Actress, writer, and producer Brit Marling’s most artistically successful vehicles have been the ones she driven herself, from films like “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” (which she wrote and starred in) to the Netflix series “The OA,” which she co-created with Zal Batmanglij (and also wrote and starred in). That’s because, as she revealed in a recent New York Times op-ed, other roles she’s either lost out on or declined have fallen into a category she’s working to resist: the Strong Female Lead.
“She’s an assassin, a spy, a soldier, a superhero, a CEO. 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,” Marling writes. Indeed, the complicated, often messy women she’s written and portrayed in her films and on “The OA” (cancelled last year by Netflix after two seasons) don’t resemble this kind of Powerful Woman armed with masculine qualities, recognizable in many a Hollywood tentpole and television series.
“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,” writes Marling, also railing against women being portrayed onscreen as mere victims.
“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,” she writes. “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.'”
Marling also points out a common thread in classic films that tackle gender roles, such as “Thelma and Louise,” where the women, in the end and despite acts of heroism you could even call masculine, must die. Marling doesn’t want to play that dying woman either, or just the male hero’s wife. “I don’t want to be the dead girl, or Dave’s wife,” she writes. “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.”
In the op-ed, Marling also gets candid about her past, including her time as an investment bank analyst — which subjugated her to men in power — before her days in Hollywood. Marling says that she has carried this experiences with her, and it’s not a position she wants to relive again in front of a camera. (While not discussed in her piece, it’s worth noting that Marling opened up in 2017 about an alleged sexual harassment incident involving Harvey Weinstein.)
“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,” she writes. “These are not yet solutions. But they are places to dig.”
Read the full essay over at The New York Times.