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That Persistent Love of the Coen Brothers

This post was initially inspired by friend and comrade blogger Xtina's suggestion, from the Sophia Coppola post, that I write something about our mutual dislike of the Coen Brothers.  And then, when my closest comrade of all time wrote a post about True Grit (along with the Coen Brothers, queerish things, and general awesomeness) in her new and what will prove to be amazing blog All Killer, I got all riled up to rant about these dudes and their dudish films.

When it comes to critically acclaimed American cinema, the movies of the Coen brothers are most often cited as contemporary examples of excellent film-making.  Critics love these boys and there is more than one unofficial fansite dedicated to their supposed brilliance.  And yet it is telling that the Coens' biggest fans––those who go on and on about their supposed genius––are male and those who do not enjoy their films, or at the very least just find them boring and annoying, are female.

I remember years ago, when I was just beginning my undergrad, watching The Big Lebowski with one other man and two women.  While us boys laughed our way through what we thought was a clever "intellectual" comedy, our female counterparts complained about the anti-feminist boys-will-be-boys narrative.  They denounced it as a masculinist "guy" film (come on it's all about some "Dude") and did not find it very funny or insightful.  At the time I was resistant to this criticism, perhaps because it revealed something about the reasons for my own enjoyment of Coen brothers movies that I was currently unable and unwilling to interrogate.  Now I look back on that discussion as a moment of cinematic politicization: the critique remained at the back of my mind whenever I encountered other Coen films, or other masculinist "counter-Hollywood" films (ie. almost everything by Quentin Tarantino), and became a sort of nebulous ur-Bechdel Test for engaging with films the socialized boy in me wanted to love.

It is almost heresy amongst film-loving boys to criticize the Coen brothers.  You say you don't like these patron saints of boydom at a party and everyone with a penis looks at you as if you've committed a cardinal sin and should be excommunicated from their club, if you're a boy, or just ignored if you're not a boy.  Or they'll try to dismiss your arguments, getting very vehement and contradictory in their defense, because they cannot let you leave until they've convinced you that the Coen brothers are great film-makers.

Coen brothers missionaries are like the high-brow version of Star Wars geeks.  They memorize lines from Coen brothers movies and will go on and on about the plots of these films, giving their own "deep" analysis and ignoring the fact that you don't give a shit.  And then you're tricked into watching these films––because "you can't say it's bad without seeing it, man"––because the fanaticism of the fans is so bloody convincing.  That's why they're like Star Wars fans: they get together and convince themselves of how brilliant the film is, hyping themselves into Coen-ecstacy with their Coen-Apostles Creed.

Typical Fan of Coen Brothers Films

"Hello, I am "the Dude" and I am beloved by dudes everywhere and my movie, even if it is a vapid piece of woman-hating bullshit, is so unbelievably dudely that it cannot ever be accused of being misgoynist."

Whenever feminist critiques are made of their films, the amount of excuses that are mobilized to defend their work boggles the mind.  The charge that, in the majority of their films, female characters are either stereotypes, victims, or boringly minor characters can be rejected by appealing to various sophistries.  Female agency in Fargo is used to explain away the lack of female agency in the majority of their films––as if an exception is enough to disprove a general rule.  The anti-feminist stereotyping of the female character in The Big Lebowski is dismissed by claiming that "everyone" in that film is "stereotyped."  The problem with female absence and victimization is sometimes even argued as "feminist" because, in the American society the Coen brothers are supposedly "critiquing", women are excluded and victimized.

Of course women are excluded and victimized in patriarchal capitalism, and of course it can be critical feminist film-making to take this into account.  The interrogation of the gendered monopoly of violence is a feminist concern that, in some ways, demonstrates how the Bechdel Test––while a good starting point for examining whether a film is possibly feminist friendly––is somewhat limited.  (There are films that pass the test that are still anti-feminist and films that fail that are pro-feminist.)  So perhaps we could argue that the Coen brothers, whose films almost always fail the Bechdel Test, are actually not truly masculinist because they are excavating the violent norms that disappear and victimize women.  No Country For Old Men is often cited as an example of this argument––as some critical engagement with the violent norms of American society––and the fact it was based on a troubling masculinist/Hobbesian novel (all of Cormac McCarthy's novels have this problem) is generally ignored.

There are many films that interrogate the normative parameters of violence that I would argue are still feminist despite the absence or victimization of women––films that demonstrate the Bechdel Test is more a guideline than a universal rule.  The best revisionist westerns, for example, engage with the absence and victimization of women in a critical manner.  So do some of the more left-wing horror films.  Even Refn's Valhalla Rising, that I discussed earlier in this blog, though somewhat confused and unable to be truly critical, feels like it is trying to actually interrogate the absence of female social agency by their general absence from the film's surreal landscape. (This is not to say Valhalla Rising succeeds, I really don't think it does, but it is still an attempt that is interesting.)  Sauna is another good example of this type of critical film-making, where certain gendered exclusions are necessary in the context it's critiquing: the map making of patriarchal empires and how this is often inscribed upon the body, borders inked with blood, of women.  I don't believe that  No Country For Old Men, or any of the Coen brothers films, are indicative of this type of film-making.

If anything the violence depicted by the Coen brothers, a violence that either excludes or victimizes non-male subjects, is voyeuristic.  There is nothing in any of their violent films that attempts to excavate the social basis of structural violence.  Maybe No Country For Old Men was trying to do this but, hampered by the typical boyish sentiments of the film-makers, it really did not succeed––especially in comparison to so many other excellent examples.  And if the message is, based on the source material, just McCarthy's typical "man is a wolf to man" reactionary view of human nature (and woman is just a gentle home maker who has no place in a man's world) then this film is incapable of being critical of the violence it depicts.

