To borrow from a different Coen Brothers film, Jerry Lundegaard’s in a tight spot. The opening scene of their film Fargo (1996) establishes Jerry as a man neutered in his own marriage. His harebrained scheme to kidnap his own spouse is an effort to reclaim dominance in a domestic sphere run by Jerry’s father-in-law vis-à-vis his wife. Defenseless male protagonists are often coupled with domineering, hyper-assertive women in Coen films, be it The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), or Harry Pfarrer in Burn After Reading (2008). In the clip shown here, we see how his unsure neuroticism manifests when interrogated by Marge.
This dynamic is a variant descended from film noir. In noir, such as the scene featured from Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity, the man is led down a path of destruction after a commanding woman enters his orbit. Against his better judgment, the man falls under the femme fatale’s spell and indulges in these tabooed pleasures. Double Indemnity, however, ends in their mutual ruin. Walter cannot contain Phyllis and so sets out to “bring her down." This is their punishment for societal nonconformity. By contrast, Jerry petulantly rebels against his domestic coupling because it renders him “feminized.” He awoke from the spell, and now wants out.
It is debatable whether the Coens earnestly fear powerful women, or instead skewer men who quake at enduring a subservient role. Since they work in pastiche forms, the noir dynamic of disdainful awe for the powerful, domineering woman could be a parody of the neurotic male psyche. The haziness of their intentions opens a debate over pastiche filmmaking tactics more generally. The varying degrees of audience recognition leave the Coens vulnerable to charges of genuine sexism and patriarchal bias even if their intent is the opposite. The question remains, then, whether an artist can dismantle (without reinforcing) gender stereotypes by employing those very generalizations.