This article is a part of the Arts b-side on Icons. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
From the screen of a dark movie theater, a white horse stared at me, and I stared right back. At the time, I was 20, “LA dreaming,” working in California for the summer while taking classes at night, watching “Fish Tank” (2009) by Andrea Arnold in UCLA’s Mendelson theater. I sat with my arms wrapped tightly around my legs, pulling them into my chest so that my chin was imprinted red from being stuck between my knees. All my weight rested in my dirty-white Reeboks — they left a mark of muck on the leather seat beneath me.
A bit later, the white horse died. It got shot on the day Mia (the main character) turned 16. It was the same day her dreams of becoming a dancer died, because a promising audition turned out to be a seductive scheme. It was the same day her mom’s friendly boyfriend turned out to be sexually deceitful towards Mia, with her birth control tossed aside when she needed it most. “Fish Tank” came to a close with Mia, her mother and her sister in the living room, mirroring each other, as they danced to Nas’ “Life’s a bitch.”
The blood vessel in my left eye popped — I forgot to blink. With my eye bloodied up, the lights turned bright and I felt my blood rush back into my feet, with red imprints on my chin and legs and cheeks from holding on too tightly. I sat squarely in the dirt my Reeboks left on the chair.
I felt gritty and wrecked. I felt like Mia’s white horse was still there, with all her dreams and vulnerabilities staring at me. It felt like Arnold had changed the way my blood was flowing.
When I turned to my left to face my best friend Kemo, whom I’d met at the beginning of summer, I knew he felt this bloodied, tender rush too: He was looking at me with the smallest of smirks, which fell quickly into a more serious, contemplative look.
I wanted to dance, I wanted to call my mom and I really wanted to take the birth control pills I had missed for the past three days.
Andrea Arnold — director of “Fish Tank” and “American Honey” (2019) — captures fleeting beauty and the essence of young women who are tightly stuck in the whirlpools of poverty they find themselves in, who bear the full brunt of babies and children and lost dreams and sexualization. She does this with delicacies: turtles let free in the ocean, white horses, flies and wasps stuck to honey — I fell utterly in love with Arnold’s work that summer. She wove herself into the helix of my DNA.
After watching “Fish Tank” in UCLA’s theatre alongside Kemo, we plowed through Arnold’s films “American Honey” and “Wasp” that same week. He and I would meet in the Common Room of our dorm to make those two bean bag chairs and that tiny TV our bitches.
The vending machine always came first: I’d get two strawberry Nutri-Grain bars and he’d get fruit snacks. When other students would open the door to try and study, they’d usually see us throwing our favorite fruit snack flavors at each other, talking shit, with our eyes peeled on the screen. They would know they were intruding, and then they’d promptly leave.
In that over-air-conditioned common room we talked about our dreams, mostly. Who we wanted to be, what we wanted to create and be a part of. And maybe that’s why my love of Arnold is so strong: she makes films about what it means for young girls to have dreams, and she scares you just enough about what those dreams are susceptible to.
She’s an icon to me, but definitely not an icon to others, let alone known by others. And I find it extremely hard to distill my isolated idolization of Andrea Arnold down to a matter of “personal taste,” when not a single female is listed when you google “famous directors,” or when my friends can’t name a single female movie director.
Icons are ambitious, driven to create what didn’t exist before they came along. Autonomy to create the thing how you want the thing created while also obtaining the money, resources, distribution and promotion of the Hollywood system is therefore inextricable from a director’s status to becoming an icon.
The film industry complicates this path to achieving an iconic distinction for women and non-binary directors: In the development of two systems (Independent and Hollywood) that run in tandem, certain identities get stuck in independent, and when they do jump to Hollywood, the guarantee of building the project from the ground up, with their idiosyncrasies and their distinctive air, become limited to none.
If Arnold were to jump to mainstream cinema, she might also push further toward becoming a widely-known icon, but in doing so, give up what she needs most: creative control. She cannot command a Hollywood medium that relies on her existing on the outskirts of it.
Arnold’s chance to jump into the commercial realm seemed perfect: In 2018 she was offered the job to direct Season 2 of “Big Little Lies,” a celebrity-soaked, icon-soaked, feminist TV show.