In some ways True Grit, their most recent film, possessed the potential to break, perhaps following the oft-cited Fargo, with the boys-own adventurism of typical Coen brothers' fare.  The only reason I went to see this film was because: a) I like revisionist westerns because of the potential they have to critique American expansionism and colonialism; b) the main character, in defiance to the general Coen brothers approach, was female and possessed a significant level of agency.  The very recent review of True Grit on All Killer is a good engagement with the film from the perspective of someone who also does not generally like the Coen brothers' boyness yet found something different and semi-redeemable in the movie.

But even if True Grit succeeds in overcoming typical Coen brothers' masculinism (I'm not at all sure it does, but it is definitely less masculinist than their usual movies), it fails as a revisionist Western.  So what if we have a girl with agency that is usually not possessed by women when this character, and the characters with whom she travels, are rarely brought into conflict with the vicious and underlying principles of western expansionism.  In fact, there are two scenes in True Grit where the colonized are subjected to violence in a "funny" manner: first, the hanging of an indigenous man that, though possibly a critical comment on the silencing of the colonized, is done in such a manner that the audience in the theatre actually laughed; second, the scene where Jeff Bridges' character kicks two native children off of a porch (and does so twice) for no other reason than to cause the audience to laugh at the racialized violence.  Revisionist westerns should, if they are to be properly revisionist, interrogate the violent American narrative of the frontier that was celebrated in every Hollywood western whether this be the genocide behind westward expansion, the growth of capital through the railroad industry, the war with Mexico, the post-slavery racism and retrenchment of black agrarian labour, or even seriously poke holes in the machismo of the John Wayne cowboy.  Even Sergio Leone's westerns were more critical than True Grit.

There's a line in No Country For Old Men that, in my opinion, adequately explains the Coen brothers' approach to film.  At a motel the character Llewlyn Moss says: "And by anybody I mean any swinging dick."  The human subject (anybody) is inscribed as masculine (swinging dick).  The anybody is not only the primary and gendered subject of the Coen brothers' filmography, but is also the same anybody that is enraptured by their films.


  1. Hey JMP - Thanks for this post. I think your critique is spot-on.

    I've not seen too many Coen brothers films, because they just don't appeal to me. But I have rarely met a man who isn't a fan of their films. Actually, I was briefly dabbling in the world of online dating (ha!) and I felt like every male profile I read listed the Coen brothers films among their favourites.

    It's also interesting that you mention Fargo as the one film that saves the Coen brothers from criticisms of sexism. I was having this very same conversation with a "dude" the other day. Maybe I should actually watch the rest of Fargo. I started watching it a few years ago but never finished for some reason.

    p.s. Thanks for linking All Killer's blog. I love her/his take on True Grit and its connection to Anne of Green Gables - which was the same kind of reaction I had when I saw the film! (You'll have to tell me later if I am acquainted will All Killer).

  2. Glad you liked the post. Fargo is *kind of* an exception, but it's not like it's some stellar piece of film making in any remarkable non-American (let alone truly progressive) kind of way. It just happens to be one of the Coen brothers films where there is a female character with a significant amount of agency. The protagonist of True Grit also had agency and, despite all that, the film was still problematic.

    And yes you are acquainted with All Killer - you should probably be able to guess who she is!

  3. I definitely have my suspicions about All Killer's true identity ;)

    But yes, True Grit was pretty problematic. One part that really made me cringe was when Mattie was getting the pony from the African American stable boy and calls the pony Blackie. I was glad to note that I was not the only one who caught that (at least with the group of people I saw it with). And of course so many other problematic elements with race... As All Killer identifies in her blog, the portrayal of First Nations people is also pretty brutal.

  4. Duuuuude. This is the best post evar. Thank you for writing.

  5. Ha! I'm going to assume that was an ironic comment...

  6. Isn't the female "protagonist" in Fargo a pig?

    The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, and O Brother Where Art Thou (some of their stronger films) are obviously male fantasies, and in spite, or because of this, they are interesting to analyze from a radical feminist perspective.

    In The Big Lebowski, "The Dude", a working-class male, is basically raped by a ruling-class female who claims to be a feminist. This taps into the reactionary male fantasy that the feminist revolution has victimized males. This backwards male interpretation is rooted to some degree in the anxiety of past progressive movements to resolve class-constradictions. The only working class female in the film, "Bunny Lebowski", prostitutes herself, stars in porn films, and marries an older bourgeois man for the money. It is interesting to note that the film does not necessarily romanticize this character nor condemn her actions.

    In Barton Fink, it is discussed how Hollywood and other institutions of male "art" rely on uncredited female ghost labor. There is also a deliberate correlation drawn between male violence against women and fascism.

    O Brother Where Art Thou is a male fantasy in which working-class male protagonists break out of jail and have exciting adventures in the U.S. Deep South. The main character is based off of Odysseus, except in the Coen brother's film he is an unreliable and irresponsible father whose Penelope rejects him in the end. Not exactly a feminist film but a good example of the weird and ambiguous gender dynamics in the film.

    Thanks for bringing this subject to attention!

  7. Clearly this is definitely a terrain for serious academic essays: I like some of the points you brought up. Yeah, I suppose Fargo could be more problematic than some want to believe: the pig thing is well taken.


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