Winter’s Bone (2010) – It’s a Man’s World… Thanks to Women

“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”

So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933).  Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women.  Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence.  A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy.  ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women.  In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation.  Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic.  Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms.  We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.

The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women.  This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006).  Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.

Film Poster

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) was born into a life of misery.  Daughter to a father whose skill at cooking amphetamine has left him permanently either in prison or on the run from the law, Ree has been left to provide not only for her two younger siblings but also her mentally ill mother.  Ree is alone in assuming the responsibility for her family even though that responsibility has made it impossible for her to make something of her life by joining the army.  One day, the local sheriff arrives at the Dolly homestead.  Ree has been here a thousand times before and she calmly informs the lawman that no, she has not seen her father and even if she had she certainly would not tell anyone where he was.  However, this time things are different.  Dolly-pere has skipped out on bail but in order to make bail he was obliged to sign away the deeds to his family home.  So, if Ree cannot find either her father or her father’s body, she will not only be left to look after her family.  She will have to do so while being homeless.

Ree. Alone. But with Family.

Ree’s first stop is the house of her best friend.  Her best friend is entirely sympathetic to Ree’s problem but she cannot lend Ree her truck.  Her husband will not permit it.  He will not say why.  This initial encounter with male authority sets the tone for Winter’s Bone: In the Ozark mountains, men are irrational and alien.  They are not to be trusted or reasoned with.  They are to be feared.  This message is then amplified by Ree’s trip to see her uncle and aunt.  Again, Ree’s aunt is entirely sympathetic to the girl’s situation but despite Dolly-pere having been very close to his brother Teardrop (John Hawkes), Teardrop has no information to give as to his brother’s whereabouts.  “Shut up!” Teardrop bellows when his wife asks.  “I already told you to shut up once with my mouth” he adds menacingly when his wife attempts to press the issue.  Teardrop is a terrifying presence.  A wiry ball of barely contained anger and irrational humours, his face is adorned with small jail-house tattoos and his wispy goatee sits between a tumescent nose and a cruel mouth on a thin face entirely composed of inhospitable angles.  Teardrop is not to be questioned.  He is to be feared.  He will not give his niece any information that might help her track down his brother.


It’s a boy thing.  You wouldn’t understand.

Dismayed at her own family’s reticence to offer help, Ree decides to take her request to the local Big Man Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall).  Thump lives in what appears to be an abandoned breaker’s yard.  His nebulously defined territory is filled with all kinds of vehicles and buildings littered with not only animals but also relatives loyal to him.  Ree is escorted through this post-apocalyptic landscape by Thump’s grand-daughter who takes Ree first to a minor underling named Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) and then to the house of the Big Man himself.  However, when Ree calls at the Big Man’s house she is met not by Thump but by his hatchet-faced wife who makes it clear to Ree that the Big Man is not to be bothered and that she should go home and accept the consequences of her father’s actions.  Needless to say, Ree is not overly impressed.  After making an ill-judged attempt to ambush the Big Man with a direct appeal, Ree is kidnapped and badly beaten.  She is beaten not by Thump or by any of his male relatives, but by his wife and her coterie of female underlings.

Ron Mueck's "Untitled (Big Man)"

Suddenly, the picture starts to snap into focus.  Up until that point, the tendency of Ozark women to speak and apologise for their irrational and violent men was taken to be just that; women serving as a social buffer-zone for their men folk.  However, when Teardrop turns up to speak for Ree, Thump’s women make it abundantly clear that it was they and not the men-folk who beat up his niece.  Had Thump or his men been involved then Teardrop would have to get involved, the fact that it was women who beat up Ree suggests that there is still some room for discussion and rational negotiation.

Indeed, while Winter’s Bone depicts the men of the Ozark mountains as violent, unpredictable and savage, it also makes it abundantly clear that these are social roles that the men are forced into.  Teardrop and Thump are not inherently psychotic, they simply act that way because that is what it means to be a man from the Ozark mountains.  The film confirms this by having Ree’s younger brother attempt to fight in order to defend her despite the fact that he is little more than a child.  In the Ozarks, to be a man is to be irrational and violent.  The only men who are not irrational and violent in the film are the nameless and voiceless musicians who provide the film’s rare but hauntingly atmospheric musical interludes.

An insight into the weirdly co-dependent relationship between the reasonable, accommodating women and the terrifyingly irrational men of the Ozarks is provided by Marshall Sahlins’ seminal paper on Polynesia power dynamics “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief — Political types in Melanesia and Polynesia” (1983).  Having examined the social structures that support the authority of the Big Men of Polynesia, Sahlins concludes that by looking at the Big Men themselves, anthropologists have been missing the true nature of political power:

“Perhaps we have been too long accustomed to perceive rank and rule from the standpoint of the individuals involved, rather than from the perspective of the total society, as if the secret of the subordination of man to man lay in the personal satisfactions of power.  And then the breakdowns too, or the evolutionary limits, have been searched out in men, in ‘weak’ kings or megalomaniacal dictators — always, ‘who is the matter?’ An excursion into the field of primitive politics suggests that the more fruitful conception that the gains of political developments accrue more decisively to society than to individuals, and the failings as well are of structure not men.”

Thump does not rule by himself.  In fact, he does not act by himself.  As a political entity, Thump is merely the figurehead for an entire network of men and women who support and act for him.  Thump is a hugely fan and physically imposing man.  He radiates threat and wears a leather waistcoat adorned with patches and medals.  He is like a male lion and the male lion is not the pride.  By trying to appeal directly to the Big Man, Ree is not only offending his followers, she is also attempting to communicate with that which does not exist in order to communicate.  Thump’s job is to look dangerous and to act with decisive and terrifying violence.  If one is talking to Thump then it is already too late.  If one wants to reason with Thump’s household, then one speaks to his wife.

