Lady Bird's riposte to Hollywood sexism



Lady Bird (MA). Director: Greta Gerwig. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen Henderson, Odeya Rush. 94 minutes

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird'When at least 50 per cent of the population is female, and when at least that percentage of movie-goers are female, why is their gender so often treated as though they were a minority?' Catherine Marshall poses the question this week in Eureka Street, in an article reflecting on the sexism that plagues Hollywood at all levels. Post-Weinstein, and the rise of the Me Too and Time's Up movements, that Hollywood has a gender equality problem is no longer in doubt — if it ever was.

The conversations around what constitutes assault and harassment, and about how Hollywood culture both reflects and reinforces issues of gender equality in society at large, is vital, and increasingly sophisticated. Consider this article from last December that explores new alternatives to the Bechdel Test, the formula that has long been used as a litmus for how women are portrayed on film. The standard of what we should expect is being constantly raised. It should be.

Especially if such a raising of the bar produces more films like Lady Bird, acclaimed writer and character actor Gerwig's first outing as (solo) director. It not only passes Bechdel, it ticks off a number of the more stringent tests proposed in the article linked above. (Admittedly it does less well in those categories that relate to representation of women of colour — Hollywood has a long way to go there too.) Importantly, it also happens to simply be a great film.

Lady Bird stands in the conventions of its coming-of-age, 'teen movie' genre. At the same time it subverts and elaborates on the genre's themes through its distinct perspective, nuanced characterisations, emotional sophistication and intelligent script. It's up for five Oscars — Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Gerwig, Best Actress for Ronan and Supporting Actress for Metcalf. It deserves to be among the favourites for at least a few of these.

Christine (Ronan), self-dubbed Lady Bird, is a scholarship student at a Catholic girls school in Sacramento. Over the course of her final year of high school she experiences romance, sexual awakening and heartbreak; navigates complex family relationships; and weighs friendships and academic options, all in the search for establishing and cementing her identity. Principal in this is a desire to leave Sacramento behind and study at an arts college in New York City.

In 2002, 9-11 is a fresh memory, and the GFC looms several years distant. It's a poignantly self-contained moment for Lady Bird's white upper-working-class family. Though not exactly poor, they experience a socioeconomic pinch foreign to many of her peers. They live in a poorer neighbourhood: her mother Marion (Metcalf) works as a nurse; her father Larry's (Letts) employment is insecure at best. These realities circumscribe Lady Bird's future options and sense of worth.


"In an era when the sins of the Church have made it an easy target, the film is refreshingly warm in its portrayal of Lady Bird's Catholic education."


If Lady Bird's relationship with Larry is marked by open fondness (he tends to play the 'good cop' when it comes to parental discipline), her relationship with Marion is rather more volatile. They can be weeping together over an audio book of The Grapes of Wrath one moment, and the next Lady Bird is (literally) throwing herself out of a moving car to escape the tide of Marion's criticism. Marion feels most acutely the family's financial hardship, and often Lady Bird bears the brunt.

Both women contain deep wells of insecurity that keep them at odds with each other. At one point, one character wonders whether attention and love might be the same thing, and this turns out to be a fundamental insight for Lady Bird, in terms of her ostensibly adversarial relationship with her mother. As much as the film tracks a journey of self-discovery for Lady Bird, it also represents a journey for the two women towards better understanding, and connecting with, each other.

It's somewhat of a side note, but in an era when the sins of the Church have made it an easy target, the film is refreshingly warm in its portrayal of Lady Bird's Catholic education. The religious at the school are very human; drama teacher Fr Leviatch (Henderson) is kind and goofy, but holds close the grief of a past tragedy; headmistress Sr Sarah John (Smith) can be overly pious, but is able to laugh off pranks and is honest and affectionate in her dealings with Lady Bird.

