It’s an oft-stated truism that there aren’t enough “strong female characters” in movies. But it’s also a truism that whenever people do decide to put together a list of “strong female characters” from movies, they tend to zoom in on one particular word – and one particular interpretation of that word – and focus on discussing characters who are, literally, physically “strong”. Look up any list of the best female characters in film, and you’ll usually be presented with a list that is largely made up of (with the exception of perennial favourites Holly Golightly and Annie Hall) ass-kicking action heroines such as Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, The Bride, Trinity, assorted Milla Jovovich characters, and so on.
Some of these deserve their places on these lists (I’ll fight anyone who dares argue that Ripley, in the second film especially, isn’t the greatest action movie heroine of all time), and some probably don’t (hello Lara Croft). But I’ve also noticed a name that these lists don’t often tend to include – Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson. This despite the fact that she is, for my money, one of the best female characters in movie history. So in honour of International Women’s Day, and inspired in part by this latest from Kate Beaton showing up this morning, here’s a little bit about why.
Marge is the emotional centre of Fargo, a dark and violent black comedy about nasty and/or misguided people doing nasty things to one-another. She’s intelligent (showing a Holmesian display of deductive reasoning when first visiting the initial crime scene), kind, empathetic, insightful, funny, and satisfied with her lot – enjoying her work and a healthy and loving relationship with her husband that, while it doesn’t necessarily subvert traditional gender roles, certainly blurs them (their memorable introductory appearance is a flip on the classic “sleepy cop answers phone in middle of night” routine, as Marge takes the call while Norm trundles out of bed to make her some eggs).
Quite crucially, however, part of what makes Marge so great is the fact that she’s a woman. A problem with so many female characters considered as “strong” is that in order to be so, they’ve often had to make themselves become more like a man (Sarah Connor syndrome, if you like), taking on physical and/or emotional characteristics that enable them to play the same role as a traditional male hero. But in Fargo, although Marge is not averse to kicking ass and taking names – remember that she single-handedly brings down the brutal murderer Grimsrud with a well-placed gunshot – it’s her gender that sets her apart from everyone else in the film.
Fargo is all about the failures and incompetencies of men – men who succumb to rapacious lusts and desires (primarily for money, but let’s not forget the significance of the somewhat grim sequence in which the two kidnappers enjoy the services of a pair of bored prostitutes) – but at the centre of it all is Marge, the only truly competent person either on the side of the good or the bad. All around her are men acting or being stupid – Jerry, Carl and Graer, Lou (“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou”), even her old high-school classmate Mike – and she just calmly gets on with doing the right thing, the right way.
In addition to the powers of deduction that make her such a great cop, Marge’s intelligence is emotional, as well. Throughout the film, she instinctively knows how to approach characters in exactly the right way – taking different tones and approaches to the extent that she never comes off the worst out of a conversation (or an interrogation). Not that there ever seems to be anything planned or cynical about this – it’s just the way she is. And if I can say this without it sounding patronising, a huge part of this is undoubtedly the fact that she’s a woman (and an expectant mother, at that), making her empathy seem all that more natural.
In this manner, Marge “kicks ass” in a far greater way than any literal instance of high-kicking or smart-mouthed sassy quips from a hundred “empowered” (yet still strangely over-sexualized) cinematic peers. And she even finds time to be the film’s philosopher, as demonstrated by this really quite profound (and spoilerfic, obviously) sequence towards the end. A superb creation in both writing and performance (the film rightly won Academy Awards for both elements – the role being the finest and most nuanced moment in the particularly exceptional career of Frances McDormand, one of the best screen actors – male or female – of the last fifty years), she may not have the complex intrigue of Annie Hall, or the sheer bloody-minded determination and will of Ripley, but Marge Gunderson is still undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest ever women.
“Hautman’s blue-winged teal got the 29-cent. People don’t much use the three-cent.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Of course they do. Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.”
Okay, this is very nerdy, but bear with me.
