I moved to Los Angeles to become an actress at 24. These are character descriptions of roles I have read for: “thin, attractive, Dave’s wife”; “robot girl, a remarkable feat of engineering”; “her breasts are large and she’s wearing a red sweater.”
I stuffed my bra for that last one. I still did not get the part.
After a while it was hard to tell what was the greater source of my depression: that I could not book a part in a horror film where I had three lines and died on Page 4, or that I was even auditioning to play these roles at all. After dozens of auditions and zero callbacks, my mom suggested I get breast implants. From her perspective, I had walked away from a coveted job at Goldman Sachs and chosen a profession of self-commodification. She wanted to help me sell better.
But I wasn’t drawn to acting because I wanted to be desired. I was drawn to acting because I felt it would allow me to become the whole, embodied person I remembered being in childhood — one that could imagine freely, listen deeply and feel wholeheartedly.
I continued to audition and continued to fail. My depression deepened. My self-esteem plummeted. My boyfriend would get drunk and punch holes in the wall next to my head. I let him. He spat in my face. I let him. He dissolved into tears in my arms. I let him. And then I sifted through the ashes of his anger and his father’s anger before him to help him uncover the forgiveness he needed to move on. I was auditioning to be “Dave’s wife.” I was “robot girl, a remarkable feat of engineering.”
After a day of running from men with chain saws in audition rooms and a night of running from the man I shared a bed with, I decided I was done auditioning. I felt I had to write my way out of these roles or I wouldn’t find my way in the real world, either. I could not be what I could not see onscreen.
So I went to the library in downtown Los Angeles and started reading books and watching films about how to write dramas for the screen. I clung to Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs,” to Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.”
But aside from a handful of exceptions, I was overwhelmed by the number of dramatic narratives that murdered their female characters.Image Faye Dunaway’s last stand in the 1974 film “Chinatown.” Credit... Paramount Pictures,via Photofest
In “The Big Heat” she has a pot of boiling coffee thrown in her face and is then shot in the back. In “Chinatown” the bullet tears through her brain and out her eye. And in case this seems like a trend of the past, consider the more recent noir “Blade Runner 2049,” where the holographic femme fatale is deleted and the remaining women are stabbed, drowned and gutted like a fish.
Even the spirited Antigone, the brave Joan of Arc and the unfettered Thelma and Louise meet tragic ends in large part because they are spirited, brave and unfettered. They can defy kings, refuse beauty and defend themselves against violence. But it’s challenging for a writer to imagine a world in which such free women can exist without brutal consequences.
We live in a world that is a direct reflection of these stories we’ve been telling. Close to four women a day are murdered in America at the hands of their partners or former partners. One out of every four women in America has been the victim of a rape.
I am one of those one out of four. Our narratives tell us that women are objects and objects are disposable, so we are always objectified and often disposed of.
There are centuries of trial and error inside the “hero’s journey,” in which a young man is called to adventure, challenged by trials, faces a climactic battle and emerges victorious, changed and a hero. And while there are narrative patterns for the adventures of girls — “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz” — those are few and far between, and for adult women, even less so.
Even when I found myself writing stories about women rebelling against the patriarchy, it still felt like what I largely ended up describing was the confines of patriarchy. The more fettered I felt inside the real world, the more I turned toward science fiction, speculative fiction and lo-fi fantasy.
I eventually co-wrote, produced and starred in two microbudget films, “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.” Both stories left reality just far enough behind to give me the mental freedom to imagine female characters behaving in ways not often seen onscreen.
I emerged from the Sundance Film Festival with offers to act in projects I would never have been allowed to read for a week prior. Most of those roles were still girlfriend, mistress, mother. But there was a new character on offer to me as well, one that survived the story.
Enter, stage right: the Strong Female Lead.
She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a C.E.O. She can make a wound compress out of a maxi pad while on the lam. She’s got MacGyver’s resourcefulness but looks better in a tank top.
Acting the part of the Strong Female Lead changed both who I was and what I thought I was capable of. Training to do my own stunt work made me feel formidable and respected on set. Playing scenes where I was the boss firing men tasted like empowerment. And it will always feel better to be holding the gun in the scene than to be pleading for your life at the other end of the barrel.