In the Ozarks of Winter’s Bone, both men and women are trapped within a rigidly defined set of social roles.  Notionally patriarchal in structure, these roles oppress men as much as they oppress women because they deprive men of their freedom.  This concept is beautifully illustrated in a scene in which Teardrop has decided to help Ree to track down the bones of her father.  When driving back home at night, the pair are pulled over by the local sheriff.  Rather than seeking to placate the lawman, Teardrop reaches for his rifle and a tense stand-off ensues.  The only reason a death does not follow is that the sheriff decides to back down.  Teardrop is an intelligent man, he understands more than he lets on, but when another man cuts across his path and decides to interfere in his business, he must act in the way expected of him.  In a later scene, the sheriff seeks to explain to Ree that he backed down in order to protect her but it is abundantly clear that Ree thinks him not only a coward but actually un-manly.

Teardrop and Ree

If Ree is born into a life of misery it is because she has been born into a family structure without clear roles and boundaries.  With Ree’s father permanently on the lam Ree’s household must rely upon the negotiation skills of Ree’s mother but as she suffers from a mental illness all of the household’s agency is centred upon Ree who lacks the social nous to assume the role of a woman and the physical power and intensity to assume the role of a man.   The double-edged nature of Ree’s non-gendered identity is beautifully explored through her relationship with Teardrop:

* Ree’s father cooks crank for a living.  In this respect he is like every man in the area.  Indeed, when Ree points out to Thump’s grand-daughter that her father cooked crank for Thump, the grand-daughter responds by saying that ‘they all do it’.  To say that a man uses crank is to speak the obvious, you might as well point out that he breathes and eats.  It is a truism so blatant that it is unworthy of uttering.  At one point, Teardrop pulls out a plastic bag full of crank and offers some to Ree, who immediately refuses it.  Teardrop responds by ruefully shaking his head and commenting that she has evidently not yet ‘acquired a taste for it’.  Winter’s Bone associates crank with an almost psychotic conception of masculinity and so, when Teardrop says that Ree has not yet acquired a taste for crank, he might as well be saying that she has not yet acquired a taste for masculine behaviour patterns.  She has yet to commit to that specific set of social constraints.

As well as exploring the masculinisation of Ree, Winter’s Bone also considers the potential emasculation of Teardrop.

* At the end of the film, Teardrop reveals that he knows what happened to his brother.  This revelation is not so much announced as muttered in passing but it hints at a world of grief not only for Teardrop personally but for his wife and extended family.  If Teardrop knows what happened to Dolly-pere then he must act upon that information.  He must be a man.  However, before deciding upon which course of action to take, Teardrop sits on the porch beside his nephew and nieces.  Having learned of their father’s death, the children have begun sorting through his things and they have uncovered an old banjo.  While Winter’s Bone is filled with men playing banjos and other musical instruments, it never grants any of these musicians a speaking part.  Indeed, it is as though the Ozark mountains present their men-folk with a choice: One can either become a man and have agency  — albeit agency constrained by a terrifying propensity for irrational violence — or one can become a musician — a nameless and voiceless eunuch who is never anything more than set dressing.  Upon being handed his brother’s banjo, Teardrop plucks uncertainly at it.  His fingers shake and the noise he produces is far from musical.  At this the man smiles and hands back the banjo.  Evidently his brother was a much better player than he ever was.  The brother who was incapable of providing for his household and who left behind him nothing but a daughter who was forced to act for him.  Dolly-pere was never much of a man.  He should have stuck to playing the banjo.

Not to be played by players

Winter’s Bone is a beautiful but harrowing exploration of life at the sharp edge of human politics.  It portrays humanity as individuals utterly incapable of escaping the demands placed upon them by institutions which, were they human, would be described as psychopathic.  In the Ozarks, the family is not a supportive environment but the wheel upon which the individual is broken.  In the Ozarks, the family is an institution that demands everything that one has, right down to one’s identity, one’s conscience and one’s basic humanity.  To be in a family is to be used and to use others.  To be in a family is to be a cog in an inhuman machine.  Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity is bred into us by the very institutions that are supposed to protect and support us in the choices we make.  By allowing the effectively orphaned Ree to navigate a path through her community, Winter’s Bone is suggesting that she might somehow escape from the institutions that surround her but her growing relationship with her uncle and that uncle’s need to avenge his brother’s death strikes a discordant minor chord in what would otherwise be a beautifully melodic ending.

It is upon the naked winter bones of the family that the summer flesh of corporation, government and religion is layered.


  1. […] In September I wrote a piece about Debra Granik’s excellent Winter’s Bone (2010) examining the film through the prism of what the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls ‘Kyriarchy’.  Kyriarchy is a concept designed to move discussions of prejudice and social dominance beyond the kind of simplistic oppositional dynamics that have for too long dominated this area of political discourse.  According to Kyriarchy, dominance is not a question of GLBT vs. Straight, Black vs. White, Male vs. Female or Catholic vs. Protestant but rather a patchwork of ever-changing power relations between all kinds of different groups.  According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the face of human oppression takes myriad forms.  It is always changing and yet always present.  Winter’s Bone demonstrates not only that women can be complicit in the oppression of other women but that men can also find themselves forced into a particular social role that they may personally find oppressive and intolerable.  In Granik’s Ozark mountains, men are violent and psychotic because that is what they are expected to be.  If you are not violent and psychotic then you are not a real man and if you are not a real man then you might as well spend your time playing the banjo. […]


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