Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Rediscovering the Heroic in the American Cinema Heroine

In Film, Film Theory on April 18, 2011 at 8:32 pm

By Eric Plaag

On Saturday night, my son and I went back to see Hanna, the brainchild of writer Seth Lochhead and director Joe Wright, starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role. There was an urgency to this return visit to the theater because the truth is that Hanna’s been sticking in my ribs since the first time I saw her ten days ago. There was something about her dedication to both fairness and truth in the midst of mayhem and viciousness—in spite of the fact that she is a trained killing machine specifically bred to be devoid of any sense of those things that make us human (compassion, pity, vulnerability to pain)—that has left me wondering where she has been all of my moviegoing life.

Yes, I mean that. She’s that good. She’s that…real.

What struck me as I sat in the darkness of Hanna’s credits and haunting score is that so many of the recent movies with “strong” female leads tend toward cartoonish, over-the-top, but ultimately anti-human characters. By “anti-human,” I mean that these characters offer us nothing that reminds us of why we are here, why we should value life, or what it is that distinguishes us from other species on earth besides opposable thumbs and the consequent ability to pull a trigger. Often billed as heroines, these female characters usually lack any of the complexities that made the great heroes of classical literature heroic.  Like most of their contemporary male counterparts (many of them presented as something even “greater,” known as the “superhero”), these women are all about blowing things up in the latest inventive style, or exacting revenge on the bad guy(s) in some ridiculously vicious way, or (in the case of the most notorious example of late, Sucker Punch) dreaming their way through a sisterhood of fantasy carnage and overblown CGI, all while justifying their actions through some vague references to why the rest of us mortals need them. Worse, though, is the fact that the female versions of these kinds of characters are typically hypersexualized, while their flaws or vulnerabilities (if they have them at all) are merely passing deficiencies that serve only to move the plot along rather than rattling the viewer’s soul. Hubris as the fundamental core of a hero’s or heroine’s story is all but forgotten. The philosophical conflict between that heroine’s destiny and the whims of the proverbial gods she serves is, too. It’s often as though someone watched Machete, missed the joke altogether, and concluded that Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) was the cloth from which all future movie heroines should be cut.

Fortunately, Hanna is here to remind us that that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

As I thought more on this canard in American cinema—that female leads must either be helpless (and mindless) waifs (see The Adjustment Bureau) or sexualized clones of what Hanna’s handlers hoped they’d made–it occurred to me that Hanna isn’t alone in the desert after all. Three other movies produced in the past year offer strong female leads whose actions are heroic in their own way, simultaneously subverting and reaffirming the classical sense of what makes a hero. What might be most troubling, though, is that they come to us disguised as teenage girls, raising questions about why a complex heroine must necessarily be somewhere around 14 years old if an American audience is to have any appreciation for her.

Then again, in Hanna’s case, I’m not sure the message has sunk in with our culture’s young women. Raised on glam fighters like Lara Croft and Buffy, and waifish sidekicks such as Bella Swan, Hermione Granger, and Elizabeth Swann, perhaps it’s no wonder that today’s teen girls might have trouble embracing something more complex. To wit, as my son and I sat pondering Hanna’s concluding, visceral moments that bring everything full circle, we were startled to hear one of the six college-aged girls behind us remark, “Well, they tried to make that too artistic.” While there is certainly art (and mythology, and a sense of history, and a pointed cinematic affirmation of just how much our children gain by actually reading the Brothers Grimm), what stands out in Hanna’s voyage of discovery is her realization that, for all her training in the art of the kill, her nominative father never bothered to tell her what it meant to be human, alive, and free.

Perhaps no better evidence of the skill with which Hanna’s story hammers this home is a scene that—on first viewing—troubled me as weak and more appropriate to a conventional teen drama. In the midst of her epic travels from Morocco to Berlin, Hanna sets aside her mission to go on something resembling a double date with her new and unlikely friend Sophie and two teenage Spanish boys. But then this seemingly quaint trope takes a turn that serves as a pivot for the entire film. While Sophie makes out with her beau, Hanna is enthralled by a public display of what can only be described as classic Spanish guitar theater. Grown women who are not particularly sexy nevertheless dance and sing passionately of what moves them while their male counterparts stand by mutely, strumming their guitars and clapping their hands. Hanna sees these women as vibrantly alive and independent of the men who might otherwise claim them as their own. The experience both haunts and mesmerizes her. When the opportunity then comes to kiss her beau—something Hanna acknowledges clinically because she has no training in how to handle it otherwise—Hanna instead treats his charming caresses as a threat. His hand placed gently at her throat is, after all, still a hand at her throat.

