The Coen Brothers and Feminine Morality

If you would like to see the bibliography on this article, just comment.

The first appearance of police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in the Coen Brother’s Fargo (1996) is deceptively ordinary. She is seen in bed sleeping peacefully with her husband as the camera zooms on her face and tense music plays, perhaps indicating she is about to be the victim of homicide or home intrusion. Then, the phone rings. The audience can’t quite make out the conversation being had, but Marge has been awakened late at night, so it must be urgent. She then sits up in bed displaying prominently her pregnant body. What would make a pregnant woman get out of bed so early in the morning? That question is answered in the next shot as Marge is seen in a police uniform eating a breakfast that her husband, Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch), has prepared for her. The shot frames two different worlds as Marge enters her police cruiser and Norm continues to eat. In the next scene, Marge arrives at the site of a brutal murder scene and calmly and coolly begins her police work.

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The Coen Brothers have subverted all audience expectations in the Gunderson’s portrayal. They are a middle-aged couple about to have their first child. They are a family where the stay at home husband cooks the pregnant wife breakfast. Marge is seven months pregnant, yet still calm and collected and ready to do taxing work. A feminist reading of this scene and Fargo in general becomes apparent. Marge is decidedly outside of the “womanly sphere”, yet still wholly feminine. One immediately thinks she would be a kind and nurturing mother upon hearing her speak, but as she begins her police work, one learns she is also tough as nails. The Coen Brothers present the audience with a revolutionary character, but not in a way that glamorizes or embellishes. Marge is just doing her job. This is empowerment of women without falling into a trap of caricature or extremity. The Coen Brothers therefore present what the audience views as extraordinary as ordinary and subvert all understandings of gender roles.

 

If one was prompted to write a description of a “feminist filmmaker”, Joel and Ethan Coen would not fit the bill. They are Jewish, straight middle-age men from the Midwest. Joel, born in 1954 and Ethan, born in 1957 were both raised in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota by their father, a professor of Economics, and their mother, a professor of Fine Arts.Joel studied film at New York University; Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton (Palmer 4-5). While their upbringing and educational pedigree may make them sound pretentious and inaccessible, they are far from unpopular and are well within the mainstream. Their films are commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and have the mix of accessibility and artistry that other mainstream directors strive for. In addition to success, a Coen Brother’s film is also marked with their telltale originality. Barton Palmer, a film critic, opines that the “most predictable aspect of their filmmaking is its unpredictability” (11). Indeed, feminism has always existed mostly outside the mainstream of popular culture, and yet the Coen’s find someway to bring it forth.

 

If one was to read a synopses of their films, the Coen Brothers sound even less like feminist filmmakers. A majority of their films feature male leads, violence, crime, and unapologetic dark humor. And yet, from their first film Blood Simple (1984), to their critically acclaimed 90s masterpiece Fargo, and onwards to their modern marvel No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coen Brother’s have never failed to portray complex, strong, and determinedly free women with agency of their own. Indeed, one of the most common tropes of the Coen Brother’s filmography is divorce and separation. A number of their films feature women leaving or planning to leave an abusive or otherwise insufficient husband or significant other. Not only that, but when it comes to “doing the deed” so to speak in a Coen Brother’s film, women are not left on the sideline to cheer on the male protagonist, they are often right beside him or even in front of him. In the case of Fargo, the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson’s (Frances McDormand) husband is stuck at home as she is out capturing violent criminals. Thus, while their films might not be stereotypically feminist in appearance, they are inherently feminist in nature.

 

While this paper has called the Coen Brothers “feminist filmmakers”, it has not defined the phrase. Feminism has many schools of thought, but the core of it is establishing equality for women in all aspects of life. In regards to film, Holly Derr writes in The Atlantic that “the question of whether a film itself is feminist is often confused with the question of whether it is sexist”. Indeed, simply by being non-sexist does not make a film inherently feminist. Instead, Derr orates that the most important part of a feminist film is having feminist characters, and the most important part of a feminist character is that she be a “subject” rather than an object”. Derr writes, “a subject has her own thoughts and desires upon which she acts, whereas a woman who has been objectified is acted upon by others”. Do the Coen Brothers present such characters and ideology in their films? Absolutely. Through their depictions of extraordinary women as ordinary, women as self-defining units, and women as forgers of their own destinies, and most of all, women as subjects rather than objects, the Coen Brothers bring feminine morality and feminism to audiences and critics alike; they are feminists and feminist filmmakers. The Coen Brothers, however, would deny that, having stated in reference to their movies that “none of them have messages” (Allen 112). Though they may create their films in a moral and message free vacuum, that is not the world we live in. Ultimately, the Coen brothers do not portray the world as it is nor as it ought to be, rather they present the audience with tantalizing visions of a world that could be. In doing so they still plant the seed of political and feminist discourse, whether intentional or not. The Coen Brother’s films exist in a world that constantly reverses audience expectations, and in our patriarchal world, that means displaying empowered women and feminist ideology.

