When Lady Bird Flies Out of Her Cage

Cinema has a sneaky way of getting under our skin. It stirs our emotions, ideas, and even our aspirations through the act of portraying someone’s story. As we intimately watch the evolution of a person, an animal, a couple, a community, a country, or whatever it may be, we apply such transformation onto ourselves and wonder how we, too, can bring change to our lives. How many times have we left the movie theater feeling almost like a different person? We walk out in silence, we notice it’s a completely different time of day, and we view the world with new eyes, like an insect coming out of a cocoon. Sometimes this effect dissipates as we exit the cinema. And sometimes, it stays with us for much, much longer. 

This was the case for me with Greta Gerwig’s incredible directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). I first saw the feature three years ago upon its release in early 2018, and its impact has been everlasting. The film takes place in the town of Sacramento and tells the coming-of-age story of feisty high school senior, Christine McPherson, who has named herself Lady Bird. We closely follow her familial, amicable, and romantic relationships as she negotiates the complex decision on where to study for college, taking into account her dislike for her home State of California. The film feels as though we are looking through a thoughtfully crafted memory book of all the significant moments of not only Lady Bird’s high school years, but our own, as well. The joys, the hurt, the discoveries, and the firsts of teenagehood are documented with such depth and care. We recognize the familial worries, the fluctuating friends, the disputes, and the growing pains, even if we do not share the same birthplace or age as the characters. We become enthralled in this story because it feels like such an acute depiction of human relationships. 

I’ve come back to the film many times since my first viewing in 2018, but its initial impact on me was instant and ardent.  My vision of myself and my possibilities in life expanded. I felt driven to strive for more than what I had, just like Christine persistently does. I was overturned by her vision of the outside and how to grasp it. Lady Bird convinced me that I, too, am not “living through something” by staying stuck in my habits. Over the following few years, I came to mirror her gutsy ambition of leaving one’s hometown. And, unexpectedly, I also came to experience the humbling once I left. Apparently, the meaning of the film had escaped me.

From the beginning of the movie, the town of Sacramento is established as a central part of the narrative. The very first line has Lady Bird say: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” From the first instant, we are made aware of Christine McPherson’s felt disembodiment from where she has lived all her life. She seeks a sort of reassurance from her mother, wanting to know if she fits in with her hometown or if she should imagine herself elsewhere. The question is responded to by a factual, “You are from Sacramento,” a reply faithful to her mother’s direct ways. Yet, the question remains unanswered. Does Lady Bird seem like she is from Sacramento, or like she belongs in Sacramento? This is what the protagonist will ultimately ask herself throughout the story. As simple an exchange as this may appear, it sets up Lady Bird’s inner struggle with such sharpness. We recognize that there is complexity in the relationship between the main character and her surroundings, from the first few moments of the film.

Lady Bird’s dissonance with Sacramento is further developed in the iconic second sequence. While in the car with her mother, driving back from what we understand was a college road trip, Lady Bird expresses her disinterest in attending in-State college. Perhaps calling it disinterest is an understatement, as she expresses utter spite with an adamant: “I don’t even want to go to school in this State anyway, I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast.” This anger sparks off a brusque argument which ends with the protagonist throwing herself out of the moving car as her mom shrieks. Because her interests and her heart clearly yearn for elsewhere, Lady Bird feels tied down at the thought of having to remain in her home State. Even though the elsewhere she has in mind is abstracted and glorified. She doesn’t seem to apprehend the financial limitations of her family and has convinced herself that elsewhere  is more promising than what is available to her in Sacramento. 

Lady Bird seeks to soar and views her town as a cage entrapping her. This felt restriction has agitated a rage in her, the outbursts of which we witness throughout the film. Lady Bird comes to personify her emotional fracture of not feeling at home in Sacramento and wanting to break away from this “home”town. She embodies these sentiments all the way into her physical state, a broken arm being the first example. In this light, we see how she seems to be ready to do just about anything in her power to prove to her surroundings that she is serious about leaving. The town of Sacramento and all it represents is thus framed as a symbolic force limiting Christine McPherson, who unconsciously fights its grasp (notably through rebellion and persona-building). She forms an identity for herself that she thinks represents who she seeks to be, but is rather what I interpret as an amalgamation of her frustration. In the end, we come to see that the loathing she thought she felt toward Sacramento was perhaps misdirected.