Hanna’s attack on her date plays as humorous, but for Hanna it is something else entirely. Later that evening, she lets her guard down and surrenders to her humanity, expressing her appreciation for Sophie’s friendship in a scene that is dreamlike and almost sensual, as surely such a new experience for Hanna must have felt to her. To some, this sequence might read as a strange, pseudo-lesbian text, especially given Sophie’s earlier comic admission that she’d like to be a lesbian for a while, as long as she could marry a man. But this would be a gross misreading of what is really Hanna’s immersion in her innate, irradicable human side—her sense of compassion and caring for those who earn her trust. From that point forward, Hanna thrives on similar moments of human connection: her first encounter with the spiritual in a conversation with Sophie’s mother, and her first true understanding of the power of storytelling magic through an aging carney who appears as nothing but a clown to Hanna’s would-be assassins but is a veritable god to her. Through these experiences, Hanna learns that there is much more at risk in trying to stay alive than anything her alleged father ever taught her. Living life, in fact, soon becomes far more precious to Hanna than merely being alive. When her nemesis finally forces Hanna to confront her mortality, Hanna’s survival depends less on her formidable skills as a killer than it does on her appeal to an appreciative understanding of this sanctity of life.

Hanna’s cinematic cousins share little in common with the details of her life, of course, but their subtle heroic gestures are no less impressive.  Consider, for example, Cleo (Elle Fanning), the tween daughter of Hollywood action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) in Sofia Coppola’s recent film Somewhere. If Johnny Marco—a celebrity who appears to have everything but seems sure of nothing—and his malaise are the ostensible subject of the film, then Cleo is the catalyst for Johnny’s necessary transformation. A resident of the Chateau Marmont, the infamous celebrity hotel, Johnny spends his days off from filming by napping through private performances by twin strippers, moving mindlessly from one presser to another, and finishing off his nights with tawdry sexual encounters. Convinced that he is being followed (a trope that is ingeniously amplified by Coppola’s frequent chase cam shots of Johnny tooling around LA) and beset by frequent insulting but anonymous text messages, Johnny finds his high-end but numbingly routine lifestyle interrupted by Cleo’s mother’s announcement that she is dumping Cleo on Johnny while she runs off to find herself.

What might have seemed a burden to any other man in Johnny’s situation is utter salvation to Johnny, although he does not at first recognize this. Uncertain what else to do with her, Johnny brings Cleo along for an awards show appearance in Italy, then finds a way to ditch her in the middle of the night in order to facilitate yet another of his sexual encounters. The net result—an awkward breakfast in which a knowing Cleo condemns her father’s actions with only a long glance—brings home for Johnny what he knows but is terrified to acknowledge: In a world filled with fake boobs, easy women, and empty gestures, Cleo is not just his daughter. She is his spiritual soulmate.

At first glance, the heroic nature of Cleo’s actions might be lost on some viewers. Consider, though, that she is the 11-year-old daughter of two parents who often seem oblivious to her needs and concerns.  Under such circumstances, many young people might just give up by immersing themselves in friends or books or video games (or worse) until such time as they can get out of the house and sever those ties.  Indeed, most films and television programs these days thrive on romanticizing this path, giving young people good reason to abandon the parents who emotionally abandon them or underscoring through ridicule the ridiculousness of their parents’ behavior.

But Cleo knows better, realizing that her father and her relationship to him is not and must not be a lost cause. “I like that sound when we are doing well,” she says as they play ping pong together, telling him much more about her intentions and her faith in him than he may yet be able to understand. Gently, though, Cleo nudges Johnny back to a point where he can finally answer the nagging question that remains unanswered in so many of his pressers: “Who is Johnny Marco?” Through gestures large and small—a meticulously planned gourmet breakfast, a day spent together by the pool, an underwater tea party—Cleo reminds a man utterly lost at sea that home still lies out there, and that she is waiting for him to return. While Somewhere is not the nearly perfect film that Hanna is, Fanning’s Cleo is nevertheless perfect in embracing the daunting and unlikely task of saving her father from himself using the only skills that could possibly work—her indirect appeals to all that is truly satisfying about being alive.

Like Cleo and Hanna, Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre also finds herself forced to navigate a world that is both socially unconventional and frightening to a woman of her age, largely because of the consequences of the unfair decisions that others have made for her.  Director Cary Fukunaga offers a mostly faithful rendition of the Bronte classic, but what stands out in this version—unlike, for example, Zeffirelli’s 1996 version with Charlotte Gainsbourg—is not only the palpable brutality of how Jane is repeatedly mistreated by relatives and the English social system alike, but also the relative poise and compassion with which Jane endures her various trials.

