no. 3: Kirsten Dunst portrays complicated femininity—and we should thank her for it

in which I tell everyone why Kirsten Dunst may be the best actress ever, Sam Dixon lauds Dunst's performance in Melancholia, and Kati Bowden gives sad girls everywhere something to read

no. 3: Kirsten Dunst portrays complicated femininity—and we should thank her for it

My Introduction to Kirsten Dunst

The first time I saw Kirsten Dunst on screen it was only incidental. I was 7 years old and playing at my friend’s house in the living room where her older brothers were watching Spider-man (2002) on a rented DVD. My friend and I saw the infamous upside down kiss—which at the time looked like the grossest thing I had ever witnessed. Even then, Dunst enamored me with her on screen presence, somehow enticing and kindhearted and mysterious.

Kirsten Dunst as Torrance Shipman in Bring It On
Who remembers jazz hands??

I didn’t watch another one of her films for a few years—a great tragedy—but finally in high school I threw my hipster persona to the side and watched “that dumb cheerleader movie.” It was stupid to write off Bring It On as mainstream and frivolous because it’s fucking great. Kirsten Dunst shines as All-American Girl Next Door Torrance Shipman, a newly-minted cheerleader captain who wants her squad to find success. Dunst gives Torrance infectious earnestness throughout the film; she just wants to do the right thing for her squad and her friends. The highlight of the movie for me, though, is Torrance’s relationship with the Clovers, and specifically team captain Isis (Gabrielle Union—in a scene-stealing role ), which starts conversations on white saviorism and allyship to Black communities. By the end of the movie we know Torrance has learned from this experience as she cheers on the Clovers, the deserving winners of the cheer competition. Dunst brings emotional depth to a lighthearted film, effortlessly displaying her on-screen versatility.

The creation of the Kirsten Dunst Sad Girl

In her trilogy of films with Sophia Coppola, Dunst brings depth to the lives of women who often don’t have voices in their own lives. It’s these films that made me love Kirsten Dunst for the way she builds out depth in her characters. In her collaborations with Coppola, Dunst brings complication to ideal femininity; her characters are multi-faceted and not concerned with existing within the “Strong Female Character” trope.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

I remember every moment from the night I watched The Virgin Suicides. The way that Dunst’s charisma shines through the character of Lux Lisbon mesmerized me. In bringing Lux Lisbon to life writer-director Sophia Coppola had to take Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, which is eerily narrated by the neighborhood boys, and give the story’s young women a voice. Though the film starts with Cecilia (Hannah R. Hall) committing suicide, its Lux’s presence that carries the film with grief, innocence, and sexuality. The convergence of these three qualities build out a sad girl, though Coppola and Dunst’s creation of the film’s Lux Lisbon provided the a framework for the trope that has only become more ubiquitious online and in media. Lux is equal parts demure and brazen. When her mother (Kathleen Turner) forces her to throw out her rock records, Lux emanates rage, grief, and teenage rebellion. Dunst’s excellence in giving Lux a multi-faceted existence makes The Virgin Suicides Lux’s story.

Cinematic parallel of Kirsten Dunst laying in the grass as Lux Lisbon in The Vrigin Suicides and Marie Antoinette in Marie Antoinette
Top: Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon. Bottom: Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette is an anachronistic masterpiece with a killer soundtrack and stunning set design. I only watched this for the first time a few months ago after listening to an episode of The Alarmist on the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Coppola’s version of the infamous queen’s life zeroes in on the dichotomy between adolescent and ruler with Dunst’s performance as Marie Antoinette filled with moments of frenetic mayhem and genuine growth. It’s not just another teen film or unhistorical look at the life of this woman; together Coppola and Dunst retell the French queen’s story with sympathy and care, unafraid to depict her as both frivolous and compassionate. Marie Antoinette is not callous in this narrative—as history often claims—she’s young and a mother, thrust into French royalty by her family without any training on how to be Queen. With this film, Coppola and Dunst unwrap the layers of a woman’s transition for adolescense to adulthood, letting viewers see the blurry lines between the two stages of life.

