Olivia Cooke reviews Greta Gerwig’s feminist coming-of-age film, Lady Bird.
Lady Bird isn’t your typical teen drama. Yes, there’s the angst, the strained relationships between parents, and the odd love interest, yet Gerwig’s film is a refreshingly nuanced, feminist recalibration of the genre. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson yearns for something more than Sacramento. Stuck in the claustrophobic setting of her Catholic high-school, Lady Bird dreams of studying at an esteemed Liberal Arts college in New York.
Gerwig’s film is unapologetically feminist in its depiction of Lady Bird’s psychological and emotional development. Her character is ultimately one who chooses to be defined by herself, refusing to be influenced by the various romantic relationships which she negotiates over the course of the film. Lady Bird is not defined by sex, and her multidimensional character raises her above her romantic dalliances with both Danny and Kyle. She comforts Danny, encouraging him to come out to his family, and upon learning that Kyle is not a virgin (despite him having suggested that he was) after having sex with him, she responds: ‘I was on top! Who the fuck is on top their first time!’.
Gerwig shows how Lady Bird’s virginity is not ultimately symbolic of her character’s apparent innocence or her short-lived romantic relationships. Sex is not something which shapes her identity, it is just something normal that happens. In the words of Kyle, we should all prepare ourselves to have lots of “unspecial sex” in our lives. Gerwig’s film does not portray an unrealistic, idealised version of “teen romance”; her film celebrates the mundane and prosaic aspects of a variety of relationships.
We also see that friendships are valued far more than romantic relationships in Lady Bird. Teen films have often conformed to the notion that women can only gain emotional fulfilment from a heterosexual coupling, yet Gerwig’s film completely subverts this through the reunion of Lady Bird and her best friend Julie at prom. We see Lady Bird ditch “cool-guy” Kyle and the popular kids in order to help Julie get ready for prom. Julie is Lady Bird’s perfect prom date; in an emotional scene, the best friends slow dance and pose for yearbook photos together, under a cloud of bright coloured streamers.
Perhaps Lady Bird’s most important relationship is the one she shares with her mother, Marion. Motherly love is brutal in Gerwig’s film; Marion frequently chastises Lady Bird, telling her that her dream of studying on the East Coast is simply unattainable due to her poor work ethic and average school grades. Marion fosters in Lady Bird a sense of grit and determination, which sparks in Lady Bird a desire to prove her mother wrong by embracing her own right to pursue her ambitions.
And, it pays off. Lady Bird ends up in New York college, yet, surprising even herself, she hasn’t completely shaken off Sacramento. At a party, another student asks her name, and she responds with ‘Christine’; home never leaves Lady Bird, and by accepting her own past we see how her character can make a future for herself. At the end of the film, we see hazy and languid shots of the city, the fading sunset dripping warm beams of light onto the roads of Sacramento. A woman protagonist who doesn’t rely on a man as a crutch to enable her to become herself: now that’s what I call a film that passes the Bechdel test.
Illustration by Emily Godbold.