Lady Bird and Sacramento are, from the start, sworn enemies. In almost every part of the film, we witness her complain about where she lives, how she lives, what she doesn’t have, and even what she does have. She consistently appears to be on another cloud, while attending her conservative Catholic high school that she refers to as Immaculate Fart instead of Heart. She expresses how there is nothing to do and how she wishes she could “live through something.” Her entourage tries to make her see that although she doesn’t have it all, she does lead a good life. Yet, Lady Bird groans at these comments and remains committed to her dissenting mindset. She pesters those who say they like Sacramento and tries to convince them they should leave. As she happily swims at her new friend’s lavish in-ground pool, Lady Bird states, unprompted: “I have to get out of Sacramento.” Her friend appears confused and after she asks why, Lady Bird blatantly asserts: “Because it’s soul-killing. It’s the Mid-West of California.” Even in a moment of enjoyment, Lady Bird stops herself from experiencing such a feeling and snaps back into her default state: longing for elsewhere.

Lady Bird is, in fact, not the only one to envision herself elsewhere. When she meets her first boyfriend, Danny, they quickly bond over the idea of travel. Danny speaks at any chance he has about his fascination for France and his desire to move there. Similar to Lady Bird toward the East Coast, Danny does not seem to have extended knowledge about France. Beyond high school French lessons, he knows little and is even less aware about how to make a life there. He instead relies on surface-level attraction, occasioned by the promise of personal freedom and reinvention. Lady Bird is fixated on studying in the East Coast, but has doubts of being admitted to New York colleges. Danny’s influence pushes her to realize her ambitions and to apply behind her mother’s back. Together, Lady Bird and Danny feed into each other’s romanticization of a life elsewhere. Or, most importantly, away from Sacramento. 

Having someone to talk to about her aspirations to get away from home gives Christine a sense of hope. But as we come to learn, Lady Bird doesn’t only run on hope. She runs on ambition, and frustration at not achieving her ambitions. The fuel of Lady Bird’s East Coast fixation is in fact considerably fed by the media she consumes. The projection Lady Bird constructs of her life in New York is made so strong, notably by images, films, music, and television. Like Danny, it is from surface-level knowledge and idealized imaginings that Lady Bird has convinced herself that her life would be better elsewhere. When she and her best friend, Julie, are hanging out at the grocery store after school, they look at magazines and compare themselves to what they see. Julie exasperates: “See, why don’t I look like that?” pointing to a thin model. Lady Bird’s attention differs from Julie’s, taking more notice of the Chrysler Building in the background than her friend’s comment about body image. She says: “Yeah, just once I’d like to have the song ‘New York Groove’ playing and feel like it really applies to my life.” Julie justly points out that Lady Bird has “never even been to New York,” to which the protagonist unaffectedly answers: “That’s why I’m applying to New York Colleges.” 

What grabs me is that Lady Bird doesn’t realize that she is actively clinging to unrealistic expectations. Or perhaps she doesn’t want to admit it to herself. She doesn’t read the media she consumes as unachievable dreams; she genuinely thinks she is finding solace in projecting herself into these places, ideas, and images. In “Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture,” Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright explain how viewers make meaning of the images around them. They point out that, “Looking is rarely performed in total isolation from the activities of listening and feeling” (93). Here, Lady Bird is not looking at the image of New York for what it is: a fabricated advertisement. She rather understands it completely from an emotional interpretation, as Sturken and Cartwright suggest. She sees it only as a mission she wants to embark on, with no other insight on how arduous that might be. 

As harsh of a critic I am being on Lady Bird about her deceivable projections, I have to admit I undertook essentially the same path as she did. I left my hometown to study abroad in another continent. Coming back to what I discussed at the beginning of this article, cinema really does have an innate power of influence. When I watched this film for the first few times, I was inspired by Lady Bird’s drive. Of course, I wasn’t a fan of her bad attitude, but I nonetheless felt touched by her confidence to aim for a target even though it might seem impossible to attain. To the same extent as Lady Bird was seeing herself as the girl in New York, I was seeing myself as the girl in Italy. Even though I planned my move across the world as much as I could—something that Lady Bird is not known for—I still could not have been prepared for how difficult it was to live on my own in a foreign country. The barriers I faced made me feel silly for ever thinking that it was a good idea to leave home. Perhaps I had a similar amount of naivety as Lady Bird did. There is almost a meta quality to this whole situation, in that I was impacted to action by watching a film, in which a girl is influenced by the media that she consumes. I read the film just as Sturken and Cartwright discern, rarely in isolation from feeling.