One might question why an oft-remade classic such as Jane Eyre belongs in a column about the compelling heroic appeal of seemingly “new” female characters like Hanna and Cleo, but this is exactly the point. Young women like these have long served as an outstanding counterpoint to the conventional, mediated roles of women in their time, and now is no different. Not only does Wasikowska’s Jane play out with deft precision and subtlety the socially bold role Bronte invented, but Wasikowska also brings to the part a certain heroic commitment to preserving her human side in a way that those actresses playing Jane’s earlier incarnations did not. Mr. Rochester speaks frequently of Jane’s direct gaze, of course, but in Wasikowska’s glances there is an intensity of purpose and self-assurance that is absent from earlier romantic attempts at portraying Jane as a strong-willed girl who becomes pliable in the hands of an older man. Instead, Wasikowska’s Jane appeals to Mr. Rochester because she seems his equal—a line that is always in the dialogue but has also always felt empty on screen until now.

I must confess that prior to seeing this latest version of Jane Eyre, there has also always been a part of me that hated Jane for going back to Mr. Rochester. Her decision to decline Mr. Rivers’s pragmatic offer of marriage and instead return to a man who had lied to her, knowing what the social and emotional consequences would be for her, always struck me as pandering of the worst kind to a quaint, nineteenth century ideal of swooning romantic stupidity. But after watching Wasikowska’s Jane in action, I realize now that this reaction stems more from how Hollywood has typically portrayed Jane—and other romanticized characters like her—and less from a rigorous understanding of the moral complexity of Jane’s choices.

Here, though, Wasikowska and Fukunaga make Jane’s decision believable in a way that even Bronte herself could not. Palpable throughout the film is the steady undercurrent of Jane’s utter disregard for social conventions and the potential consequences of violating them, coupled with her commitment to living a life that is both passionate and intellectually and morally honest. Wasikowska’s Jane loves Mr. Rochester, not because of any tortured sense of romantic attachment that Hollywood usually wants us to see in these period dramas, but because being in his presence is the only time she has ever felt a sense of equal partnership—intellectually and emotionally—with another human being. Here, in Wasikowska’s portrayal, we finally understand the complexity of Jane’s moral vision and her fierce determination to be with Mr. Rochester not as his paramour but only as someone who meets him on equal footing. Jane’s innate and unwavering self-respect is what defines her, and her fierce commitment to preserving it, no matter the cost, is far more heroic than anything a glammed out Sucker Punch character can offer us.

That fierce sense of self-respect is ultimately what drives all of the female characters I call heroic here, and if ever there was a character who possessed it in spades, it’s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the young heroine at the center of the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit. Much has been made of the vast differences between the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel (in which John Wayne played…well…John Wayne) and this version, including their relative faithfulness to the novel. What makes the Coen Brothers version stand out, though, is the skill with which Steinfeld harnesses the complexities and contradictions of Mattie’s chutzpah and wild-eyed innocence about how the world of violent men really works. Mattie is not simply a mouthy young woman too smart for her age; she’s a genuine, irresistible force of will that most of the men she meets find impossible to reckon with.

Mattie’s headstrong courage, of course, is what Hollywood sells as the story’s draw. The 14-year-old daughter of a man robbed and murdered by one of his hired hands, Tom Chaney, Mattie shows up in west central Arkansas to avenge her father’s death. She hires Rooster Cogburn to track Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang, rightly concluding that Cogburn is the only bounty hunter available who possesses the necessary grit to get the job done. To pay his fee, Mattie confronts Colonel Stonehill, a local businessman, and demands the money owed to her father. Through sheer determination and wit alone, she overcomes Stonehill’s murky, legalistic evasions and achieves her aim. Convincing Cogburn and another tracker, LaBoeuf, to let her accompany them and see the deed done is quite another matter, though.

What Mattie learns in her travels with LaBoeuf and Cogburn is that her theoretical world of moral absolutes, based in a rigid conformity to the law, rarely if ever exists in practice. In the heat of the moment, most men—even men with “true grit” like Cogburn—are rarely men of their word when expediency would serve them better, especially in a culture characterized more often by lawlessness than a commitment to keeping those laws she sees as sacrosanct. At the same time, Mattie also finds that men whose legends are larger than their actual exploits—men like both Cogburn and Lucky Ned Pepper—inexplicably adhere to a code that prizes the sanctity of life and disdains the taking of it unnecessarily. To an audience used to the one-note villains Hollywood often presents us, Pepper’s commitment to shielding her from Chaney might seem ridiculous, but it explains why both Pepper and Cogburn despise Chaney as a man who cares little for that kind of honor among men. Respect for this code is ultimately what prompts both Cogburn and LaBoeuf to risk their own lives in saving Mattie’s. It’s also precisely what motivates the adult Mattie, in the closing, heartrending moments of the film, to call the infamous Frank James “trash” to his face.

