Nonfiction | On-screen

Portrait of a thief, portrait of a lover

On Mistress America & writing about real people.

The main character of Noah Baumbach’s film Mistress America is a 18-year-old girl named Tracy (Lola Kirke) who wants to be part of her college’s prestigious literary club. She submits a first short-story that is rejected. A freshman at Barnard, her college experience thus far is not really exciting, she’s mostly seen stumbling through her classes and walking alone. She doesn’t see much and feels out-of-place. Her mother is about to marry a man whose daughter, Brooke, lives in New-York. Brooke Cardinas is played by Greta Gerwig who, like always, is superb. It is love at first sight. At least for Tracy. After her first adventurous night in New York with Brooke, Tracy starts writing a story called “Mistress America,” inspired by her encounter with her soon-to-be stepsister. 

Brooke Cardinas’ problem, as she exposed it clearly that night, is that people have a tendency to steal stuff from her. Her ex-friend Mamie-Claire stole her boyfriend, her tee-shirts idea and even her cats. She always has great ideas but never follow through (as Mamie-Claire says later in the film). I thought a lot about The Social Network (who owns ideas etc.) while watching the movie, especially during the climactic scene when Brooke discovers that Tracy has written a short-story based on her.

There is this feeling that artists have—photographers, more than other people, and writers—that they are acting like a succubus . . . this process of taking from something that’s alive and using it for one’s own purposes. You can do it with trees, butterflies, or human beings. Making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.”

There is a difference between plagiarism and writing about others though.

You joined my life – you needed a place to go and I invited you in and then you stole my life. You’re a LEECH. A BLOODSUCKER.”)

Tracy’s problem is mild compared to mine. I don’t steal but in the presence of someone I love, I gradually turn into a mime, emulating their voice, way of laughing and manners. It’s really not calculated, and I have noticed that about myself not so long ago. I experience this more as a loss of sovereignty than anything else.

I also think about this from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just:

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.”

It’s the other way around: If I write about you, if you’re on this page, it is because I am under your grip.


We don’t really need to put a copyright on our lives, unless we believe our lives are simple, small and fixed and always under our control. Some things escape us. Always remains a certain opacity and mystery, a dimension of us that no one will ever have access to.

“You took something I said and made a tweet about it! What about that?