What ‘Lady Bird’ Got Wrong — And What It Got Right

What ‘Lady Bird’ Got Wrong — And What It Got Right
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By Joanna C. Valente

In a movie about growing up, you can expect a lot of pains. You can expect those silent traumas to happen without the main character fully realizing how a seemingly ordinary moment, like a slapdash comment from your mom about weight or losing your virginity to someone who is indifferent to you. When you watch any movie about growing up, you know it’s going to be uncomfortable – which Lady Bird was, even while it made you laugh.

The abuse we see in Lady Bird hurts – and it’s dangerous. And what’s most dangerous about it is the fact that it seems so ordinary, so glossed over by the fact that it’s done with the best of intentions – that the abuse is done out of love. This is something we tell ourselves, as humans, everyday: If something is done out of love, it isn’t abuse. That isn’t true.

Lady Bird's mother, Marion, is often the culprit of this kind of “silent” abuse, whether it’s focusing on Lady Bird's bad grades (although you question how bad they could really be if she’s on scholarship), how she walks, what she wears, etc. Really, Marion picks on Ladybird just to pick on her, and takes any opportunity to belittle her.

It’s never necessarily what an outsider could call severe, or even abusive, since it seems like motherly nagging on the surface – but when you truly take a deeper look, especially into the fact that it’s unending, it really is abuse. Lady Bird never gets a break, as Danny pointed out. In many ways, her unhappiness and self-centeredness and need to lie, stem from the fact that she’s often told, even if by implication, that she’s not good enough. And she won’t ever be good enough.

The telling scene is when Lady Bird asks her mother if she likes her, and if maybe, this is the best version of her she can be, and her mother ignores the question, even makes a face. That says it all. That is abuse—and it’s the kind of abuse that teaches girls to ignore their desires, to feel small, to silence themselves.

Another telling moment in the film is when Marion stops talking to Lady Bird because she applied to New York schools (as if that is also a crime). Employing the “silent treatment” on your own kid when they live in your house, even after they plead with you and apologize profusely, is abuse. Considering Marion is a psychiatric nurse with a husband who takes medication for depression, she should also know better. She’s the adult in the situation, whereas Christine is not. Marion desires control, regardless of how it affects others.

This is what the movie does well: It portrays ordinary abuse, the kind of ordinary abuse so many of us have endured that we usually deny it’s abuse at all. Because it’s hard to admit when loved ones belittle us in ways that become part of our psyche. Yes, Christine is thoughtless and selfish (she is a teenager, too), and her treatment of Julie illustrates this, but she is never intentionally cruel.

When she realizes she has ignored Julie for her richer, cooler friend, Lady Bird promptly tries to right it. Lady Bird, despite her flaws, is not full of the kind of pride that prevents you from taking accountability. Her empathy for Danny is indicative of her openness—and her kindness. She could be upset Danny lied to her about being gay, but she also realizes it’s not about her. There’s more going on.

The thing is, many abusers understand what they do is abuse—and know what they are doing as they’re doing it. Marion, for instance, must understand she is mistreating her daughter, especially when she tells Lady Bird her own mother was an “abusive alcoholic,” also implying that anything less extreme must not be abuse, which is a way for her to rationalize her own actions. This rationalization is merely that, though, and not logical or ethical. As Paul Bloom wrote in his recent New Yorker piece on cruelty, “The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.” 

Marion isn’t unintentionally dehumanizing Lady Bird when she refuses to use her chosen name (as opposed to her birth name, Christine), she is intentionally doing so – and because she knows this will hurt her. In order to actually hurt someone, you acknowledge their feelings because you can understand them, a kind of reverse empathy. If being cruel meant you actually didn’t view the other person as a human with emotions, you would probably miss the point of cruelty.

The fact that Lady Bird chooses a name for herself clearly proves all of these points: She is trying to find her identity, she is trying to shine like a radiant star in the same way she and Danny named their star Bruce, she is trying not to feel like a failure, she is trying to rise above the abuse and see herself as a survivor, not a silent victim. She merely wants to carve her own identity.

When she chooses not to use Lady Bird at the end, it’s a signal – both for Lady Bird's nostalgia for home (and her mother) and a way to show gratitude for the life her family gave her, but it’s also a strange sign of defeat. When she uses her birth name, we see her after one of the most isolating moments of her life, probably: Waking up alone in a New York City emergency room after having alcohol poisoning within her first month or so in college. That is not exactly a triumphant moment, and is also the result, perhaps, of her trying to cover up her loneliness and isolation, both from her family and her new surroundings.

