Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bred and Buttered: Ozark Women On Screen

film still from Winter's Bone

By Rachel Reynolds Luster, Rural Correspondent

The 83rd Academy Awards will be aired live this Sunday. I’m thankful the one station that we get via our digital converter box at our home in the land that straddles the Missouri and Arkansas line will be carrying the event live. For the first time in my life, I find two pictures nominated for Best Picture that are intimately connected with the rural identity of which I am a student and a share-holder.

True Grit is a film set mainly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma territory. Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Arkansas author Charles Portis’ work, which was originally developed as a serial for the Saturday Evening Post in 1968. At the time, Portis was a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, the big state newspaper, and the eventual novel and subsequent films depict a somewhat mythic tale of a young headstrong 14-year-old who sets out to avenge her father’s death by employing a renegade U. S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt down the killer, Tom Cheney, and bring him to stand trial and likely hang in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The plucky Mattie Ross insists on accompanying Cogburn, and the drama ensues into the western reaches of the Ouachita Mountains.

Winter’s Bone carries a similar sort of wilderness tale but is set in a modern time frame and entirely in the Missouri Ozarks. The film is based on the 2006 hillbilly noir book of the same title by West Plains, Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell. It follows Ree Dolly as she searches for her father Jessup, who has missed a court date leaving the family home in jeopardy as he listed it as collateral with his bail bondsman. The film explores the culture of the methamphetamine epidemic, which has become the darker side of the fabric of rural life in America.

While the two films offer interesting takes on rural life in two very different time periods, they share one representation, which seems constant over time and space: the depiction of rural women as headstrong, steadfast, able, and self-reliant. Both films offer classic examples of the somewhat romanticized portraits of rural women. The lead female character in each is an intrepid teenager who bravely sets out to simply do what needs to be done. In the case of Mattie Ross, she not only has gone to take care of the business associated with laying her father to rest but also finds it necessary to avenge his murder. For Ree Dolly, she has taken charge of her household including her emotionally and physically disabled mother and two younger siblings in the absence of her father and sets out to find him, dead or alive, to ensure that the family can simply keep a roof over their heads.

One of the most interesting aspects of the representation of women in these two films is the characters’ youth. While self-reliance, even stubbornness, might be prized or expected from mountain women, it is generally not expected from young women, rather it’s more associated with older generations. Certainly in True Grit the impetuous nature of 14-year-old Mattie plays a role in her quest. There is sort of a blind bravery, which seems emblematic of her slight age. The character of Ree Dolly, however, is 17, and one gets the sense that she has had to live as an adult, if not the head of household, for some time and that it hasn’t been easy. She is wise beyond her years. When Ree sets off to find her father, and as she negotiates the violent nature or her journey, she is obviously aware of what faces her. Yet, she persistently endures, which not only brings her answers and proof of the location of her father that she desires, but, in the end, also brings respect from the violent clutch who have been both responsible for the fate of her father and the survival of Ree. While both characters carry strong examples of the self-reliance associated with mountain women, neither Mattie nor Ree are the stereotypical granny woman. They, like true rural women, are far more complicated.

Claudia Gammill, age 89; from Southern Spaces and University of Central Arkansas Archives

I can’t help but think that living a rural life or being from the country continues to gain cache. Just looking at the current zeitgeist of slowness that is seeping into the mainstream, I feel more and more pride in my rural roots than ever. People from urban and suburban areas are flocking to the country to grow and produce something for themselves and live at a slower pace. This, in itself, is not a new phenomenon but it seems that, with this last economic crisis, mainstream book publishers and media outlets have been willing, if not eager, to offer up various vignettes of rural life, which have, for the most part, been positive. Now if we can just encourage those from rural areas to find their places as cool as the folks at Simon and Shuster or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we’ll really be on to something good.

Frankly, I’ve heard a lot of talk from Ozarkers about how “authentic” the depiction of the region is in Winter’s Bone, and, I don’t really get that. Certainly, meth is a problem here as it is in many other rural (and urban) areas across the country, but none of the people that I’ve heard speak to the film’s authenticity are immersed, or even familiar with the drug culture of here or anyplace else. Certainly, the film is not my Ozarks or the way I view my neighbors. What I do take away from both films as authentic and a source of pride is that rural life, and the ties to the land that dictate and inspire it, have shaped the characters of Ree Dolly and Mattie Ross. These two young women are audacious and unapologetically so. They do what needs to be done. They are self-reliant, “bred and buttered” to quote Ree Dolly.

Such intrepidity is commonly considered a regional characteristic of women from the MOARK hinterlands and one which evokes great reverence among many residents. Self-reliance is a not only a source of regional pride among many but also is engrained within the cultural milieu of rural life in Arkansas and Missouri. Of course, self-reliance means different things to different folks, and I do not mean to imply that there is some sort of consensus on what it means to be a “good” woman in the hills and mountains of Arkansas and Missouri. However, I think that when women, especially, talk of other women from previous generations in their families or communities, those attributes that seem to hold the most worth hinge on all of the things both practical and sentimental that these cultural ancestors did for themselves and the ones they loved. At the same time, I know many an Ozark woman that doesn’t remember what she did before boxed cake mixes, or that prefers to shop rather than to garden, and there are plenty of us that are afraid of snakes and/or hate bugs, especially chiggers. We don’t all hunt or shoot guns, but a lot of us can manage to do what needs to be done, especially in regard to providing safety and comfort to family and friends. The characters of Mattie and Ree are representative of Arkansas’s and Missouri’s rural women in that respect.

I’ll be watching on Sunday and keeping my fingers crossed that one of these fine films takes home the big prize. I’m not sure who I’m rooting for, Mattie or Ree, probably Ree because I also like a good underdog, and Winter’s Bone, while quite brilliant, has some steep competition.