As the world continues to fall apart around us, we face the daily struggle of skating a fine line between self-awareness and self-indulgence. There’s a myriad of horrible things happening at any given time that we need to give our attention to and causes to donate our time and money to, and yet, it can sometimes be hard to focus on the pains outside of our day-to-day challenges. Current politics and the permissiveness of the internet has only made this more of an endeavor and I only see it getting worse. This dichotomy is so beautifully played out in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird through its titular character. As Lady Bird so delicately puts it, “other things can be sad, it’s not all war.”
The film is an instant classic of a contemporary genre -- the female coming of age film. It is hardly the first of its kind. Other female directors, such as Sofia Coppola, have been preaching the plight of teen girls throughout the early aughts. But Lady Bird does harness a certain uniqueness outside of even being both written and directed by a female filmmaker: it contains a boastfully selfish protagonist who is trying to navigate her own problems in the wake of a post 9/11 America.
The film is a snapshot of senior year of high school. A transformative time where you make the move from being a co-dependent money sucking leech to a slightly less co-dependent, but slightly more money sucking, young adult. It’s that illusion of freedom you see right off in the distance, until you realize that college is really just another four years of relying on your parents, you’re just further away from them.
In the film, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by a crimson haired Saoirse Ronan, is ashamed of where she lives because her parents, though not destitute, aren’t well-off financially. Why the name Lady Bird? We’re not sure. In a scene towards the beginning of the film she introduces herself when auditioning for a school play and says that it was a name she gave to herself -- ”given to me by me.” This scene perfectly sums up the unapologetically selfish nature of Lady Bird. She bestows things upon herself and creates her own opportunities where she feels they don’t exist.
Lady Bird additionally describes herself as being from “the wrong side of the tracks,” and when she pursues a friendship with the popular, well-to-do Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), leaving her true best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) behind, she lies about where she lives. She pretends to reside in the fab 40s, until she’s caught in her transgression.
One of the best juxtapositions in the film comes from this friendship between Lady Bird and Jenna, no matter how superficial. There’s a scene where the two of them are swimming in Jenna’s ritzy pool and Lady Bird complains that she has to get out of Sacramento. Jenna doesn’t understand. She says she loves it there and plans to raise a family. She even wants to send her prospective daughters to the same all-girls Catholic school that the two of them attend. Jenna doesn’t want to leave. She has it all so how could things get any better?
But Lady Bird's motivation comes from discontentment. Yet, in the larger scheme of things Lady Bird could have it worse. As embarrassed as she is of where she lives, it’s still a pretty nice house. She has a family who loves her and is in good health and parents who are still together. She has a best friend who looks up to and adores her. However, that’s not the point of the film. We all want what we can’t have. There’s an inherent selfishness in Lady Bird that we all have inside of us, whether or not we care to admit it. The difference is, Lady Bird hardly seems to feel guilty about it. And although Ronan’s character is inherently flawed, is there really anything wrong with wanting something more for yourself?
It’s rare to have a likable, selfish female protagonist. We are all too familiar with the manic pixie dream girl and cool girl tropes, but have spent less time with the brusque, matter-of-fact teenage girl. Gerwig has given us a complex female character not necessarily based off of herself, but more based on the girl she wished she was growing up. Ronan’s character surely has some less desirable traits, but she’s still clearly the hero of the piece - and you’re rooting for her to succeed.
Gerwig offers a woman’s perspective of a double standard we’re all too familiar with. If a woman is pushy she’s bitchy, but if a man is pushy, he knows what he wants. Some may see Lady Bird’s selfishness as entitlement, but I see it as determination. It normalizes this behavior in women. Sometimes she is completely in the wrong and she may be reprimanded, but she is never punished and she is able to learn her own lessons when she’s blinded by that self-indulgence.
It’s shown when she consoles her ex-boyfriend Danny, after she realizes that he’s gay and he begs her not to tell anyone because he’s having a hard time trying to figure how to come out to his Irish-Catholic parents. It’s shown at the very end of the film when she leaves a heartfelt voicemail to her mother. And it’s shown in the biggest way when she gets to college and starts going by her given name Christine instead of Lady Bird. It is this scene that the film ends on and for once we get to sit with what just happened, echoing Marion McPherson’s request to Lady Bird at the beginning of the film after they finish 25+ hours of a The Grapes of Wrath book on tape.
Lady Bird is a film for us motivated brats that looked down on anything normal or mundane. We were determined to leave our humdrum hometowns and go to art school. We didn’t necessarily have any real hardships aside from that fact that we didn’t get anything handed to us, but the fact that was an option for some made us bitter. We dyed our hair and changed our names. We spoke out in class. We had parents that loved us and friends that admired us. We had crushes, break-ups, fights with our parents, and falling outs with friends. And we saved ourselves from anything that was boring.