It’s Oscars weekend, which means the next several days (around these parts, at least) will be filled with speculation, frustration, reflection, and enthusiastic tweets about whatever Billy Porter winds up wearing on the red carpet. More broadly, though, it’ll be spent writing and talking about the stories the entertainment industry tells, who tells those stories, and which of them are ultimately celebrated by the most visible (but “very local”) awards-granting body in the west. That makes the timing of this New York Times op-ed, from writer-performer-producer Brit Marling, so perfect: it’s about the stories we tell, and those we don’t; the stories we value, and those we don’t; and most especially, the stories that even Marling has trouble conceiving because the world in which they’re created has been one way for so, so long.
It is very good, both because Brit Marling is a great writer and because she makes some extremely good points, but here’s the one you’re most likely to see floating around the internet today:
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.”
But Marling, who as we said has a hell of a way with words (R.I.P. The OA), doesn’t stop with her dissection of the characters we consider to be “strong” and female at the same time. She also ties it to her own life, and specifically her time in the financial industry:
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.
What’s most striking about the piece, however, is its conclusion. We won’t give away the ending, as Marling carefully takes the reader through her own journey to understanding (which is still ongoing), but suffice it to say it’s not a piece that hands you some kind of answer, as if to say, “Look, here’s how to write female characters, and here’s why all other attempts are bad.” She pays tribute to writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrisson, and Margaret Atwood before returning her gaze to the page in front of her and what comes next.
You could argue about Honest Oscar Ballots on Twitter, or you could spend a few minutes inside Brit Marling’s mind. We suggest the latter.
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