mistress america is changing the game for female characters

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke's new film is a hymn to being young, female and navigating your late 20s in New York, as well as a necessary new narrative of female empowerment.

by Alice Hines
07 August 2015, 9:33am

Lola Kirke is barefoot, running through through the Crosby Hotel on the way to a press conference for her new film. She beams and waves to the handful of reporters waiting for the elevator, blissfully unaware that she's doing anything out of the ordinary. It's a scene is so in sync with Mistress America, the new movie that Lola Kirke stars in opposite Greta Gerwig (premiering tomorrow at Sundance Next Fest in L.A.), that it could've be planned. In the film, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, Kirke plays Barnard freshman Tracy, who is swept up in a series of adventures with her 30-something future step-sister Brooke, played by Gerwig. It's a platonic love story, but also a film about trying and failing to embody ideals of being young and female in New York. Brooke and Tracy try on and shed various identities—writer, restaurateur, tutor, decorator, sister, friend, seductress, SoulCycle instructor—ultimately revealing characters realer than any of the personas they attempted to conform to.

The title, which is also the name of a superhero TV pilot Brooke plans to write, is an early clue that Mistress America revolves around the drama of trying to become your most ideal self. Like most of Brooke's ideas—the Williamsburg restaurant, the designer T-shirt company—the pilot is just a plan that never materialises. Tracy, a quiet, insecure college freshman who idolises Brooke, snags the title for her short story, a pseudo-fictional telling of her friend's life. Ultimately, Tracy finds the follow-through that evades Brooke, getting her story published in her college's prestigious literary journal. In the meantime, some of Brooke's other schemes fall through. She gets dumped by her boyfriend, who also pulls out as a restaurant investor, all while her landlord tries to evict her from her prized commercially-zoned apartment.

The glamorous hot mess is a popular archetype. Shows like Unbreakable and Girls, and movies like Trainwreck also centre on women hustling to "make it" in New York, and the hilarity of watching them fail not just once, but over and over. Failure in this kind of comedy has a feminist bent, even when it falls into conventional traps, like packaging female neurosis as quirky sex appeal, tied with a rom-com bow. Baumbach, meanwhile, who frequently works with his romantic and writing partner Gerwig, is famous for creating messy, complex characters, whose neuroses don't always find resolution. Brooke is one of them, but her messiness also has a pop-y gloss.

One theory why this archetype might be having moment is that it's an antidote to mainstream #LeanIn empowerment narratives. New York artist Audrey Wollen speaks of the current need for new female archetypes: "We've really fixated on loving ourselves—there's this ethos of excess and approval, making it cool and fun to be a girl," she said. "The problem is: it isn't really cool and fun to be a girl. It is an experience of brutal alienation and constant fear of violence." Brooke doesn't experience any violence directly, yet she is fixated on and alienated by a particular paradigm of female success, embodied by her old friend Mimi Claire. Mimi Claire, who may or may not have stolen Brooke's T-shirt business idea, fiancé, and cats, lives in a Connecticut mansion, surrounded by the wealth, romance, and stability that Brooke both craves and rejects. 

It's easy to imagine that Greta might be kind of like Brooke (she's articulate, charming, and kind) yet Gerwig's character isn't based on anyone in real life so much as out of a desire to imagine something new. Part of this was a new female character, their own superheroine. Because in the end, failure might actually be better more interesting than success. In the last scene of Mistress America, over Thanksgiving dinner at Veselka, Tracy reflects on Brooke's originality: "[She] had made rich fat women less fat and rich stupid kids less stupid and lame rich men less lame. And she wanted so badly to be on the other side—to be fat and stupid and lame and rich. But what she couldn't see most of all... was that those people were nothing compared to her." 


Text Alice Hines
Images courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

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