The Beguiled (2017)

Kirsten Dunst as Miss Morrow in The Beguiled
Seriously… Coppola’s work in The Beguiled is a visual masterpiece

It’s hard to forget The Beguiled’s stunning visuals. Dunst (Miss Morrow) acts at the top of her game, often stealing scenes from Nicole Kidman (Miss Farnworth) and Elle Fanning (Alicia). As Miss Morrow, Dunst again excels at depicting the complicated femininity of being an adult woman. Dunst brings life, voice, and sympathy to Miss Morrow as she explores the intricacies of a woman’s sexual desires. Her opposition comes at the hands of student Alicia, who slept with Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) before Miss Morrow had the chance. The aftermath of this event places Miss Morrow in a unique position as both teacher and seductress. In The Beguiled Dunst’s work in portraying the depth of the feminine comes full circle.

We all should watch more Kirsten Dunst

What else can I say about one of my favorite actresses? Kirsten Dunst’s filmography is impressive—and diverse. She adds her brilliance to teen films, superhero movies, and indie darlings. She’s Sophia Coppola’s muse. Dunst has made her mark as an actress who takes on roles that expand what it means to be a woman and how femininity emanates its own kind of strength.

Of course, I didn’t get a chance to mention all of Kirsten Dunst’s great films—of which there are many. From Interview with a Vampire to Melancholia, she has charmed moviegoers of all ages and tastes. Go watch a Kirsten Dunst film!


Kirsten Dunst Nails Melancholia

by Sam Dixon

Kirsten Dunst as Justine in Melancholia

Melancholia (2011) is a 2011 Lars Von Trier film that flies under the radar. It's an epic, a sci-fi flick, and a metaphor-laden trip—just watch the opening sequence.

This film is a tragedy about a planet (aptly named "Melancholia") on its way to a sure collision with Earth. Everyone on Earth is in either doomsday or denier mode; it's a lovely analogue to climate catastrophe, in my opinion. Dunst absolutely nails the sense of existential dread, crippling depression, and apathy. Her face constantly conveys these states very effectively. Not only is she an extremely relatable character for those who live with depression, it also suits the unique, sci-fi premise.

For some of the film, the story focuses on Dunst's character's wedding. Which, as you would presume, is supposed to be a happy occasion. But the total, stupefying lack of interest that Dunst shows in her own wedding is brilliant.

In this film, the sense of time is malleable and vague. It often feels like things are moving too slowly, as one might feel with depression. It is also ridden, however, with references to prior art: famous paintings and operas. You could spend days digging into the deliberate references to classical art, von Trier seems to love.

Kirsten Dunst is an underrated actress—I think the Spiderman stuff didn't go so well with the general masses—and this is my favorite work I've seen from her. Her emotional control is wonderful and her character is so thorough and interesting.


Screen Break

by Kati Bowden

Covers for Everyone in this Room will Someday be Dead and So Many Beginnings (A Little Women Remix)

This week, in honor of Kirsten Dunst and sad girls everywhere, we've got two very different book recommendations. In Emily Austin's debut novel, Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Gilda is deeply, utterly depressed. She can't stop thinking about death and how it can spread through the world so quickly, so definitely, without a single warning. Her obsession is really getting in the way of the rest of her life, including her new job at a Catholic Church (where she's pretending she's not an atheist lesbian, which isn't exactly doing wonders for her mental health, either). Torn between family, love, God, and Death, Gilda finds herself anxiously lost and fearful of everything that comes her way. Austin's anxious writing captures the overwhelming emptiness that Gilda and other depressed women face every day, making it my number one Sad Girl Pick of 2021.

In the YA world, Bethany C. Morrow is bringing us the second installment of the Remixed Classics series with So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix (out September 7 from Feiwel Friends). In Morrow's reimagining, the March sisters are the daughters of a newly emancipated family of Black Freedmen. Meg longs for love and a family of her own; Jo writes with a power that cannot be contained; Beth is a seamstress searching for higher purpose; and Amy wants to dance away from the small Freedmen settlement they call home. All around them, the world is changing, constantly bringing new realities to their doorstep. With a fresh perspective on the well-known and well-explored classic, Morrow's remix promises to be rich with love and much-needed care.


Some final thoughts on Kirsten Dunst

From Kara M: I like Interview With a Vampire. She’s a young actress at that point in her career and her relationship with Brad Pitt’s character is weird, but the film is beautiful and the backdrop of 1700’s Louisiana is 👌🏽

From Kaleigh I:
Interview with a Vampire: Iconic.
Elizabethtown 10/10 manic pixie dream girl before that was a thing?
The Virgin Suicides obv    
The Crow: Salvation — wild and very masculine savior complex but also an emo vibe