Indeed, Mattie can be a handful, but it would be a mistake to write her off as simply naïve and stubborn, or to call her “a pill,” as Ethan Coen once did in an interview. While she may not yet understand the complexities of how the world works, she does know that a rigid devotion to self-respect and one’s own moral code is the only thing that can get us through life honorably. As Mattie discovers, this righteous directness—and not a pristine adherence to the law—is what makes up the true grit she speaks of. It’s also what motivates an unarmed Mattie to speak so candidly with Ned Pepper and to confront Chaney with his cowardice, even as he stands poised to kill her. To Mattie, both Cogburn and Ned Pepper deserve her trust, even though one is a lying drunkard and the other is a hardened criminal, because at the root of their motivation is a commitment to that code, even if it is one she does not yet fully understand. In this sense, Mattie’s heroism lies not in her headstrong desire to seek vengeance for her father’s death nor in her stubbornness in navigating the lies among men, but rather in her ability to recognize that true honor lies in the ability to adapt one’s moral convictions to the circumstances—as both Cogburn and Pepper do by instinct—rather than sticking blindly to them or sacrificing them altogether when confronted with evil.

It is with some trepidation that I speak of Hanna, Cleo, Jane, and Mattie so admiringly in this piece, for I fear that what I write here might be misunderstood as a moralizing feminist critique of these films. While my point here is certainly to emphasize that these young women represent the resurgence of an essential type of character in our stories—one that was at risk of being overtaken by its more popular cartoonish antithesis—I also aim to remind moviegoers that the whole point of watching heroic stories, whether they feature men or women as their leads, is to see in their adventures an affirmation of those ideals, traits, desires, and experiences that validate our universal sense of what it means to be alive. If Hanna’s handlers want to erase her sense of pity and compassion, then we celebrate her insistence on salvaging these characteristics from her “abnormal” strands of DNA. If the culture of Hollywood seems bent on destroying Johnny Marco’s life from within, then we admire Cleo for reminding her father what it means to love and be loved. If English culture, and even the man she loves, would have Jane be both dependent and subservient to their expectations and conventions, then we appreciate her for subverting them and demanding an equal footing. And if the men of the frontier would dismiss Mattie as stubborn and naïve, then we respect her commitment to seeing things through and adapting her moral convictions to the circumstances, just as any of the men she encounters might also do.

All that said, we are still left with the question of why it takes teenagers to play these kinds of parts so compellingly. Perhaps—and this is where the feminist critique might stick its ugly head into the room—these women resonate in contemporary American culture not for the reasons I have outlined above but because America is still in love with people like Mary Lou Retton, the sassy, gutsy teen gymnast who dazzled the American public by standing up to the mean, old Soviet Bloc with somersaults in the early 1980s. While I have nothing against Mary Lou Retton or sassy teen girls with guts, maybe it’s time that our culture was more erudite in understanding why these characters work for us.

While we’re at it, perhaps we could also be more aggressive in demanding that Hollywood give us compelling stories about grown men and women who are heroic in a classical sense, too. We throw that word around too much these days, and seeing nearly every forthcoming film pitched as “epic” or “heroic” really wears on me. Real heroes are those who serve as mirrors to our selves, who instruct and inspire by showing us what we have of value and in common with one another as human beings, and who show us how to negotiate the contradictions between our ideals and our realities. People rise to the status of hero because they take intelligent action that matters in the long run and changes the rest us for the better by their example. They aren’t heroes simply because they happened to survive for 69 days in a collapsed Chilean mine, or maximized their profits by using free Jewish labor to make German cookware, or acted as a reckless, furious mob that ultimately drove a highjacked jumbo jet into a Pennsylvania cornfield. It’s time we learned the difference.

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  1. All that said, we are still left with the question of why it takes teenagers to play these kinds of parts so compellingly. – – – Maybe I am a cynic, but I believe the answer to this question is that we are not ‘allowed’ – yet- to sexualize teenagers in an obvious way. Once they are 18, all bets are off – they are some version of t&a in the movies. While they are young teens our perversions have to make do with what we are allowed to see and what we can imagine – think The Professional. To some the glass is half empty, but to most – ‘she looked 18’. 😉

  2. Teresa, I think you’ve hit on something here that I’ve been thinking about for a while, mainly as it pertains to the likes of Angelina Jolie – a great love of mine, cinematically speaking – and the way talented filmmakers (Philip Noyce in Salt, Timur Bekmambetov in Wanted, etc.) have utilized her sexuality not just as a woman but also a bona fide Movie Star to persuade male audiences into accepting what is essentially a female superhero. While I think the sexuality in her films plays a slightly different role than in something as mindless as Sucker Punch, I think it’s a fair assumption that it certainly detracts from anything I’ve ever said positively about her movies as essentially pro-feminist action films. I guess the blade cuts both ways… By using these younger heroines, we are embarking upon trying to make these female superheroes into “acceptable” ideals of feminine identity.

    -Matt

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