All this being said, what I did not mimic is Christine’s intense bad attitude. As mentioned previously, Christine enacts the discontentment she feels about her life situation. From her fragmented self-identity, the tenacious persona of Lady Bird emerges. And it isn’t often pretty. She upsets others by depicting herself as a bird head with a human body, and her head on a bird body on posters to become class president. We further see her execute a series of mauvais coups, or wrongdoings, that are referred to in the film as her “performative streak.” A few of her highlights: She lies to friends about where she lives; eats unconsecrated church wafers as though they were chips; steals magazines at the grocery store; vandalizes a teacher’s car; cheats on exams; throws away her math teacher’s gradebook and falsifies her grade; tells someone they should have been aborted; and gets suspended from school. Needless to say, she goes to extremes to rebel against the restrictive grip of Sacramento.

Lady Bird does not just reject where she is from, however. She also rejects aspects of her life that she does not identify with. The act of denying her own given name holds heavy significance here. Christine has become consumed with being in charge of her own life to the point of re-naming herself. We are not informed on the reasons why, or for how long she has chosen to be renamed Lady Bird. All we know is that Christine is uncompromising about being called Lady Bird. Why? Because she cannot yet rise to who she wants to be. Frustrated by being a 17-year-old student with big dreams, living at her parents’ home, she strips away whatever she feels is holding her down. She demands that everyone call her by the name she chose to give herself, because it is one of the only ways to make the image she has of herself into a reality. She affirms her feelings of misplacement and dissatisfaction with her birth name, family, and place. Lady Bird is an act of rebellion rejecting the path laid out for her. Whatever associates her to her parent’s vision is transformed into armor against whom and where she is from.  

To her own fault though, Lady Bird lashes out on the people surrounding her who are often only there to help. The support system that is at her disposal is not the one she wants, nor one she feels truly accepted by. Some people are admittedly quite harsh to her, but they do want what is best for her without exception. When parents, teachers, friends and counselors try to guide her with insights on how the world works—perhaps perceiving how lost in the sauce she is—Lady Bird misunderstands this as them doubting her potential. She refuses to feel such opposition and thus becomes an exaggerated version of herself to prove that she can and will be what she wants. When Lady Bird breaks down while her mother refuses to speak to her after learning she has applied and been accepted to a NYC college, we realize just how much social acceptance means to Christine, and it almost comes as a shock. She does desperately want validation from her community, she does want to feel at home in her town, she does want to make her family proud. It is the fact that she is not receiving what she wants to feel (and that she does not know how to ask for it), that pushes her to spiral into the angry, caged, Lady Bird. Still, Lady Bird is not who Christine truly is. Lady Bird is the protective shield she develops to fight back against the doubts she has harbored about herself. 

This to me is such a compelling realization, because Lady Bird truly appears to be such a self-assured and solid character. She is so convincing about her confidence. Think of it: throughout the film we are subjected to her strength of character. We witness the bold moves she pulls time and time again. She rarely hesitates about her actions or regrets her decisions. Whether we like Lady Bird or not, we are certain that she will make her way. Yet, we don’t even know what she really wants. Meaning that, we don’t know what she wants to become, we don’t know what she wants to study, we don’t even know what she is good at. But we hadn’t thought of that, just as Christine hasn’t. This is something that is so powerful about the characterization in Gerwig’s Lady Bird. The characters are so realistically and strongly built that they entice us into their way of thinking. They make us forget to think about what they deem unimportant, to mirror their mindset. 

Being called Lady Bird gives Christine a sense of agency and support for the completion of her dreams. And on the flipside, not being called Lady Bird diminishes her sense of self, and instead fuels her furious persona all the more. But this persona is simply an illusion. Or rather, a manifestation of her incomplete aspirations. I am able to state this because of the fact that she ultimately drops the name Lady Bird once she moves to New York. She no longer needs to personify an idealized version of herself and protect it from being another dream squashed. Lady Bird was the fuel that got her out, but was not the machine in itself. 

In one of the most crucial scenes in the film, Christine meets with one of her teachers, Sister Sarah Joan. They talk about Lady Bird’s prank on her car, and astonishingly, they share a laugh about it. Lady Bird is forgiven, and they begin discussing a college essay she wrote about Sacramento. I feel that this short but poignant exchange must be read verbatim. Sister Sarah Joan starts:

“I read your college essay. You clearly love Sacramento. -I do? -You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care. -You know, I was just describing it. -Well, it comes across as love. -Sure, I guess I pay attention… -Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love, and attention?”

