The story has become all too familiar: In 2014, a young actress took a meeting with Harvey Weinstein and found herself left alone with him in a hotel room, where he offered her a massage and suggested they shower together.
That actress has become an indie star—Brit Marling, creator and lead actress on the Netflix series The OA. In an essay for The Atlantic published yesterday, Marling described her brush with Weinstein, as dozens of other women have done in recent days. But her account went well beyond Weinstein’s alleged predation and detailed the specific power men have over young actresses who are beholden to the Weinsteins of the world to permit them success.
The “economics of consent” are at play, wrote the actor, who studied economics and at one point aimed to become an investment banker. “Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him,” Marling wrote. “That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.”
Marling vividly recalled how the very nature of a young actress’ work, and the sexual objectification of women that’s part of the culture of Hollywood and the films it churns out, leave them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. “‘Bikini Babe 2’ and ‘Blonde 4’ are parts I auditioned for,” she wrote. Describing a casting call for a horror movie, she noticed each actress, including herself, was dressed “like a sex object.”
“We had all internalized on some level the idea that if we were going to be cast we’d better sell what was desired—not our artistry, not our imaginations—but our bodies,” she wrote.
Unlike other jobs in the film industry, acting is inherently physical—your body is part of your persona, part of the package you present at casting calls and auditions. A writer or director isn’t weighed by the same burden. And in a broader culture where women are taught to value themselves through male approval, Marling argues, young actresses risk their economic agency by denying the physical advances of men like Weinstein. Marling pointed out how closely bodily autonomy is tied to financial autonomy, recalling that only 50 years ago, women could not apply for credit without a man to sign for them.
Calling out the unfortunate reality that young, beautiful actresses in Hollywood are disposable, holding virtually no intellectual capital of their own, Marling added that the industry has, in effect, formalized a system of sexual abuse: ”I quickly realized that a large portion of the town functioned inside a soft and sometimes literal trafficking or prostitution of young women (a commodity with an endless supply and an endless demand).”
What allowed Marling to leave the room with Weinstein before something worse happened, she thought, was the fact that in addition to being an actress, she was also an established writer who by the time of their meeting had already presented two critically successful indie films at the Sundance Film Festival.
Writers still rely on powerful film executives and their underlings to buy their scripts, but, unlike actresses, they have other avenues to success. As a talented script writer, Marling carried a certain kind of gravitas, one that could still reinforce her when her body was exploited, erasing the ability of just one influential man to end her career on a whim.
“Of those dual personas in me—actor and writer—it was the writer who stood up and walked out,” Marling wrote. “Because the writer knew that even if this very powerful man never gave her a job in any of his films, even if he blacklisted her from other films, she could make her own work on her own terms and thus keep a roof over her head.”
Marling’s experience is exactly why Hollywood desperately needs more women storytellers and executives. The vast majority of those in power—83% of film studio senior management was male as of 2015—are straight, white, men. Putting more women in executive positions would not only ensure that more of their stories are told, but it would likely create a safer working environment, one where young actresses could feel believed and empowered, knowing their financial value wouldn’t be imperiled by resisting a powerful man’s sexual aggression.
“It’s not these bad men. Or that dirty industry,” Marling wrote. “It’s this inhumane economic system of which we are all a part.”