In Praise of a Complex Woman Character

I tend to agree with a recent article by Stephanie McDougall about the superficiality of so many iterations of the “strong female character.”  Too often such a figure is a predictable type: between 25 and 35 years of age, adept in some form of martial arts, and inclined to sudden acts of violence (that often involve acts of acrobatic combat that their male counterparts aren’t obliged to execute).  There’s nothing wrong with such characters in their own right, of course–one ought not dismiss Trinity from The Matrix or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Captain America ‘s Peggy Carter too easily.  After all, such departures from the damsel-in-distress weren’t just given; they had to come from somewhere.

But in the last few weeks, watching season the back catalog of the FX series Justified, I’ve got a new favorite on-screen woman: Mags Bennett.

For those who haven’t heard of this series, Justified takes place in present-day east Kentucky, and the setting oscillates between the towns of Frankfort and Lexington and the hollers and hill-country of the surrounding coal-mining counties.  Although Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins (playing Marshall Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, respectively) generally get top billing, the show does feature an array of interesting characters, including backwoods criminal mastermind Mags Bennett.

As far as Bennett herself goes, I want to point out the obvious first: this is a character with grandchildren.  Margo Martindale, the masterful Baby Boomer who plays the drug emperor of the holler, never delivers a kick above the knee, never moves away from her role as matriarch, never gets mistaken for the object of any character’s sexual tension.  Because Mags has so much else going for her as a character, there’s just no need for all of that.  When she’s on screen, there’s no other character who’s nearly as interesting, and that comes not from any kind of eye-candy but from good, old-fashioned character development.

Mags is a deeply East-Kentucky woman, at home in the local Methodist church as much as  she’s the master of the grand family gatherings that happen at the family store.  She’s also the no-nonsense head of a marijuana empire, someone willing to poison her own lieutenants to send a message to the others about loyalty, ready even to send a violent “message” to her own flesh and blood if they break discipline.

She outsmarts the federal government and big energy corporations, and she’s ruthless with rival gangs from Frankfort, Harlan County, and even Miami.  She’s also famous for her “apple pie” moonshine.

Her three sons, two moderately incompetent thugs and the corrupt sheriff of Bennett County, do scheme behind her back, but all three of them know that to cross Mama directly is a death sentence.  Yet she says, in moments of vulnerability, that she never wanted to “get mean” but had to in order to protect the family that fate has handed to her.

In other words, to borrow a comparison from McDougall, this is a character who is just as interesting as Shakespeare’s Richard II, whose intelligence is unparalleled even as her loyalty to family and sense of the impending future are genuine points of vulnerability.  (I’ve not gotten past the early episodes of season three, so no worries about spoilers here.)  And besides that, she’s not a young woman.  Bucking the urge of so many entertainment franchises to use women as visual stimulus, then to add other things, Justified just delivers a powerful character.  This is no simple attempt to field a “role model” or even a “subversive” character but a genuinely fascinating human personality, at turns someone to whom I as the viewer can relate and someone who utterly horrifies me.  Mags Bennett is the genuine article, and I credit the actor, the writers, and the whole Justified team for giving the twenty-first century a true example of what women characters look like when they’re powerful, complex, and human.

Have any of our readers seen Justified?  No spoilers, please (I’m still watching myself), but what do you make of Mags?

5 thoughts on “In Praise of a Complex Woman Character

  1. Justified sounds intriguing.  I’ll have to check it out.  (my wife and I already started watching Sons of Anarchy based on some of your comments in the podcast, and we’ve become major fans).

    I agree about the wushu-acrobat-ballerina style of fighting that most “Action Woman” characters display (and I say this as a die-hard Joss Whedon fan).  Another exception to this pattern is Mallory Kane, the main character in the film Haywire.  Kane is played by real-life MMA fighter Gina Carano, and her fight scenes more closely resemble the kind of thing that we would expect from her male counterparts.  Two examples:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeuarppF2jk

    My wife wrote a couple of blog posts on this topic, as well.
    http://politicaljesus.com/2012/01/25/female-characters-who-kick-ass-introducing-mallory-kane/#sthash.BX0jLqU1.dpbs
    http://cheesewearingtheology.com/2012/02/cage-fighting-women-who-kick-ass-and-violence-one-womans-perspective/

  2. Love the show and Mags is a great character with a touch of Lady MacBeth to her.
    I see You and David as Raylan and Art with Michial as Marshall Tim.

  3. Charles H SoA is pretty great too, as far as women characters go.  Still, though, if I have to pick my favorite gangster grandma, it’s Mags.
    Also, with regards to the martial arts, I’m also not going to minimize the kung-fu acrobat as a gain, in tentative and relative terms.  I just like to see a character who’s not an assassin for the crime boss; she IS the crime boss.

  4. I have not seen Justified, but I wanted to mention a strong female lead from an earlier day that I rather enjoy, and that is Gillian Anderson as Scully in the X-Files. She was a lead that didn’t need kung-fu to be interesting, relying rather on being generally smarter than her male counterpart. Sexy just didn’t need tight fitting clothes back then, I guess.

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