I’ve been watching lately a fair few episodes from what I’d call the “Late Imperial” era of The Simpsons – that is, the era in which, at its best, it was still the best thing on television; but in which it wasn’t hitting its “best” with every episode. This has largely involved watching most of season eight, but I’ve also watched odds and sods from seasons seven and nine as well. And this got me thinking in more detail about a theory I’ve had for a little while, which is this:
I believe a Simpsons episode is more likely to be good if it opens with an in-universe TV show/film/radio show than if it doesn’t.
I’ve come up with this theory based on the fact that the “show within a show” kinds of fiction (largely covering TV shows, but also including movies and radio stations) often tend to be among the funniest and most memorable moments in the series’ history (particularly when they involve Krusty, Kent Brockman or Troy McClure). And for some reason, when an episode opens with one of these scenes, it instantly feels sharper and more imaginative than one that just brings us in to a random scene somewhere in Springfield or at the Simpsons’ home. This is particularly noticeable during these later seasons (and when I say “later”, I mean “later in the good period” – we’re going by the assumption that the programme is largely not worth watching, and thus non-existent in my head, after around season eleven), when it’s the more dull and boring episodes that seem to start in this mundane way, and the better ones that give the laughs by opening with – for example – the Krusty Komedy Klassic, or an edition of Eye on Springfield. It therefore feels to me like I’m simply more likely to enjoy an episode if it’s got one of these opening scenes (which from now on I’m referring to as “TV openings”, even though they also covers other forms of media).
So, I’ve decided to test it out. And count up data in Excel. And turn it into a graph. Because that’s how I roll.
In honour of the band’s recently-announced summer gig in London (their first visit for almost three years), and the fact that I’d eerily been listening to a bunch of tracks with a view to putting a blog post like this together before said gig was announced, have a list of thirty reasons why Half Man Half Biscuit songwriter Nigel Blackwell is, to my mind, this country’s greatest living poet and satirist. Grouped into three loose categories, with ten in each, I’m sure I could come up with thirty different ones on another day, but here are the first batch to occur to me here and now. Enjoy.
If you want to browse more Blackwell excellence, there’s now – finally – a pretty much complete archive online, courtesy of this excellent site (a far cry from the days when searching for “…Dukla Prague Away Kit” lyrics would give you reference to something called “Sub-U-Dome”). And if you’ve never listened to HMHB, in the Spotify age there’s really no excuse not to start.
It’s funny ‘cos it’s true
Observational comedy at its finest. McIntyre, take notes. Actually, don’t.
Even men with steel hearts love to see a dog on the pitch
(Even Men with Steel Hearts)
When you’re holding tea and toast
And there’s no-one else around
Do you switch the kitchen light off with your chin?
(Lock Up Your Mountain Bikes)
Not long now before lollipop men are called Darren
(Totnes Bickering Fair)
Darts in soap operas: oh so wrong, oh so wrong
No-one’s scoring, and there’s too much chat between each throw
Worse than this, though, is when cheers are raised for the bull
Granted, bull’s a double and an out – but I know that they don’t know
(Surging out of Convalescence)
Opinionated weather forecasters who tell me it’s going to be a “miserable day”
Miserable to who? I quite like a bit of drizzle, so stick to the facts!
(A Country Practice)
She stayed with me until she moved to Notting Hill
She said it was the place she needs to be
Where the cocaine is fair trade, and frequently displayed
Is the Buena Vista Social Club’s CD
(The Light At The End of the Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train))
A woman who described herself as “A little bit Bridget, a little bit Ally, a little bit Sex And The City” and chose to call her baby boy Fred as a childishly rebellious attempt at a clever reaction to those who might have expected her to call him Julian or Rupert. Bit of advice: call him Rupert, it fits, and besides it’s a good name. Don’t be calling him Fred or Archie, with all its cheeky but lovable working class scamp connotations, unless you really do have plans for him to spend his life in William Hill’s waiting for them to weigh in at Newton Abbot.