All actors bring emotional depth to Gerwig's astute dialogue and character beats; from Feldstein as Lady Bird's sweet-natured bestie Julie, to Hedges as cute drama kid Danny, whose polite refusal of Lady Bird's invitation to touch her breasts hints at his own secret identity struggle. Supreme among them though are Metcalfe as the infuriating and heartbreaking Marion, and Ronan, who makes of Lady Bird a character of intense self-agency and profound authenticity.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf



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Existing comments

This is a film I haven't yet seen and hope to do so in the not too distant future. I'm not sure I should say "like most people" as the start of the next sentence so I won't. I am drawn to films because of multiple factors. It doesn't come down to a choice because I think the film will say something about gender equality, race or poverty, as important as these subjects are. I choose because something about the film appeals (or shouts at me).
Pam | 01 March 2018

I did not think the portrayal of Catholicism was overly sympathetic, though one gets used to that. The girls chowing down on the, albeit, "unconsecrated" hosts left a bad taste but worse was the pro-lifer scene where Ladybird compares an abortion to the messiness of menstruation, grasping for some sort of nefarious connection: "Just because it's ugly doesn't make it bad", she says. Seriously? .. I mean, seriously? .. What else can one say? Ladybird lost me even more so when she told the pro-lifer addressing her class that it would have been better had the (pregnant) older woman never been born. There are points in one's voyage to self-identity where one can just go too far. Annihilation of another is that bridge for me and I just couldn't laugh such shameless cruelty off in the way that I suspected we were being directed to. Ladybird's first sexual experience was like ticking a box - something to get done - given that her previous gay boyfriend was not up to the deed - with her anyway. The scene where the protagonist close to drinks herself to death and ends up in the emergency room is also disturbing. If this is coming of age today, I'm glad I've been there and done that!
BPLF | 01 March 2018

Tim Kroenert: “establishing and cementing her identity”, BPLF: “pro-lifer scene”, Tim Kroenert: “the film is refreshingly warm in its portrayal of Lady Bird's Catholic education. The religious at the school are very human”, “Lady Bird a character of intense self-agency and profound authenticity.” When the movie re-appears as a DVD at a weekly rate, I might just watch it, not because the early lifecycle fluctuations of a modernist product are particularly interesting but for clues as to why Catholic schools seem ineffectual against the cementing of modernist self-agency and identity.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 March 2018

Why wait Roy? "Lady Bird" is worth seeing now and might even have a special insight for you.
Brett | 08 March 2018

Brett, there are an infinite number of insights that can be derived from a film made in conscious search of a serious purpose because viewers are different. An intersectionalist might say that white privilege is white privilege and all this angst is in fact the luxury of being able to afford self-absorption. An economic nationalist who supports the Trump tariffs might say, somewhat like a Marxist, that economics is everything and the insecurity underlying the life of the McPherson family is NAFTA and Ross Perot’s giant noise of jobs sucked south. From comes “In a remarkable interview following the release of Lady Bird, Gerwig spoke of her own formation in a Catholic high school and of the priests and nuns who inspired her to realize that there is no single path to holiness, that God can use “whatever you’ve got.” That’s the idea maker speaking. What she doesn’t say is that humans have agency and “whatever you’ve got” (to give to God) is whatever you choose to keep from the detritus of all your possessions, physical and psychic, assuming you have that self-insight, which is where the (often failed) culture-transmission function of the Catholic school system comes in.
Roy Chen Yee | 11 March 2018

You’re quite right Roy, any film can have different insights for different people. But they have to watch it first. I was merely suggesting there might be something in it for you if you went to see it now instead of your rather condescending “I might just watch it” when it comes out on DVD.
Brett | 13 March 2018

Brett: “if you went to see it now instead of your rather condescending “I might just watch it” when it comes out on DVD.” I’m sure someone in film school has written about this in an assignment (although it doesn’t serve the business model where the most money for a film is made in theatre release): when is the best time to respond to a movie, today (when I am the sum of my experiences as of about 4 pm, 13 March 2018) or in six months’ time (when I am the sum of six months’ more worth of experiences)? Your response to a movie is the response of the sum of your experiences. That says nothing of the truth of the response, of course. Too much experience can distort a response; so can too little. The same can be applied to how you feel at a dawn service on Anzac Day. I can’t prove that you’re better off waiting until the movie comes out on DVD because I don’t know who you are now as opposed to who you will be in six months. Ditto the reverse. But one thing is known: the appearance of condescension makes good bait.
Roy Chen Yee | 14 March 2018

I take your some of your point Roy and on that basis you could watch the movie now and again in six months time (and at various future points) and experience different insights each time. Nothing remarkable about that. Most of us would have changed over the past 10, 20 or 30 years. Watch a movie you haven't seen for a long time and the chances are you will see it in a different light this time. As you say, seeing it in a different light doesn't affect the truth of any of our different responses. It is just how we change over time. So you could see Lady Bird now and again in six months or a year and compare your insights. An interesting experiment.
Brett | 15 March 2018


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