Brit Marling is revolutionizing cinema right under your nose. We’ve been talking about the “women’s revolution” in film for a while now, but what we’re slowly discovering is that it’s just that: talk. There’s still a long, male dominated jungle for women to forge their way through, as last month a study by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism told us that of 2012’s 100 highest grossing films, the percentage of female speaking roles in those films was a shockingly low 28.4%. And people (men) question why we (women) are still shouting about feminism. They gave us Bridesmaids, right? Wasn’t that enough to shut us up?
From Bridesmaids to the surge in introspective coming-of-age stories led by actresses like Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham ingrained in the collective popular social psyche, it’s inarguable that we are at least talking about women. But the female characters we’re talking about are all portrayals of women, in sweeping cinematic generalization, as we expect them to be; taking the Bridesmaids example, that would be bitchy, competitive and hyper-emotional, with their happiness largely dependent on the status of their romantic life (in Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig’s character is “saved” by Chris O’Dowd’s delicious policeman at the end of the film, and contentment is implied, despite the fact she still hasn’t fulfilled her personal dreams). Brit Marling is giving us women in ways we rarely contemplate in cinema.
Marling is the direct antithesis to both the generalized image of women (above) we’ve accepted in cinema, and to the new female nihilism that focuses on 20-something women paradoxically grappling with their inflated egos on one hand and desperate cries of “Who am I?” and “What am I worth?” on the other. While I don’t want to disparage the women in indie cinema who have made inflexive navel gazing so popular (because all representations of women by women are important), Marling, it seems, is the only woman right now who is offering us an alternate view of femininity. Without detracting from any other women, Marling’s appeal lies largely in her passion for thematic matter outside the abstract self; she’s dedicated, articulate and distinct. This is a woman who, for her latest offering—The East, a film about eco-terrorism and consumerist counterculture—spent a year living with anarchist groups and dumpster diving as research. And whether or not you agree with her politics (although I think The East does a brilliant job of grappling with issues on all sides of corporate responsibility), she’s bringing a sense of determination and purpose back to cinema; and she’s doing it in the female sphere.
While Marling is not deliberately adversarial, her writing is definitely thought-provoking, and in The East she makes a strong argument, not just about corporate morality, but about how compelling a psychological thriller led by women can actually be. For too long, women have been relegated to love interests (the quintessential Bond Girl) or hyper sexualized (any movie starring Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson) in film, and Brit Marling, despite her arresting beauty, does neither. She instead presents her women under the same circumstances and with the same faculties as men in similar situations. In The East, her character Jane/Sarah, undercover, does what she needs to do to survive, and using a stoic resolve in one particularly confronting scene, slashes her own arm with a ripped apart aluminum can in order to infiltrate the prolific, possibly dangerous eco-terrorist organization, the titular The East. Miraculously, she doesn’t masculate her women by making them butch or androgynous; even in violent acts she draws them easily into the meritocratic zone of “person”.
Last year Leslye Headland, with Bachelorette, did much the same thing, and was able to portray women in comedy not as we see them but as they are, subsequently humanizing the female experience. The first true (in my opinion) female buddy comedy saw leads Kirsten Dunst, Lizzie Caplan and Isla Fisher party like sailors, and in between showed them to be tough, resilient, vulnerable, moronic, witty, sexy and at times, decidedly unsexy. Moreover, none of the girls had their problems solved by love; their conclusion was inconclusive and open-ended, and for a movie that culminated in a wedding, it was inspiring to see the women didn’t have to be swept of their feet by knights in shining armour in order to feel that despite being lost in the world, they would eventually be OK. Bachelorette was essentially a movie about women behaving badly, but they were behaving badly on their own terms, and not as passive sideshows to someone else’s narrative.
Brit Marling is, essentially, doing the same for the thriller genre with The East, putting women—herself, the protagonist, as the brave (and at times anti) hero, Patricia Clarkson as the ruthless boss, and Ellen Page as the idealistic loose cannon—in traditionally male dominated roles while not sacrificing anything to the mundane tropes that so often work to nullify the impact of depictions of women within such genres (see above: helpless, sexy). In keeping with the temperament of Marling’s debut Sound of My Voice, not once is one of The East’s women weak or hesitant because she is a woman; all failures in The East come from basic human character fissures, for instance Ellen Page’s stubbornness and in the end, an unexpected familial bond, proving to be her ultimate downfall, rather than physical frailty or promiscuity, which are common characteristics women are hurt or punished for in film. Indeed, as Marling’s character prays, “Give me the strength to not be arrogant, but to not be weak,” we’re forced to consider the female character as “acting” rather than “appearing”, as arrogance requires both action and a reversal of the gaze, whereas women, too often, are relegated to passive roles.
I suppose it’s even more of a testament to Marling that her writing partner, and director of both The East and Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij, as none of her powerful female agenda is dulled even the slightest by the inclusion of that male voice. To the contrary; it adds credence to her as yet unquestionable merit in a male driven industry. Moreover, Marling is just as sympathetic to her male characters as she is to the women she represents; in The East, Alexander Skarsgaard’s beautiful turn as Benji, leader of terrorist group, is riddled with emotional elements and backstory that humanize a character that we’ve seen, so many times before, as driven by a purely testosterone fueled need for wanton destruction. And so she is also able to deftly portray men as she portrays women: simply as human.
Brit Marling is, I think, a Spartacus. All that’s left is for us to stand with her, and declare our allegiance.