I want to perch myself halfway up a metal staircase with the Polydor girls and talk about meerkats
And come out with statements like:
“Well of course music these days is the slave of mammon, and as a result has become corrupt and shallow
Its real essence is industry
Its moral purpose is the acquisition of money
Its aesthetic pretext is the entertainment of those who are bored
Though yes, we’re really excited about going back into the studio
Hotly tipped, highly anticipated and slated for release”
(Thy Damnation Slumbereth Not)
So I’m walking down the road, and heading towards me
Is somebody I know, but not like a brother
He’s seen me, and we both realise that we’re going to have to put into operation
The tricky manoeuvre that is
Acknowledgement without breaking stride
Neil Morrisey’s a knobhead
(Bottleneck at Capel Curig)
Poetry & wordplay
Blackwell has two particular skills as a wordsmith – first off, although not displayed as often as his humour, he can have a brilliant way with metaphor and phrasing. And he’s also a fan of making puns that wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone else…
They say “Plenty more fish”
I say “Amoco Cadiz”
(Keeping Two Chevrons Apart)
There’s a man with a mullet going mad with a mallet in Millets
(National Shite Day)
Nero fiddles while Gordon Burns
(Joy Division Oven Gloves)
Who’s afraid of Virginia Wade?
(Outbreak of Vitas Gerulaitis)
You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce
Although there was a drive-by shouting once
(For What Is Chatteris…)
Did you play in the Garden of Eden?
Were the goalkeeper’s gloves to you tossed?
‘Cos it seems to me you’re the reason
You’re the reason why Paradise lost
(Paradise Lost (You’re The Reason Why))
Your optimism strikes me like junk mail addressed to the dead
(Depressed Beyond Tablets)
On touching the trig point, I found my thrill
To the east Brokeback Mountain, to the west Benny Hill
I’ll give you the grid ref, you might like to go
Could this be heaven, would that be the Severn
Twmpa, Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper
(Lord Hereford’s Knob)
I didn’t take much time convincing her:
“Baby, I’m from the Wirral Peninsula”
(A Lilac Harry Quinn)
Following a commendable stab at “Sylvia”, Helen shouted at the guitarist:
“Are you knackered, man?”
To which he replied, “No, I’m Jan Akkerman!”
(Tour Jacket With Detachable Sleeves)
Just downright funny
Sometimes the lines are just uncategorisably, indefinably, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Such as…
I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food
And with the money saved, take them to the zoo
(Totnes Bickering Fair)
I tried to put everything into perspective, set it against the scale of human suffering. And I thought of the Mugabe government, and the children of the Calcutta Railways. This worked for a while, but then I encountered Primark FM.
(National Shite Day)
U is for the Umpire, which I wish I’d been instead. You never hear a cricket crowd chanting “Who’s the bastard in the hat?”
(The Referee’s Alphabet)
Aleister Crowley knew my father
Business once took Dad up into the Glens
Where in a small hotel bar Crowley asked,
“Have you got change for the fruit machine, chief? I’m all out…”
But I could put a tennis racket up against my face
And pretend that I’m Kendo Nagasaki
I ring up Dial-A-Pizza
And say “That’s not how I would spell Hawaiian”
His paranoia is absurd:
“Are you thinkin’ ‘bout my bird?!?”
(On the ‘Roids)
I should have just got a job on the bins
The pay’s better and I’d know some hard blokes
And I wouldn’t have to pretend
That I know what “rhetorical” means
I could have been like Lou Barlow
But I’m more like Ken Barlow
Oh help me Mrs Medlicott
I don’t know what to do
I’ve only got three bullets
And there’s four of Motley Crue
(Upon Westminster Bridge)
Curse those in charge of plots, curse these forget-me-nots
I’ve been sharing my innermost thoughts with an Edward Macrae
I’m inconsolable, and at times uncontrollable
Ah, but she wouldn’t know, ‘cos she’s two hundred metres away…
(Tending The Wrong Grave For 23 Years)
Have I missed your favourite? Drop it in the comments!