 

Fargo is the quintessential feminist Coen Brother’s film, but it is not the only. As was noted earlier, many, if not all of the Coen Brother’s films have well written and developed female characters that work alongside the male characters. While some of the Coen Brother’s less serious films such as Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000),and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) rely more so on caricature characters and stereotyping all around, they are still not anti-feminst or openly misogynistic. Even within these comedies, women are still rule makers, rule breakers, villians, heroes, and all sorts of complex roles. They are often portrayed as having power over men, as in The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or as being equals in conflict to men, as in Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading (2008). Within the more “serious” crime drama titles, such as Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men, and their less crime filled but most mature title, A Serious Man (2009) the Coen Brothers portray women as either just as devious as their male counterparts, or as much less prone to evil foils. Thus, the Coen Brother’s avoid shoehorning women into one monolithic role and always keep the audience guessing on their true nature. In doing so all the women in these films become “subjects” of the film rather than “objects” of them.

 

Literature written on the Coen Brothers often pinpoints these feminist subversion. Ryan Doom writes about a number of the women characters in Coen Brothers films. About Abby (Frances McDormand) in Blood Simple he writes “usually in film,women scream, wail, and crawl their way to freedom, but Abby veers away from this cliché. She accepts the situation and acts” (8). He continues down the line, noting in Raising Arizona Ed’s (for the uniformed, this is indeed a female character’s name)“domination” of the household, Fargo‘sMarge Gunderson’s rejection of the machismo of the police drama genre, and Intolerable Cruelty’s Marilyn Rexroth’s independence as a successful criminal woman (24, 75, 131). In Motherhood, Homicide, and Swedish Meatballs: The Quiet Triumph of the Maternal in Fargo Pamela Grace highlights the contrast between the woefully inept, swaggering male characters in Fargo with the professional skills of Marge Gunderson (36-37). In What Kind of Man are You? Richard Gaughran orates that every Coen Brother’s character attempts “to construct a viable identity within a hostile environment” (228). For women, this often means empowerment and other feminist ventures, such as divorce, maternity, and/or careerism.

 

Critics and academics often address individual female characters within the Coen Brother’s filmography, but few tackle overarching themes. That is, the scholarship often focuses on the Coen Brother’s films individually, but fails to tackle the entire canon and narrative. While this may ultimately be a farce since the Coen Brothers refuse to admit they make political or moral films, the feminist themes found within their films are too prominent to ignore. Thus, this paper will attempt to fill in this dearth of knowledge by combining the literature on individual characters with my own movie-by-movie textual interpretation. However, the Coen Brothers have a large filmography, and to tackle each movie individually would be unnecessary. Instead, we shall observe the Coen Brother’s general trend of filmmaking, starting with Blood Simple, going onto Fargo, and eventually reaching modern day with No Country for Old Men. I have chosen these films not only because they fit neatly within a timeline, but because of their genre similarity and how they showcase the growth of the Coen Brothers feminist morality and filmmaking prowess. In doing so I shall prove that the Coen Brothers, though they may deny it, are indeed “feminist filmmakers”.

 

Unlike Homer, we will not begin in media res with Fargo, but at the beginning of the Coen Brother’s career with Blood Simple. Like most of the Coen Brother’s films, Blood Simple employs neo-noir tropes and many references to the master of the genre, Hitchcock. Blood Simple‘s plot could have easily been straight and simple. It begins in such a way that one expects it might be. A man hires a hit man to kill his ex-wife. And yet, everything that could go wrong does. Ultimately, the hit man ends up killing the man who hired him to simplify things, but the man who the hit man was hired to kill discovers the murder scene, and thus the hit man decides he must ultimately kill the person he originally set out to kill too. Through all of this, the only character aware of the entire story is the hit man himself, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh). The couple he is attempting to kill, Abby and Ray, remain entirely ignorant of the hit man’s existence up until the point Abby fatally kills Loren through a wooden door. Blood Simple is an Camus-esque examination of the absurd, yet it still stays realistic. This is much in part to the Coen Brother’s and Frances McDormand’s portrayal of Abby as a subversion of the classic “femme fatale” character found in classic noir tales. She is not a Lady Macbeth character who deals in the shadows, she is right there when Loren must be shot. She does not shy away from Ray’s criminality, though she doesn’t support it either. She makes a decision to leave her husband, the man who called the hit on her, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya). And yet, she is still mysterious and enigmatic. The Coen Brother’s depict men in the film as using “feminine” means of violence, such as indirect contract killings or assassinations. Abby, however, directly fights with her enemy and, though she is ultimately mistaken, announces she is not afraid to kill her ex-husband after shooting Loren.