To me, this is one of the pivotal—if not the pivotal—messages of the film. Love and attention are perhaps one and the same. In this moment of the film, we and Christine are forced to reconsider, well, Lady Bird. What if all the attention Christine had been giving to Sacramento wasn’t actually hatred? What if she appreciated it all along? What if the anger she felt was actually about having to leave it? We come to learn in this instant that Christine most probably really appreciates Sacramento. And conversely, maybe Sacramento appreciates her back.

Let us consider the mise-en-scène for a moment. When we think of it, Christine rarely looks out of place. Sure, her pink hair and cheap early-2000s accessories do not exactly fit right in with Sacramento’s more conservative, cookie-cutter boroughs. In truth, when we look at the costume and makeup design, we can tell that this character is made to stand out. Her magenta cast, short pink hair, layered dark jewelry, and unruly clothes are all meant to catch our eye and provide insight to Lady Bird’s flamboyant personality that does clash against her background. She is definitely meant to protrude from this stylistic perspective. But when considering the composition and cinematography, Lady Bird actually fits in quite well. The composition and lighting of each frame works to her advantage and sets her up as the main focal point. She is not framed as an obstruction to the landscape at all. Rather, the landscape appears to favor her. Films about small towns often establish an imposing composition in which the protagonist appears as a speck in the landscape, unable to make a ripple of effect against the suffocating vastness of their environment. Here though, no such composition exists. Lady Bird always has a picturesque place among Sacramento’s welcoming landscape. In this sense, the film hints at the source of Christine’s malaise not only through its character development, but also through its visuals: her struggle is within herself, not within her surroundings.

In the final scene, Lady Bird calls her parents to essentially share this realization. She leaves them a message thanking them for all they have done for her. She calls herself Christine and takes a moment to address her mom Marion directly. She asks her if she felt emotional the first time she drove through Sacramento, just as she did. Although the sequence is set in New York, important images overlap Christine’s monologue. We see flashbacks of her driving in Sacramento, admiring her surroundings. A beautiful array of everyday scenes of Sacramento are displayed as Christine expresses her appreciation for “all those bends I’ve known my whole life… stores… the whole thing.” These b-roll shots of Christine peacefully driving are intercut with almost identical images of her mother doing the exact same. The continuity of these shifts between Christine and her mother flows so well, that we have the impression that they are almost the same person. The question Chrisine initially asked is answered by the visual unity they share. Her mother surely understands exactly what Christine means. 

In fact, this scene actually recalls one from early-on in the film, where we see Marion commute home from work with a similar tranquil attitude. She seems to find calmness after a stressful shift by looking around, smiling at strangers, and feeling thankful for her surroundings. We know that Marion, too, has elements of her life that she considers to be shortcomings, but finding delight in her everyday is what uplifts her and pushes her forward. Christine’s voicemail becomes a reflection of this sentiment. We can choose to be as frustrated as we want with life, because life is frustrating, but it feels so much better to choose to step back and appreciate what it is offering us.

All in all, the town of Sacramento is constantly narrativized by Lady Bird as a barrier stunting her personal development, happiness, and achievement. It is only in the end, through leaving her hometown, that the role of Sacramento in Christine’s life is revealed as it truly is: formative and comforting. Realizing this fact is what finally allows the protagonist to release her futile combativeness. The continual battle that Lady Bird has waged, with Sacramento as the ultimate antagonist, was actually against herself. What was holding Christine back was not really her small town, but rather her deep-seated sorrow in leaving it, and everyone in it.

What I think is so remarkable about Greta Gerwig’s writing and directing is her ability to capture the preciousness in the mundane—or in what Hollywood deems as mundane. Gerwig reveres what could be seen to others as simple, uneventful, and even pointless. Many friends have told me that they liked the movie, but that they felt the end was dull or disappointing. In fact, if you Google Lady Bird, you will notice that the first question that pops up is: What is the point of Lady Bird? It is fascinating how so many people are asking themselves the same question after watching the film. The point, if one watches carefully, is in every moment of the film. The “ending,” this big reveal that we so often expect—to the point of it becoming a requirement—doesn’t exist in Lady Bird. The point is simply to pay attention. By attributing careful attention to one’s everyday actions, surroundings, and peers, we find the meaning in life. Appreciating the precious moments is all that matters. And perhaps a meaning I take away on a more personal level: We don’t need to move halfway across the world to start being who we truly want to be.

Works Cited

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

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