Brit Marling: ‘Women characters are not the ones with agency’

Brit Marling, 33, is the co-creator and star of Netflix scifi hit The OA. We’ve only discussed it once, after I binged this intro season and had many questions about the turn the series took about halfway through. I ended up disappointed by the bizarre ending (I won’t give away any spoilers here), but the show had me thoroughly hooked regardless. Marling has a new interview with People Magazine and she had some thoughtful things to say about women’s roles on screen and about creating female characters with agency. That’s the reason she become a screenwriter and started making her own parts – so that women’s stories could be told with a depth that’s been sorely lacking in the media.

“You sometimes think that we’re farther along than we actually are. When you read that less than 10 percent of directors are women, you realize it can’t be surprising that, in most stories, women characters are constructed as an afterthought; they’re not fully realized, not the ones with agency,” says Marling.

It was that realization — which she came to early on in her showbiz career — that motivated Marling to get into screenwriting.

An Illinois native, Marling went on to study economics at Georgetown University. By 2005, she’d interned at — and scored a job offer from — investment banking titan Goldman Sachs when she had an epiphany leading to a quarter-life career change.

“I thought, ‘I’m setting myself up for a life that I’m not really going to enjoy,’ ” Marling recalls. And upon graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. After striking out on the audition circuit, the soon-to-be starlet — disappointed with the variety of roles available for women — took control of her own narrative.

“I came close to playing parts where I felt, ‘If I had a daughter, would I be proud of the representation of a woman she’d be watching?’ ” Marling says. “Because you want to begin getting work as an actress and think, ‘This is what I have to do in order to [make it in the industry]’ … That’s the point where I thought: ‘The only way I’m going to be able to navigate what feels right is if I figure out how to tell stories.’ ”

She teamed up with her Georgetown pals Batmanglij and Mike Cahill on the indie projects Sound of My Voice and Another Earth and broke out at Sundance in 2011. And it was through that desire for complex female characters that The OA came to fruition, spawning roles like her Prairie (or “The OA”) and Betty Broderick-Allen, a high school algebra teacher played by beloved The Office star Phyllis Smith.

“That’s one of the most satisfying parts of the job for me now, getting to write a part like Phyllis Smith’s part,” Marling says. “I think we overlooked the 50-year-old divorcée algebra I teacher. I think she’s sort of invisible to us — we can’t see her fully, we don’t give that kind of purchase in the storytelling. And I got to write a part, and Phyllis came and and embodied it so wholly and with so much depth and humor and intelligence.”

[From People]

Things are changing incrementally on the small screen thanks to showrunners like Marling and Shonda Rhimes and the fact that more networks, particularly cable and on demand networks, are realizing that there’s a strong market for shows centered around women. The number one movie for the last two weekends has of course been the gem Hidden Figures, which was made on a relatively small budget and features three African-American women as leads. I really hope that more films like Hidden Figures get made and, as Marling is saying, that women are treated as central to films and tv shows instead of as secondary to prop up male leads. All of that said, there weren’t any main black characters in The OA. There was diversity with a transgender character and Asian and Hispanic people but overall Marling could do better, especially considering that she’s calling all the shots.


Photos credit Getty, Netflix via

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19 Responses to “Brit Marling: ‘Women characters are not the ones with agency’”

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  1. Jenns says:

    Phyllis Smith was one of the highlights of this show(which I hated). She had some good supporting characters in the show, but never really explored their stories. And while I get what she is doing, Marling also has a habit as casting herself as the savior. That’s why I raise my eyebrow at her projects.

    • Dtab says:

      Phyllis Smith was everything in that show….even in her limited role I really thought that she outshone everyone else. Would loved to have seen more of her. I did really enjoy the show over all though.

    • original kay says:

      I came here to say the same thing. Love Phyllis Smith.

      I think the show is OK. We are almost finished it, it wasn’t a binge watch for us because it’s so dark.

    • Rose says:

      I don’t want to be bored out of my skull by a “50-year-old divorcée algebra I teacher.” Unless she has super-powers, she can stay invisible. Films are entertainment. TV (for the most part) is entertainment. There is plenty of real life out there…why do you need to put it on TV?

    • Yup, Me says:

      I really enjoy Brit Marling’s work- she does super Aquarian type stuff and it’s totally my jam. But she does tend to cast herself as the savior and she also seems to struggle with the diversity thing in her projects. Her feminism (if she calls it that) is peak white female.

      I really enjoyed the OA, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the story line evolves in the coming season(s).

  2. Esmom says:

    I’m one episode in to the OA and am intrigued, although I’ve heard the season falls apart so I’m not sure if I’ll continue. Looks-wise Marling reminds me so much of Julia Roberts in some shots on the show.

    I like how committed she is to writing strong female characters — I was so happy to see Phyllis Smith in a new role! — so hopefully she’ll broaden the diversity as she continues to grow as a writer and director.

  3. Mia4S says:

    The first episode blew my mind! Sadly the series didn’t stick the landing for me. Still interesting and ambitious as hell though.

    Needed more Riz Ahmed. Way more!

  4. DahliaDee says:

    BBC’s “Thirteen” is everything “The OA” aspired to be and fell short of.

    • Rocio says:

      For me it’s like comparing apples with oranges, 2 different takes on kidnapping. Both quite good.

  5. QQ says:

    Brit Is EVERYTHING to me, The way she tells the stories she wants to tell ( Magical POV BTW) and is involved from the ground up???!!! GET YOUR MONEY BOOBOO!!!

  6. bex says:

    Oh I loved the whole series and I thought the ending was brilliant.

  7. Margo says:

    I’ve learned not to talk about The OA with people. I found the ending incredibly moving and powerful, but it seems almost everyone else has a feeling of derision for it. Oh well.

    • Kate8 says:

      I also enjoyed all of the OA – all the way though. To me it was satisfying on many different levels and very gutsy. Honestly I can’t say enough about it. Seems people had very polarizing reactions. the ending was so incredible and moving to me.

  8. Jayce says:

    Brit is one of my film idols. She fits the Hollywood mould, but she made a conscious decision to create her own indie films and tell her own unique and interesting stories. I enjoyed her acting in Babylon and Arbitrage as well. Brit is an absolute trailblazer! She should get a lot more recognition for her work.

  9. Bibi says:

    This show was a complete waste of time. Ultimate trolling. Glad I didn’t stick around for very episode.

  10. Ally8 says:

    Says the woman who wrote a character who gets encased in a glass box and repeatedly murdered. Be the change you want to see.

  11. zenkitty says:

    I loved The OA all the way through – until that extremely odd ending! I didn’t hate the ending, I was more like “huh?” and “WTF?” It just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the series. I feel like I need to rewatch it to see if it makes any more sense to me the second time around!

    I also loved Another Earth. Brit definitely has a knack for writing unique and intriguing stories, and that they have such strong and interesting female leads is great! Kudos to her for doing her own thing, and not just blindly following everyone else in Hollywoood!

    I’ll be watching her career with a great deal of interest…

  12. ash says:

    black people and other POCs always get lost in the narrative…. these women (brit m, lena dunham, candice b {creator of the SATC books], etc.) always talk inclusively about all WOMEN yet never have WOCs…. or use them as props. It’s like they cant see past their own white feminist bubble… it’s unfortunate.