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Blood Simple begins the groundwork of the Coen Brother’s feminist filmmaking. It introduces the subversion of gender roles, the revolutionary, anti-patriarchal woman, and the trope of divorce and separation. Not only is Abby able to leave her husband, she is able to bring herself to stab and shoot him (or rather, who she believes to be him). In doing so she is the only survivor in what Palmer calls a world “ruled by the principle of red tooth and claw”, that is, a violent world where only the strong survive (16). And yet, according to Joel Coen, Abby remains “relatively innocent throughout” (Allen 21). Thus Abby’s duality is brought to light. This duality, noted by Erica Rowell as a “healthy duality” further cements Abby as a feminist character (24).

 

Abby’s duality is between the physical and the psychological world, or as Rowell puts it, “direct action and self-reflection” (23). She acts directly in escaping from Marty. Then, she reflects on her actions as she seeks a life with Ray. Though Abby may not be sure of it herself, the viewer is well aware that escaping from Marty saved her life. Abby’s direct actions are the actions of an empowered woman. They are instinctual movements to escape abuse and entrapment. The Coens present the actions of the only notable woman in the piece to be wholly in the right and “innocent”, unlike the actions of the male characters, which are duplicitous and in some segments downright amoral. However, the duality of Abby’s character, the fact that she thinks back on her possible mistakes shows us that while she may be “innocent”, she is not ignorant of her possible wrongdoings. She has respect for herself, but also respect for others. Her actions, such as her escape from Marty and the eventual shooting Visser therefore become even more complex as they are actions of an autonomous and self-relfective woman. They are not schemes of a vindictive femme fatale as found in other noir works. In addition, they are not mistakes or missteps. Abby acts deliberately in a way that mirrors “feminine morality”, which is defined by author Jean Elshtain as encompassing “the feminine capacity for nurturance, love, and empathy” (966). Thus, The Coens create a character that is not only acts initially in an instinctual feminist manner, but also in a mindfully feminist manner.

 

This instinctual feminism is important as it begins to dissipate and is mostly replaced by mindful feminism as the Coen Brother’s filmography continues, especially within Fargo. It cannot be argued that Marge Gunderson is not a moral character. Rebecca Hanrahan and David Stearns write that Gunderson is “morally upright” and has the ability to “assume the good of others as her own” (96). She rarely acts on instinct and is cold and calculating. Her mindfulness is most apparent during what many see as the most out of place scene in the entire movie, her encounter with Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). Mike lies to her over dinner in an attempt to seduce her. While Marge rejects his advances with the utmost sympathy and respect, she realizes afterward that he was lying. Once she comes to such a conclusion, she begins to suspect Jerry, a suspect in her murder case, might be lying too. Her mindfulness as a detective is now made apparent, and it is done through a feminist lens. That is, beating off the advances of a particularly insidious man. While Marge and Abby share traits of direct feminist action and psychological morality, Marge possesses a greater sense of objective feminist morality. Her capability for empathy and love is unmatched in the Coen’s filmography. In addition, she is not self-reflective as she is always in the right. This may stem from her maturity, she is portrayed as much older than Abby, and/or her maternity.

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Much like how the Coen Brothers have matured some since Blood Simple the feminist protagonist of Fargo is more mature than the feminist protagonist of Blood Simple. In her maturity Marge has become a successful career woman with a strong sense of moral duty to her fellow humans. While Abby acts with instinctual feminist motives, Marge acts with thoughtfulness. Hanrahan and Stearns orate that Marge has “the capacity for shame” and “respect for others” (95). If Marge was transplanted into Abby’s shoes, one assumes she would either never marry a duplicitous man like Marty, or if she did, she would never make the instinctual movements that Abby makes such as cheating on him and leaving him. Instead, it would be a mindful decision based on empathy and respect. This begs the question, which character is therefore “more feminist?” Is it Marge in her mindful, empathetic feminism? Or is it Abby with her instinctual, no-holds-barred feminism? While Marge has perhaps a more moral understanding of her feminist womanhood, that is, people should be treated equally as fellow humans no matter what, she also acts a bit too complacently when her sex, gender, and authority is threatened, as with Jerry and Mike. Abby is instinctively feminist, she makes the right decisions to challenge patriarchal norms and abusive men, but her mindfulness is less apparent. While she is innocent, she is not necessarily always moral.

