30 Days of Carol: Day 5 – Let’s Talk About Carrie Brownstein’s Role in “Carol”

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There’s no denying that Carrie Brownstein is an artist. She writes, she acts, she sings, she plays, she fronts, and as the face of Sleater-Kinney – and to a certain degree, the riot grrl scene – has left her mark on the feminist movement. She is clearly someone with a vision, and while seeing it through is infuriatingly, effortlessly funny. 

None of this shields her from the fact that her role in Carol had absolutely no business being there, and, in my opinion, came close to ruining the movie. You’ll remember (or will you?) Carrie Brownstein’s character as the potential suitor for Therese tucked into the tail end of the movie. Therese has just turned down Carol’s proposition that they move in together, and for a moment, if you hadn’t read the book, you might have worried Carrie’s character and sultry looks were on their way to steal your girl. The amount of time you worried, however, would have been for a full six seconds, as that was the amount of time this tension was allowed to linger. And so what was the point?

Imagine telling people you were going to be in this major Hollywood film that was the first mainstream-mainstream story about two gay women being in love and be playing Rooney Mara’s love interest, and after being on set for days on end having the final result be like, “Op, yeah, if you can see that speck of an outline of a human woman’s body from across the street, and then that set of eyes from across that crowded room – that’s me.” Fellow Carol stan and The L Word cosplayer Stephanie Ritter likes to remind me that SHE HAD A MORE SIGNIFICANT ROLE IN THE BOOK AND ALSO IN THE SCREENPLAY AND THEY FILMED MORE SCENES WITH HER BUT THEY WERE  JUST SAVAGELY EDITED OUT. Okay? This is the final cut of the movie! Either give us a few fully-realized scenes or get out!

Carrie’s role is a concert performance where someone is just wailing on a jazz sax and the crowd is loving it and then – to, I don’t know, mix it up in case people wanted variety – a person playing the recorder appears front and center with their mic turned all the way up. Everyone’s like, “What?” but also still vibing because the overall feel of the song is still there with the jazz sax in the background, and then, as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared, they dissolve into the shadows while the jazz sax takes us home.

Carrie’s role is when you’re first learning to write an essay and you’ve said all you need to say but you’re about 75 words short of the requirement and so you start in on what is essentially an entirely new thesis, maybe even one that contradicts your original one, and only give it three vaguely-supporting sentences before dropping it and moving on to your conclusion paragraph.

Carrie’s role is a second wind chime. The first one is doing its job, and then here comes the second one with a different swing slash chime rate throwing off the first one’s rhythm, and where before it was a pleasant experience, it is now a frantic one. Obviously, you’re in a position where your only concern is the amount of wind chimes sounding in your general area, so ultimately things are pretty great, but could it have been… better.

It’s an opinion, and it’s legal to have one. “Change my mind” in the comments.

Los Angeles based writer. Let's keep it clean out there!

Erin has written 207 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. A friend and I went to see this in NYC and when we left, all other feelings about the film were temporarily suspended because we were just very confused by her brief appearance.

    We knew she was going to be in it… and I’ve loved sleater-kinney since I was 15 obviously… and I still thought, “why not just cut the scene if that’s all they were gonna do?”

    Both of us ALSO thought Carrie was that shopkeeper/manager in the first couple scenes as well lol

  2. “It’s an opinion, and it’s legal to have one. ‘Change my mind’ in the comments.”

    I refuse because your opinion is correct. It definitely just felt like they were stalling for time until they reached the inevitable conclusion of Carol and Therese forever and ever even after we’re all dead and gone.

    Maybe they just decided they wanted Carrie Brownstein to be in their movie. And maybe that’s actually the flaw. It’s possible that if it had been an actress we had no familiarity with, we wouldn’t expect as much from the character. It feels pretty weird to see Carrie Brownstein in a lesbian movie and think, “Hey, Carrie! Go away! Ya boring!”

  3. Carrie’s role rivals Clea Duvall’s in Itty Bitty Titty Committee for winner of the misuse of a famous queer woman in an already queer film award.

    My theory is that this kind of thing is happening all the time in mainstream straight movies with straight actors’ bit parts, but we never notice because well it’s just another straight person.

  4. You are 100% right. The entire end of the movie, from when we catch up with Carol and Therese in the bar at the Ritz to the final sequence in the Oak Room, felt extremely rushed after the pace of the film to that point. The audience needed more time to feel Therese’s conflict; instead, it felt like whiplash – she didn’t want to go back to Carol, and then she spends 2 minutes at a party with Carrie Brownstein and changes her mind. This, for me, felt like the biggest false step in what is otherwise a near-perfect film.

    On a more positive note, I very much appreciate Todd Haynes’s decision not to include the Richard/Therese hand job sequence from the original script.

  5. Part of why Carrie doesn’t mesh right in the movie (and I say that as a fan) is that she doesn’t sound right. Cate and Rooney spent time listening to how people spoke in the 1950s, and affecting their speech patterns to match. Then, along comes Carrie, with a very vocal-fry laden, modern accent. It is just out of place.

