I wasn’t drawn to acting because I wanted to be desired. 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.
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I felt I had to write my way out of these roles, or I wouldn’t find my way in the real world, either. But I was overwhelmed by the number of dramatic narratives that murdered their female characters. In ‘The Big Heat’, she is shot in the back. In ‘Chinatown’, the bullet tears through her brain. And 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 and Joan of Arc meet tragic ends in large part because they are brave and unfettered. It’s challenging 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. Close to four women a day are murdered in America by their partners r former partners. One out of every four women in America has been the victim of a rape. Our narratives tell us that women are objects and objects are disposable, so we are always objectified and often disposed of.
In the ‘hero’s journey’, a young man is called to adventure, challenged by trials, faces a climactic battle and emerges victorious. And while there are narrative patterns for girls’ adventures — ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — those are few and far between, and for adult women, even less so.
But there was a new character on offer to me. The Strong Female Lead. She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a CEO. Acting the Strong Female Lead changed who I was and what I thought I was capable of. Training to do my own stunt work made me feel formidable and respected. 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.
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. I began to see something deeper.
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.” 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 erect, these are the very qualities that have been vanquished in favour of an overwrought masculinity. 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? With these ideas in mind, Zal Batmanglij 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. She opens up to a group of lost teenage boys. 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 toxic obligations of American manhood. I’ve come to understand what deep influence 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. 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 by violence, domination, conquest and colonisation. 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 through story is the moment that new world may actually come.
Brit Marling is the co-creator and star of ‘The OA’