That same summer I spent with Kemo in LA, an article broke on IndieWire about Andrea Arnold’s loss of creative control on the set of “Big Little Lies.”
According to IndieWire, “there was a dramatic shift in late 2018 as the show was yanked away from Arnold, and creative control was handed over to executive producer and Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée. […] Not only was Arnold denied free rein, it was never explained to her that the expectation was that her footage would be shaped by Vallée into the show’s distinctive style.”
The article continues, “While DGA rules required Arnold be the director on set, Vallée was now an extremely hands-on EP dictating not only what would be shot, but how it would be shot, oversight that Arnold never had during the initial shoot. The optics were not lost on many associated with Big Little Lies: A show dominated by some of the most powerful actresses in Hollywood hired a fiercely independent woman director – who was now being forced to watch from the director’s chair as scenes were shot in the style of her male predecessor.”
So what’s preventing female auteurs from becoming icons? It could be lack of creative control.
It’s about more than just hiring the woman: It’s about handing over control through every inch of the process and creating collaborative spaces where the director can request what they want and what they need, with distribution that accentuates the female auteur. Lack of artistic control and corresponding promotion of their work has inhibited the creation of female auteurs, and therefore, their status at widely-known icons. It’s also important to allow the director to be iconic because of their behind the camera inventions, not just achieving superstardom for the sexualization of her body and image on the screen.
An icon is a person of recognizable, distinctive artistry, and oftentimes these peculiarities solidify the icon’s status. Perhaps Arnold’s idiosyncrasies keep her from achieving icon status, while the idiosyncrasies of iconic male directors further propel their persona as an icon.
While Tarantino keeps up with his foot fetishes and shock value violence (yes, this is a simplification and a personal creed but I detest and persist), Andrea Arnold employs planned spontaneity rooted in immersive research, free camera movement and animal symbolism. Her distinctive, industry-bending style includes casting non-actors as leads. What’s more iconic than Andrea Arnold stumbling upon a teenager screaming at her boyfriend on a train platform, and then proceeding to cast her as the lead for Mia in “Fish Tank”? Her autobiographical interest and investigation of cyclical poverty become all the more urgent and palpable.
And even more badass: She’s a recluse for the sake of mystery.
In an article written by The Guardian, Mr. Sean O’Hagan says the following: “Arnold can be a frustrating interviewee, affable but defensive, even a bit prickly if the subject moves off the work. Her eyes darken beneath her cropped fringe when she grows uncomfortable and you sense that you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her. She will provide a tantalizing snippet of information, then steadfastly refuses to discuss it in any detail.”
While the tone of this comment subtly pegs Arnold as a “bad sport” instead of “Frank-Ocean-recluse-Cool,” for me, it only furthered her iconic status in my mind. A director who lets her work and symbolism speak for itself without the veneer of glossy mass-media pushes and explanations for meaning-making (in a time when we often distill complexities down into blinding certainties) went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “American Honey.” Iconic.
She’s uncompromising, but doesn’t get the creative control to be uncompromising in the way that Christopher Nolan gets to play his movies in Toledo during a pandemic or in the way Tarantino gets a 3-hour runtime with a meandering plot that receives an Oscar nomination, while critics call “American Honey” “too long.”
The end of “Fish Tank” ends with a powerful scene of mimicry. Mia mimics the dance moves of her mother, Mia’s little sister mimics both Mia and her mom. They all dance — the medium which Mia uses throughout the film to transcend the limitations of her immediate surroundings. Now it is utilized by all three generations of Mia’s family, hoping, wishing, longing for something more: to break out of the tank of poverty they swim in but cannot see out of.
In Arnold fashion, then, I can’t help but acknowledge the power of icons to incite mimicry, and therefore how important it is to have a multitude of icons to choose from. The industry needs to push for access to and promotion of wide-ranging creative content for all, so that we can each find icons of our own, which we will euphorically find ourselves in, and will draw on in our own pursuits and dreams for years to come.
A text from Kemo, when I’m leaving California and coming back home to Michigan for the fall: “I know that you are one smart muthafuckin badass woman who will do great in whatever thing you choose to do. And thank you so much for listening to my bullshit. Alright I’m done. Go be the Andrea Arnold you want to be. Have a safe flight home.”
Daily Music Beat Editor Samantha Cantie can be reached at email@example.com.