  6. Hi there!!! “30 Days of Carol” is the most important thing happening on the internet and I registered for an autostraddle account just to comment on this post!!! Coincidentally, I’m currently writing a paper on “Carol” for class, and I wanted to share this revelation that some readings led me to literally yesterday!!!

    I think it’s important to think about “Carol” as a work of simultaneous nostalgia for the past and fantasy about the future. Therese’s subjectivity in particular warps the way that the audience sees the story. The whole story is structured around a flashback as Therese rides to the NYT office party. Therese is looking to the past of her relationship with Carol while the audience is looking back to the 1950s. The whole movie plays in the time Therese is in the car (wow what a long car ride). This is where Carrie Brownstein comes in.

    Carrie Brownstein’s attachments to the present, as well as her role as a queer icon, is intentional. A Flavorwire article by Moze Halperine (called “The Brilliant Subvertiveness of ‘Carol’s Conventional Ending” if you want to find it I don’t know how to link) writes:

    “Suddenly, here’s Carrie fucking Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia, and public gay marriage officiating, flirting with Therese. She seems an intentional anachronism, a representation of liberation and defiance — as opposed to Carol, who exudes a calcified if stifling 1950s glamour. But instead of letting whomever Brownstein’s playing become a character at all, Therese chooses to return to Carol, leaving Brownstein to be a face at a party. Brownstein becomes a symbol of choice: an icon from a future era when people have (or can at least openly fight for) the agency to choose who they want to love openly, publicly, to choose how they want to self-define, or if they want to evade definition altogether.”

    It’s in this way that Brownstein’s casting wakes us from our daydream and disassociates from a clear delineation of time. In “Of Love and Longing: Queer Nostalgia in Carol,” Allain Daigle calls it “a temporal whiplash,” where “the presence of an actor anchored in contemporary connotations stretches the film towards the present – only, of course, for Therese to leave the party and seek out Carol.”

    I don’t know if any of this makes sense but it certainly convinced me that Brownstein was added for a reason. I don’t disagree that her presence is jarring but also maybe jarring in a good way? Or maybe I just don’t let my own confusion get in the way of my enjoyment. It took me like three-and-a-half viewings to understand what “flung out of space” meant 😛

    • this is an interesting argument! i like the idea of this break in tunnel vision to give this intensity between carol and therese and their whole journey some context, but i DO wonder if call to the present, given carrie’s delivery despite existing within the same kind of highly stylized cinematography. but maybe that’s the point! getting to observe literally and figuratively from a distance. I LOVE CAROL

    • I was just idly lurking on AS without bothering to log in, and since I also was super confused by Carrie’s brief cameo (almost as confused as I was about Kristen Wiig’s not-funny and pretty tiny part in The Martian), I ended up clicking on this article.

      After reading your comment, I was so excited I logged in just so I could tell you that I think this is an amazing take, I love it, and I need to rewatch Carol this weekend to think about it.

      And like others have said, I wanna see your paper! Thanks for sharing your finds.

  7. Carrie brownstein may only be in the film for 6 seconds but she manages to put her hand on her hip, and off, and on, and off at least 35 times in that 6 second window. This has lead to a running joke in our house about repeatedly touching your hip being how you seduce a woman, and for that I am very grateful.

  8. Day 5 already, gosh, this is going too fast.

    Like Sophie T. I thought Carrie Brownstein’s character represented “the future”, and subconciously I must have picked up on the modern speech pattern too to reinforce that sensation. And, full disclosure, I had no clue who Carrie Brownstein was when I first saw Carol because living in a cocoon for over 20 years.

    I felt that Therese, upon seeing a modern beatnik lesbian (as opposed to the two in the music store who seemed from wartime to me) realized that she really was all about Carol, and with that realization she made a decision about where her own future lay. I felt that Therese realized she wasn’t interested in men or in other women, she was a Carolbian. Bless her.

  9. O Carol & Therese, O Carol & Therese,
    You give us so much pleasure,
    How oft we enjoy the sight,
    Of baby gay’s indulged delight,
    O Carol & Therese, O Carol & Therese,
    You give us so much pleasure

  10. I FEEL SO VALIDATED. Ever since the film came out I griped to everyone about how she almost ruined it. Like obviously the character is from the book but it should’ve been different and it should’ve been a different actress

  11. i liked her character in the book because she was described as basically a carol clone. another older domineering blonde woman. what i liked about it was that it seemed to argue that therese wasn’t just gay for carol, but an actual lesbian with a type who decided that the weird lady she knew was a better bet than the knock-off in front of her.

    i didn’t like carrie brownstein in that role when i first saw it, but reading the above comments about how she is meant to be an anachronism makes me really appreciate her presence. i’ll have to watch it again!

  12. ok my theory was always that Carrie Brownstein’s role was kindof an unnecessary nod to straight audiences, confirming that Therese IS actually attracted to women and that this isn’t (yet another) “only gay for that one special person” trope

  13. I watched Carol when it was in theaters and really enjoyed but haven’t watched it since. I don’t really remember this bit, I think this 30 days of Carol is convincing me it is time to rewatch it.

  14. It was so obviously a ploy to legitimize the one but having a real life queer in it (along with patron saint Sarah Paulson). I remember they marketed it as though she was once of the leads.

    *stares dejectedly out of a glass window*

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