Marling moved to Los Angeles to act at age 24, following a career in investment banking. In her essay, she writes about auditioning for a slew of supporting or background roles where the emphasis was on her appearance instead of her personality, with descriptions like “thin, attractive, Dave’s wife” or “her breasts are large and she’s wearing a red sweater.” Other women, Marling writes, were killed or the victims of brutal violence.
After Marling co-wrote, produced, and starred in the independent movies Sound of My Voice and After Earth, she was able to break out of these roles and into parts she describes as “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,” Marling says of these characters.
Marling writes that there were upsides to playing these parts, including learning stunt work that made her feel “formidable and respected on set.” The more she took on these roles, however, the more she realized these characters exhibited exclusively “masculine modalities of power,” like “physical prowess, linear ambition, [and] focused rationality.”
Marling notes that given this practice, it’s difficult for audiences to “imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong.”
“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,’” writes Marling.
Marling isn’t saying that women assassins or superheroes don’t have a right to exist on screen, but that these shouldn’t be the only kinds of characters that Hollywood finds worthy of placing as the leads in their films.
It’s thrilling to see Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel go toe-to-toe with Thanos (Josh Brolin) and prove she’s as physically strong as anyone else in the MCU — partially because the Marvel Universe took so long to give women their solo story. However, there’s also something to be said for a film like 2019’s adaptation of Little Women, which tells the story of sisters living “small” domestic lives. No one fights crime or leaps from skyscrapers, and much of the film involves the women longing for love or discussing their fears and loneliness in the face of the changes in their lives. That doesn’t make the female characters any less valid or “strong” — the movie simply shows a human experience from the perspective of women characters.
For Marling, there is intrinsic value in traits seen as inherently “feminine” in nature, and notes in her essay that not only women should be depicted expressing these traits. In her Netflix series The OA, which ran for two seasons before the streamer cancelled it to intense backlash and fan protests outside the Netflix building, Marling’s character Prairie shows even characters who displayed aggression and unkindness compassion and empathy. Ultimately, it’s what brings the characters together to fight darkness.
“It turns out these boys need to hear Prairie’s story as much as she needs to tell it,” Marling writes of The OA. “For the boys face their own kind of captivity: growing up inside the increasingly toxic obligations of American manhood.”
Marling adds that she doesn’t see traits associated with masculinity as bad, but that there needs to be a balance.
“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,” she writes.