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.”