Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it’s not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz’s character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It’s how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you’re interested in the ancestral line of “grrls” like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all.
In Lindgren’s children’s novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father’s at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi’s hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men’s boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is “I’ll always come out on top.” In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi’s nearest American relation is the spunky 1980’s television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: “Punky Power!”).
Lindgren’s Pippi lives a child’s wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She’s generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world’s strongest man.
If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson’s Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren’s Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she’s an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson’s plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities–Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi–but Larsson’s books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don’t win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children’s homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who’ve come to take her as a ward, “You’ll have to get kids for your children’s home somewhere else. I certainly don’t intend to move there,” and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift.
Pippi’s endlessly obliging world certainly isn’t Salander’s; Pippi is a children’s book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi’s first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies’ taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, “I don’t think you have a very nice way with the ladies.”
Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi’s bully-hanging is the child’s version of Lisbeth’s often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren’s books—if you’ve got children to read to or if you can still muster a child’s delighted sense of limitless possibility—there’s a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book’s nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it’s more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she’s at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi’s friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that’s to die for). Pippi’s impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren’t Ophelias in need of reviving.
“I can,” says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. “Oh, no, you couldn’t,” Pippi’s practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, “he’s the strongest man in the world.” And Pippi cooly replies: “Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that,” and climbs into the ring.
Guess who wins.
“You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.”
Appraising this cinematic year, it’s these words, Huckleberry Finn’s description of the resourceful and feisty Mary Jane Watson, that offer the best summing up. It was, to be sure, a year of great film roles for women—Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan; Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mia Wasikowska in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright; Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the eternally mesmerizing Tilda Swinton in the operatic I Am Love, an all too brief glimpse of the effortless Sissy Spacek in Get Low. If there was a reigning ethos in the films (and cinematic novels: think The Hunger Games) of 2010, it was girls on fire, girls doing men’s work. A.O. Scott contends that this movie year was all about class, and it certainly was, but it was also about gritty girls. 2010 gave us the first best director Oscar for a female director, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film about the very masculine world of war), Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt (a role originally written for a male lead, Tom Cruise), and Helen Mirren resplendent as Prospera, a transgendered version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, in Julie Taymor’s exuberant and impressive (if, as usual, somewhat chaotic) adaption of The Tempest.
But perhaps more noteworthy than these great performances, blockbusterings, and transgenderings was this year’s critical mass of girls on fire: self-possessed, irrepressible young female characters played by self-possessed, irrepressible young female actors—girls, as Huck Finn would say, “just full of sand”:
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Set and filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Winter’s Bone offers a vision of another America, somewhat evocative of that depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a world of stoic, rural poverty, crank cooking, and intense, absolute clannishness. “Bred and buttered” in this world, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by the quietly luminous and quietly assertive Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself suddenly the head of her household, caretaker to a virtually catatonic mother and two much younger siblings, and in desperate need of answers that violate her community’s strict code of silence and hierarchy. “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a hard-bitten, suspicious meth matriarch asks Ree when she comes seeking answers about her father’s whereabouts. Ree doesn’t. In the absence of parents and guardians, she must make her own way among the brutal, hostile adults who hold the means to her family’s salvation. Lawrence hits just the right balance playing Ree: as capable of a square-chinned, fend-for-myself, (even) fuck-you attitude—while splitting logs, shooting and skinning squirrels, standing her ground with belligerent police, drug kingpins, and bail-bondsmen—and of the vulnerable, frightened fragility of a child out of her depth. It is this balance that makes Ree’s courage (and Lawrence’s performance) more impressive—because we know her ability to challenge the rules of her world isn’t reflexive: it’s an act she wills herself to out of love for her family and her certainty that justice is on her side.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Feel as you will about sexual politics, prose, or plotting of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, I dare you not to be impressed by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of Larsson’s novels. Among recent filmic evocations of androgyny, Rapace’s Salander stands on par—perhaps above?