, profanity-spewing 11-year-old vigilante who assists her crime-fighting dad in the comic book adaptation Kick-Ass.
Old-school Disney girls are also starting to reflect a modern moxie — director Tim Burton's 19-year-old Alice in Alice in Wonderland skips out on an unwanted marriage proposal and slays a Jabberwocky, and in the animated feature Tangled, Rapunzel finally sneaks down from that tower and wields her 80 feet of hair as a lasso and a bullwhip.
“People are finding these heroines charismatic, unexpected, and fresh,” says Winter's Bone director Debra Granik. “What a person in the business can get from that is, 'Hey, a young female protagonist doesn't need to have a boyfriend, get pregnant, cut herself, or be naked to attract an audience.'”
Traditionally, one of the barriers to teen female protagonists driving anything but romances has been the conventional wisdom in Hollywood that such characters alienate male audiences. That didn't seem to be a problem for the Coens' True Grit, however. Though the PG-13 film is built squarely around Steinfeld's performance, its marketing emphasized its male stars, and True Grit has brought in more than $100 million at the box office so far on the shoulders of mostly male moviegoers.
Ideally for filmmakers, these heroines don't turn off men and entice women and girls to genres they might ordinarily skip. At least that's what Zack Snyder would like to accomplish with the upcoming movie Sucker Punch, a feminine twist on the prison break film in which an 18-year-old character named Baby Doll (played by 22-year-old Emily Browning) fights her way out of a mental institution using her mind, her fellow patients, and some samurai swords.
“We have female characters in this situation that's mostly the terrain of men,” says Snyder, whose film is due in theaters in March. “It's a challenge economically to find who is the audience for the movie. Our hope is that the movie is transcendent, that it becomes something no one's seen before and exists outside the models (studios) use to track potential economic gains.”
Young women have wielded authority in genre movies in the past — Princess Leia, after all, was mighty handy with a blaster. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an early '90s film, inspired a much more influential 1997 to 2003 TV series in which Sarah Michelle Gellar battled the torments of both the undead and high school. At first marketed to teen girls, it became a crossover hit with boys.
“Getting beat up by Buffy was not a problem for guys,” notes Patricia White, professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College.
More of these girls are on the way to cineplexes: In April, in the titular role of Hanna, a 14-year-old assassin-in-training played by Saoirse Ronan journeys across Europe on her first, dangerous mission. In The Hunger Games, a potential franchise about to begin casting, Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old huntress from the bestselling series of dystopian novels, volunteers to fight to the death in a government-staged arena game to save her younger sister's life. And Granik and her producing partner, Anne Rosellini, are working on a film treatment for one of fiction's original tomboys, Pippi Longstocking.
Whether battling 19th century sharpshooters, contemporary speed freaks, or futuristic tyrants, all of these girls are agents of their own destiny in a way historically enjoyed only by male adolescent characters.
“As a kid, I got really envious of men's coming of age in movies,” says Granik. “Their knowledge of darkness would grow, their compassion would grow, whatever it was, it felt like they would gain something, and the female coming of age often was punitive, like an unwanted pregnancy. We're all like, 'Oh God, I'm so glad I'm not her.'”
Many of these teen heroines reflect the changes in the way males and females relate in the real world. “There's a more egalitarian dynamic between boys and girls in the way they socialize today,” says Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson. “There's less of a polarization, more plurality that's allowed of a character.”
Many of these girls, unlike their boy-crazed forebears, are decidedly blase about dating. “Traditionally, heroines have been interested in love first and foremost and other things are secondary,” Jacobson says. “That's the least of Katniss' concerns. Her impulse is toward self-preservation and the preservation of her family.”
It is due in part to female directors and producers like Granik and Jacobson that these kinds of characters are getting a cinematic treatment at all, according to White. “Women storytellers are making inroads behind the scenes,” she says. “This is a bit of a feminist moment, pushing back at the commercial, hyper-sexual model of teen girls that has prevailed.”
That hyper-sexual model, encouraged by everything from micro-skirted Bratz dolls to pole-dancing pop stars, is either absent from or subverted by the new crop of heroines. Ree Dolly stalks the Missouri countryside in an oversized coat and ski cap, and Mattie Ross wears skirts to her ankles. Their wardrobes reflect their business-first mentality.
“The book is about the empowerment of this girl, her drive, and ferocity,” says True Grit producer Scott Rudin. “The title ultimately applies to her.”