Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Precocious Alone

So Alone - Juliana Hatfield (mp3)

To be a brilliant and fiercely determined female is an isolating condition.

Saw the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit over the holiday break. The musical score was amazing, as was the movie. But what haunted me as I walked out of the theater was the main character a girl who concludes the film as an “old maid.” (Apologies if this is a spoiler. It’s not much of one if it is.)

The girl, Mattie Ross, is the movie’s eyes and heart and provides the point of view for the ensuing action and drama as she joins a U.S. Marshall and Texas Ranger in pursuit of the man who supposedly killed her father. To say she is supernaturally sharp and well-educated is to understate the level of her mutant power. The girl has the equivalent knowledge of a second-year law student and a kind of understanding of the ways of the adult world that drives adults crazy. So many of us complain about how slowly kids age these days, how immature they can be, yet nothing seems to anger and agitate adults more than a kid who is sharper than his or her years. Mattie’s world in this movie is full of men -- she only encounters and converses with two women the whole movie -- and nothing throws men off their game more than a younger female who can best them with a higher intelligence and greater grasp of information.

Perhaps, at long last, the 21st Century is changing this. With an increasing majority of college graduates and advanced degree earners being women, and with men increasingly focusing their skills on manual matters of war and day labor, perhaps the day has come when men will have no choice but to accept that they are the dumber sex.

Two songs immediately come to mind when I think about Mattie and the women I identify with her: “Secret Garden” by Bruce Springsteen and “She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel. Some people see these songs as romantic or loving, and in a way they are. But both are also written with this strange mix of resignation, consternation, and aggravation from men who have one too many times been defeated or painfully flummoxed by a woman who in some ultimate way is beyond their comprehension. They can appreciate her, perhaps, but they will never totally “get” her.

I guess it’s easy for some married guy to look on the fates of women like Mattie and feel a tugging on his heart. I’m just a meaningless observer, a backseat driver, a rubbernecker. My sympathies and my cheering for them is ultimately as useless as Spike Lee on the sidelines of a Knicks game.

Did Mattie have to end up alone as an old maid? Perhaps it’s not fate, but it certainly seems inevitable. Maybe she marries. Maybe she even marries twice. But that woman will never find her match. For a woman to have so many amazing factors working in her favor yet seem incapable of finding the man able to manage, appreciate, tolerate, defer, whatever, will always give me this gnawing churning in my stomach. Or my heart. They’re located very close to one another, and I never took a biology class.

I can quickly think of 10 women -- seven friends or acquaintances or coworkers and three family members -- with similar dispositions, and their fate risks being equally unavoidable. From early on in my dealings with them, I can’t help but think, You’re going to have a helluva time finding a man capable of handling you.

Is this an insult? Is it a compliment? Is it both? I’m not sure. In my heart, it’s meant both as a compliment to the woman and an insult to the general state of 21st Century Man, but I suspect someone more attuned to the scholarly or political side of gender politics would happily point out the ways my comment is patronizing or insulting or downright spiteful. Then again, people involved in gender politics and studies tend to look for ways to read anything as patronizing, insulting and spiteful.

We are in an era when the sanctity - hell, the utility - of marriage is increasingly under scrutiny, where the number of women choosing to remain single well into their 30s and beyond is skyrocketing, where the number of men incapable of sitting still in a classroom long enough and convincingly enough to achieve “academic success” is fading faster than Marty McFly’s image in that newspaper clipping.

There’s that old fable about the scorpion and the frog*, and I can’t help but wonder if women like Mattie are scorpions. Sometimes beautiful, almost always intelligent, and usually driven by forces mere mortal men can’t comprehend or won’t appreciate. But scorpions nonetheless. And they don't wanna kiss the frog. They wanna kill it.

Or, put another way, which do we admire more, the fierce indie band that thrives on the fringes or the one who sells out to a big record company, polishes their sound, and aims for the arenas?

* -- used most recently and famously and -- for this post's purposes, ironically -- in a movie about a dude who looks like a lady, The Crying Game.


Bob said...

As someone who hasn't seen True Grit, I'm curious to hear your opinion as to why there seems to be such a divide concerning it: people who love it and people who find it "underwhelming."

Having seen the original, it isn't calling me, but I am curious, because, like you, I like most of the Coen Bros. movies.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, might I recommend you focus your silly childish opinionating on things you know anything about, like stupid music and stupid pop culture? You clearly don't know f--kall about women, so maybe stay away from that topic. Might be a great resolution for 2011.

goofytakemyhand said...


Go sit on your thumb.

Kindest Regards,

Billy said...

@Bob - I don't think that is a unique problem for this particular Coen Bros. movie. All their films tend to invite strong opinion along these lines, don't they?

@Anon - Calling the music "stupid" seems a bit unfair. Other than that, I got nothin'. But I can't make any promises about 2011.

@Goofy - Don't scare Anonymous off! We love even our surliest readers!

Daisy said...

The married with children part of me instantly felt sorry for Mattie as her old maid status was revealed. The smaller less heard from feminist part of me just as quickly felt a sense of pride for her. She was successful in her own right with out needing to rely on a man.

Bob said...

Or like the woman says to Ree in Winter's Bone: "Ain't you got a man who can take care of this for you?"

And, may I reiterate my long-standing position on the cowardice of anonymity?