—Lina Leandersson’s Eli (Let The Right One In), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, Ally Sheedy in High Art, even Tilda Swinton’s masculine/feminine gold standard (Orlando, Constantine). Rapace embodies Salander, Larsson’s dark recasting of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (she who outwits and overpowers men many times her size and age). The most obvious vehicle of Rapace’s masculine femininity is her body, which she trained meticulously before filming began: the squarely set, muscled shoulders, the corded sinews and veins in her arms, neck, and hands; her somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine breast/pectorals. More impressive still is Rapace’s total and absolutely convincing masculine affect: how she sets her mouth, how she takes off her jacket, smokes, eats, drinks, stands, walks. (Nota Bene: You can’t fully appreciate the quality and extent of Rapace’s morph without seeing her out of character, say being interviewed on Charlie Rose). In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lisbeth, in half-fastened combat boots, smokes outside the cabin she’s sharing with the middle-aged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It’s a morning after: the night before, Salander has rather unceremoniously had her way with Blomkvist. She walks in brusquely and sits down; Blomkvist looks solicitously at her as she, avoiding his eyes, squirts ketchup on the plate of eggs he’s cooked for her. While Lisbeth shovels down her food with the gusto and unselfconsciousness of a teenage boy, licking her strong, nail-bitten fingers, gulping her coffee, Blomkvist eats small bites delicately, watching her intently, curiously. Nyqvist’s evocations of Leopold Bloom’s “new womanly man” are good, but Rapace’s indomitable, inscrutable Salander is breathtaking.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, in True Grit. Strange to say that among the gritty cast of the Coen brothers’ latest, the straight-backed, apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld is grittiest of them all. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a hard-bargain-driving, Bible-quoting, law-minded 14-year-old determined to bring her father’s killer to justice with her own hands—and a little help from crusty US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the be-fringed Texas Ranger LeBeef (Matt Damon). The crux of Mattie’s character is her unwavering faith in the righteousness of her cause and her absolute determination to “see the thing done” herself. Mattie is also preternaturally articulate and unnervingly, delightfully at home in the world of men, a sort of puritan Calamity Jane. She attempts to engage Cogburn in business negotiations through the door of a barroom jakes and when this doesn’t work invites herself into his bedroom, unfazed by his filth and undress; when LeBeef shows up in her boardinghouse bedroom with his rifle, Mattie’s verbal sparring and continued poise leave LeBeef visibly disconcerted. But, as in Winter’s Bone, the beauty is in the balance: For all her crackshot repartee, Latin, and Scripture, Mattie’s still very much a tenderfoot (flinching reflexively at gunshots and severed fingers, weeping at the death of her pony). The clear-eyed Steinfeld delivers Mattie’s steel and fragility with a light touch—a perfectly natural, steady frankness that is as charming as it is convincing.
Kristen Stewart as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning starring together in a movie that doesn’t, in a word, suck. Fanning is as good as Stewart in this biopic about the original all-girl rock band, The Runaways (often better known as Joan Jett’s launching pad), but her character, the Runaways’ lead singer, Cherie Curry, is that all too common creature: a thin-skinned, compulsively seductive young woman and she doesn’t, in the end, have the hunger or stamina for fame or rock and roll. Sultry and lipstick-feisty but ultimately tediously fragile and difficult, Fanning’s Curry just isn’t as interesting a specimen as Stewart’s Jett—a little feral, sure and not sure of herself at the same time, aggressive and shy by turns. Gruff, hunched, and twitchy—almost stuttering at times, almost pre-verbal—Stewart’s Jett is portrait of the artist as a young woman on the verge of finding her voice.
And, perhaps a rogue choice: Hayley Atwell as Lady Aliena of Shiring in The Pillars of The Earth (an adaption of Ken Follet’s historical novel of the same name). Yes, gothic ridiculousness abounds in this tale of the building of a medieval cathedral and its attendant machinations: poisoned cups, self-flagellating monks with unholy ambitions, bloody dreams and rhyming prophecies, the Michael Bay/Ridley Scott-style galloping-high-drama-at-every-turn theme music. But if you can stomach the melodrama, this production also has a ripping rise-and-fall plot and about as fine a cast as you’re likely to see anywhere, including Donald Sutherland, Matthew McFaddyen, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Redmayne, Allison Pill, and Ian McShane (as the unholy priest, Bishop Waleran—seeing the man who played Deadwood‘s Al Swerengin tonsured and in episcopal robes is a meta-delight of its own). Foremost among the female cast is the young, English actress Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s still waiting for a great role (she was Julia Flyte in the recent, ill-concieved Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in the equally ill-conceived The Duchess) but even in flawed productions Atwell distinguishes herself. In Pillars, she plays the spirited Lady Aliena, whose family loses their land and title in the political upheavals of the 12th-century English succession crisis known as “The Anarchy.” Determined to regain her family’s name and prominence, Aliena turns wool merchant and builds the family’s prospects again, one fleece at a time. Atwell plays the fall from the charmed life and the determined climb out of poverty with a passion, almost a rage, that’s sometimes electrifying—made the more striking by her diction and delivery (classical training highly apparent).
And finally, in brief: Chloe Moretz who played the c-bomb dropping, infant assassin Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Abby the infant vampire in Let Me In (the unsubtle American remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In). While some (me among them) found Kick-Ass disturbing and not as clever as it thought it was, Moretz did manage to project an actorly verve superior to her surroundings, as she did in the redundant Let Me In. And perhaps meatier roles lie ahead: Moretz has her eye on the role of Katniss Everdeen in the inevitable film versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. And really finally, last but not least: Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola’s film is quieter than the others here: Fanning II’s character, Cleo, isn’t toting guns (she packs an iPhone and the most expressive pair of eyes since Pruitt Taylor Vince) or going toe-to-toe with outlaws (just a jaded moviestar dad in crisis) but she radiates the poise, the same woman-girlishness, the same knowingness beyond her years (as well as a child’s fears, loves, needs), that animates so many of these fine roles.
This is Huck Finn, signing off: “She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand.” And may girls, on screen and off, grow ever sandier in 2011.