 

Before discussing which portrayal, if any is “more feminist”, we shall examine our last film, No Country for Old Men. The female protagonist in this Texan tragedy is Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Unlike Marge and Abby, Carla seems largely ignorant of the world at large and exists almost entirely within the stereotypically “womanly” sphere. She is the wife of male protagonist and is not a very active character, she spends much of the film being ferried around by male characters and is eventually killed by one. However, while she does not possess the instinctual feminism of Abby or the learned moral feminism of Marge, she possesses an innate womanly, or rather, human innate dignity. Thus, her feminism is innate, that is, it is a universal extension of human dignity.

 

Unlike Abby and Marge, Carla does not live to see the end of her film. She is implied to be killed quite ruthlessly by the antagonist of the film, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), though the murder is never shown on camera. The conversation Carla has with Chigurh right before the murder, however, is shown to the audience. While Carla has nothing Chigurh wants, he tells her he made a deal with her husband that should he flee from him, he would kill his wife. While Carla’s husband is already dead, Chigurh is insistent to stay true to his word, though he offers Carla a way out. He asks her to call a coin toss. Should Carla calls it correctly, he will spare her life. However, Carla refuses even this. She tells Chigurh that ultimately he is the one that makes the decision, and that the coin toss has no real meaning. She appeals to Chigurh’s humanity, but to no avail. As Chigurh leaves Carla’s house, he checks his shoes, an action he has done earlier in the movie anytime he has killed someone.

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Like Abby and Marge, Carla does confront the main “evil” present in her film. In addition, like Abby and Marge she is empathetic, loving, and kind. And yet, Carla subscribes to a different type of feminist morality, a more “universal” tone. Douglas McFarland writes that Carla’s refusal to accept the coin toss “restores moral judgment to the situation” (174). She defies the irrationality of the coin toss and replaces it with an objective sense of morality. In doing so, McFarland believes Carla is “heroic in her unwillingness to abandon the human need to construe the world in moral terms” (174). McFarland’s usage of “need” here is important. Humans need morality. Chigurh as an amoral character is presented as entirely strange in the film. Joel Coen describes him as “like a man who fell to earth” (McFarland 171). If Chigurh fell to earth, Carla is his opposite. She is as human as humanly possible and possesses a “need” for morality. A natural human need. As such, feminine and feminist morality as being the morality of love, empathy, and nurturance becomes a need for the world. Humans need feminism the same way humans need morality as the two are inherently intertwined. Carla may not act like Abby and Marge as a strong female character, but this is what makes No Country for Old Men so important. It puts the feminist character and the moral character together to show that the two ideas are one in the same. The Coen’s therefore present feminism, or at least, feminine morality as a universal part of human need. An innate part of human dignity. None of the three films or characters explored are any more “feminist” than one another, they simply relate the universality of feminism differently. Carla, at the basic though more “pure” stage of innate feminine morality, Abby with her innate, instinctive, and occasionally mindful feminism, and Marge and the apex of maturity with her innate and entirely mindful feminism.

 

Thus the “conclusion” of the Coen’s feminist philosophy tells us that feminism is simply an extension of human dignity. Ultimately all three characters express feminist traits, and ultimately each movie has feminist undertones, but the take away is that a desire, or perhaps even a need for equality is innate. Not learned, nor even instinctual, it is imbued from birth and is a natural quality. In doing this, the Coen’s are one of the few directors with mainstream success that are constantly creating films that put feminism and the morality behind feminism in the spotlight. If audiences begin to see feminism as an inherent moral responsibility, the Coen Brother’s have done much to support feminist causes. And feminine causes are nothing obtuse or difficult, they are basic human needs. Love, empathy, equality, respect, none of these things could possibly be construed as amoral. And yet in many places of the world, women must fight for all these basic things. Societal pressures may have led the world into patriarchy and inequality, but this can be reversed. A natural return to morality is possible, and due to artists and visionaries like the Coen Brother’s, feminism has made great strides in the 20th and 21st century. 

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3 thoughts on “The Coen Brothers and Feminine Morality

  1. Chloe Kelsch

    Hi, I’d really like to quotethis article in my essay I’m writing on the Coen brothers, so I was wondering how exactly I would cite this because I can’t find your name anywhere. Do you have a preferred name I could use to cite you as the author, or should I just leave out a name in my citation?

    Reply
  2. Savvy

    Hello! Very well-written article. I am also writing a paper about the Coen brothers. I don’t feel that they are feminist writers, just because it seems to me like they are more interested in exploring what it means to be a man. I am interested in your bibliography.

    Reply

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