One night during term my friends and I decided to test out the new cinema in Oxford for the first time by seeing Lady Bird (2017). Set in Sacramento, California in 2002-3, this film tells the story of a senior in high school trying to find her way through classes, friendships, relationships, family issues, and dreaded college applications. I had heard fantastic reviews of this movie before seeing it, so it’s safe to say that my expectations were fairly high.
Folks, I was not disappointed. This movie is hilarious, witty, honest, emotional, heart-breaking, heart-warming, and nostalgic all rolled into one. I found myself sobbing for basically the last third of the movie because it reminded me so much of my own life (especially the ending when she moves away from home). What I love most about this movie is the attention to character development and representing things not as you ideally want them to be, but as they are. Nothing in this movie is perfect, just as nothing in life is entirely without flaws.
As far as feminism goes, Lady Bird itself is also imperfect. Some critics have denounced this film for promulgating “white” feminism, reminiscent of the whitewashed second wave feminism decades ago that focused on supporting white, middle-class, heterosexual women. Lena Potts discusses this problematic point at length in her article “Lady Bird and the problem with White feminism,” suggesting that while director Gerwig may not have felt as though she could accurately represent a more diverse cast of characters, representation still remains a gaping hole in the film:
Either way, watching Lady Bird feels deeply sincere to Christine (and by extension, Gerwig), and, for the same reasons, incredibly narrow. Did Gerwig just not know many people of color in the most diverse city in America in 2002? Did she just not feel comfortable writing those characters, or consulting other writers in a project so deeply personal? Films like these ask whether adding more opportunities to humanize Danny (as opposed to living as a name crossed out on Christine’s wall), or having more than a throwaway conversation about depression, or including people of color’s perspectives, detract from the pointedness of a tale about the genuine experience of this specific teenage White girl.
On the other hand, Lady Bird has often been lauded for how it deals with treatment of women in relationships, body image, self-worth, and sex. For instance, Lady Bird eagerly awaits losing her virginity, but is startled and disappointed to realize that the boy she has sex with was not also a virgin like he implied. As Lara Williams writes for the Guardian in her article “Youth in revolt: is Lady Bird the first truly feminist teen movie?”:
Virginity is often a preoccupation in Hughes’s films, and notably for Ringwald’s characters – but unlike in The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, Lady Bird’s virginity is not symbolic of her failure to engage with life, nor her apparent innocence; like her short-lived relationships with men, sex is not something she structures her identity around, rather a thing that happens.
I also think it’s important to highlight the emphasis Gerwig places on relationships among women in this film, particularly between Lady Bird and her mother. This mother-daughter dynamic is far from perfect, but it’s one that changes and tightens and stretches over time as real relationships do. While teenage Lady Bird may be seen as the center of this story, her mother is very much at the core as well.
So where do I stand on this topic? Should Lady Bird be considered a feminist film? Personally, I would say yes– to a certain degree. While it admirably emphasizes self-worth, independence, and expression, it also displays a very whitewashed version of feminism. However, I am a staunch believer that we can still enjoy things while simultaneously acknowledging their problematic aspects.
Like the character Lady Bird–and life itself–nothing is perfect.
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What are your thoughts on Lady Bird? Would you consider it a feminist film? Let me know in the comments section below!