Wherever she is, she doesn’t seem to “fit in,” and most of the film centers around Lady Bird trying to find her niche. In many ways, she romanticizes New York City, thinking she will find her place there, and in many ways, is disappointed she hasn’t – and perhaps begins to feel homesick for a place she couldn’t wait to get out of. This journey felt real because it was real.

For me, as someone who attended Catholic school for 13 years who often felt not good enough (and also dealing with queerness pre-social media), who was the "poor kid" in a rich school, Lady Bird's world echoed mine in a lot of ways. I often found myself in the homes of other students, homes so unlike my own (and many of those students liked to point it out too), and felt out of place. Feeling out of place also means you can become silent, and try to blend in, or you have to find your real, authentic self. I chose the latter, as Lady Bird was also trying to do, but often struggling to (because who doesn't?).  

Finding yourself is not an easy task. It’s not something you can simply do by moving, but by being honest and allowing yourself to fail. When we find Lady Bird at the end, in a bittersweet moment, we find her at the cusp of change, of potentially finding who she is. This is what the film does well – of not necessarily giving us everything we want in a neat bow.

But, in many ways, it’s also the film’s downfall, because we often do get what we want. The film is still portraying ideas of privilege and whiteness, with room for little else. While Lady Bird is definitely not rich, and often mentions how she’s the “poor one” who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, she is still much more privileged than most: She’s white, in a middle class family who is sending her to a private Catholic high school. Beyond that, she’s also conventionally attractive, talented, and smart. While she is struggling like any teenager struggles with sex and identity, her struggle is also not unique. The American Dream (one of whiteness, wealth, desire) is there, but the film is not exactly a commentary on its toxicity either.

And really, the film, in a lot of ways, can be boiled down to this: She’s an attractive middle class white person who gets into college. And whose parents refinance their home to make that happen in a private New York City school, nonetheless. Going to college at all is a privilege, but an expensive one even more so.

And that’s where I felt disappointed. What about kids like Miguel or Julie or even Danny? What about the kids who aren’t privileged in the same way Lady Bird is? Lady Bird does suffer abuse, but her story has also gotten told over and over and over again in other films. Rarely do films focus on characters who are kids of color, kids with disabilities, queer, or even “unattractive” without a makeover at the end.

I left the film feeling disappointed that Julie, for instance, was relegated to a side character role. While this is part of the point of Julie’s character (she is the “nice fat friend” who gets ignored and silenced, whose depression is rarely explored), it’s also fulfilling the same vicious cycle, the same male gaze. Her story is never told—even though it’s a common one, it’s just a common story hardly told. The same goes for Miguel, who is Lady Bird's older brother. The same even goes to Danny. While Danny is incredibly privileged (he lives in one of the fancy houses), he reveals that he’s gay, letting us into the fact that he has a huge struggle of his own (especially at a Catholic school)—a struggle not commonly explored in coming-of-age films.

What would the film look like if the character was transgender or non-binary, having to choose a new name and pronouns—and watching as the people around them chose to react and welcome or not welcome that kind of change. While I loved the idea of Lady Bird choosing her name, especially in a time where choosing names and pronouns is especially relevant, I also felt this was a missed opportunity to explore more.

While the film doesn’t judge the characters, falling away from the easy stereotypes of jocks and popular girls and anarchy-loving boys that many 80s and 90s films do, it also doesn’t dig deep enough. It could choose to highlight more marginalized people in Lady Bird’s small Sacramento community, but it doesn’t. Perhaps that’s not what this film is about, and that’s fine, but I can’t help but wonder, why not?

The film so artfully deals with abuse, depression, classism and homophobia, but I wished it dug even deeper, into the parts of American life that everyone knows to be true, but rarely wants to explore past the picture perfect life with the happy enough ending. Because, let’s face it, the end of the movie is “happy enough” and the struggle all seems to dissipate, as if the abuse can be stifled in a travel bag.

Perhaps, of course, that’s what Lady Bird wants to believe, and so we want to believe it too. Is the end was showing the cycle of abuse, and how we deny being mistreated because people love us? Or is it merely going with the status quo? And that, of course, is the magic of the film.

Even so, we can all go a little farther.  

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Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.