It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.
I thought back to the films I watched and stories I read burrowed deep in the stacks of the library. I began to see something deeper and more insidious behind all those images of dead and dying women.
When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female gendered bodies. We are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides — in women, in men, of the natural world. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: “Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.”
It’s difficult for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong. When I look at the world our stories have helped us envision and then erect, these are the very qualities that have been vanquished in favor of an overwrought masculinity.
I’ve played the Strong Female Lead in real life, too — as an analyst at an investment bank before coming to Hollywood. I wore suits, drank Scotch neat and talked about the women and the men I was sleeping with like commodities on an open market. I buried my feminine intelligence alive in order to survive. I excelled at my linear task of making more money from a lot of money regardless of the long-term consequences for others and the environment.
The lone female V.P. on my floor and my mentor at the time gave me the following advice when she left to partner at a hedge fund: Once a week, open the door to your office when they finally give you one, and place a phone call where you shout a string of expletives in a threatening voice.
She added that there doesn’t actually need to be someone on the other end of the line.
I don’t believe the feminine is sublime and the masculine is horrifying. I believe both are valuable, essential, powerful. But we have maligned one, venerated the other, and fallen into exaggerated performances of both that cause harm to all. How do we restore balance? Or how do we evolve beyond the limitations that binaries like feminine/masculine present in the first place?
In 2014 I went back to the library and encountered Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” a sci-fi novel written in 1993 imagining a 2020 where society has largely collapsed from climate change and growing wealth inequality. Butler’s heroine, the 17 year-old Lauren, has “hyperempathy” — she feels, quite literally, other people’s pain. This feminine gift and curse uniquely prepares her to survive the violent attack on her community in Los Angeles and successfully encourage a small tribe north to begin again from seeds she has saved from her family’s garden.
Butler felt to me like a lighthouse blinking from an island of understanding way out at sea. I had no idea how to get there, but I knew she had found something life saving. She had found a form of resistance.
Butler and other writers like Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood did not employ speculative fiction to colonize other planets, enslave new life-forms, or extract alien minerals for capital gains only to have them taken at gunpoint by A.I. robots. These women used the tenets of genre to reveal the injustices of the present and imagine our evolution.
With these ideas in mind, Zal Batmanlij and I wrote and created “The OA,” a Netflix series about Prairie, a blind girl who is kidnapped and returns seven years later to the community she grew up in with her sight restored. She opens up to a group of lost teenage boys in her neighborhood, telling them about her captivity and the inter-dimensional travel she discovered to survive it. It turns out these boys need to hear Prairie’s story as much as she needs to tell it. For the boys face their own kind of captivity: growing up inside the increasingly toxic obligations of American manhood.
As time has passed, I’ve come to understand what deep influence shaping a narrative has. Stories inspire our actions. They frame for us existences that are and are not possible, delineate tracks we can or cannot travel. They choose who we can find empathy for and who we cannot. What we have fellow feeling for, we protect. What we objectify and commodify, we eventually destroy.
I don’t want to be the dead girl, or Dave’s wife. But I don’t want to be a strong female lead either, if my power is defined largely by violence and domination, conquest and colonization.
Sometimes I get a feeling of what she could be like. A truly free woman. But when I try to fit her into the hero’s journey she recedes from depiction like a mirage. She says to me: Brit, the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement. What does that remind you of?
And I say, a male orgasm.
And she says: Correct. I love the arc of male pleasure. But how could you bring me into being if I must satisfy the choreography of his desire only?
And I say: Good on you. But then how do I bring you into being?
Then I hear only silence.
But even in the silence I dream of answers. I imagine new structures and mythologies born from the choreography of female bodies, non-gendered bodies, bodies of color, bodies of disability. I imagine excavating my own desires, wants and needs, which I have buried so deeply to meet the desires, wants and needs of men around me that I’m not yet sure how my own desire would power the protagonist of a narrative.
These are not yet solutions. But they are places to dig.
Excavating, teaching and celebrating the feminine through stories is, inside our climate emergency, a matter of human survival. The moment we start imagining a new world and sharing it with one another through story is the moment that new world may actually come.
Brit Marling (@britmarling) is the co-creator and star of “The OA.”
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