“Lady Bird”: Sign of Contradiction

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.’” – Luke 2:34 (NRSV)

“‘Lady Bird’ wouldn’t work if the teenager at its center weren’t utterly lovable” – David Sims, The Atlantic

*

When Moses meets God, he asks the Divine for a name.[1] For us modern readers, it’s a fatuously causal thing to say to the holy of holy huddled up in a shrub. But for most ancient peoples, a name was a kind of ontic summary of a person or a god, a circumscription of their past origins and their present and future purpose. Hence the name Moses in Hebrew comes from the word “to draw out” (mosheh), referring both to his being drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter and to his eventual withdrawing of the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.[2] But the Deity’s, “I am” or “I will be,” name effectively contradicts the knowability of conditioned verbs: there is no completable action, past, present or future; there is only an open, ongoing being. God doesn’t say, “I am so-and-so.” God says, “I am.” According to scholars, this is God’s ultimate self-approval, God’s supremely self-assertive being.[3] It’s the kind of manners only God could get away with.

Or a teenager.

The self-assertiveness of teenagers has gotten a bad rap. Dealing with whirlwinds of questions, ideas, and all the proverbial feels, attempting to navigate the tempestuous climes of appearance and relationships, family and frenemies, they tend to come off to the seasoned majority of us as self-entitled novices of life. But we forget that they are heirs to a crowning humanity and, as far as they are concerned, have been charged with earning their title. Everyone else is mere audience to it.

Arguably no form of teenagedness has been so ill-used as teenage womanhood. It has inherited the thoroughly reductive, scandalously pejorative misnomer “emotional.” It has been given—but has not earned—the equally scurrilous term “hormonal.” I think we all have heard it, that belittling dismissal of impassioned problems, that lack of trust in potent personal conviction, that easy contradiction of avid contradicting.

It seems that over the years many of the audience have forgotten how noble it was, at least privately, to be at the center of life-shaping choices invested with super-charged feelings (those flighty, troublesome hormones). It’s hard for many of us to look back without laughing at the now-exaggerated seeming self-importance and see the very real sense of risk. What was it like to learn for the first time that to say “Yes” is also to say “No,” and vice versa? What was it like to feel the past-present-future hiss at our ventured self-expression? What was it like to know the self-affirmation in our contradictions?

Greta Gerwig seems to me to know. In her very first film as a director—a kind of coming of age for herself—she has answered these questions in the figure of one Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, whose character receives a peculiar grace from the irreplaceable Saoirse Ronan. Gerwig and Ronan have also through “Lady Bird” answered the above misunderstandings of teenage femininity and the “teenage years” in general. They seem to know the personal nobility—that is, the self-affirmed dignity and knowingness—of being contradicting.

Amazingly, Gerwig and Ronan have managed to portray the God-like gall of teenage self-assertiveness—which is the adolescence of the image of God, if you’re of the believing sort.

*

Call me Lady Bird.

From the outset, we know that our young hero has chosen a new name for herself and has demanded those around her—her family, her friends, her school (i.e., her whole community)—to call her by this self-elected name. As many critics have noted more generally of Lady Bird’s character, there are so many ways in which this common act of adolescent meaning-making could have come off as rude or bothersome. But, contrary to the customary responses of her mother, Lady Bird’s many forays into identity and relationship never strike us as insufferable. Far from it.

Her motivation to change her name is understandable, but her performance of it—or, perhaps at times, her pure lack of performance—comes off as quite unique. There is some obvious rebellion to it: when we first meet her, we soon see her in her Catholic school surroundings, stuck in the slow, lifeless file of students dressed in dull sameness to repeat the same prayers and responses in roughly the same dull voice. But through the camera we focus in on this young woman who calls herself by a different name, and see her head tilt in near melodramatic suffering, and watch her eyes roll back almost with a kind of saintliness. She is clearly one who refuses to live in uniform. She will not be another repeated figure. She will “stand out,” as the saying goes.

And yet her deployment of this name serves only to define her relationships, not write them off (although, to be fair, she does try her hand at social exclusion—such are the capricious manners of youth). Unlike the stereotype of the “troubled teen”—misanthropic but alienated, hostile but misunderstood, strong-willed but oh-so-vulnerable—Lady Bird seeks to determine her surroundings, not vandalize them, to better connect with them, not avoid them (even if she hopes someday to “escape” them). A surprising amount of the school scenes involve Lady Bird becoming an active participant in her community. She runs for school president under her fuller name—Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson—and creates an outlandish ad campaign—both possible physiological combinations of a half-lady half-bird individual—that seems specially designed to provoke a response (which it does). In fact, one of the great uses of her self-given name is just this positive provocative element: it reaches beyond attention-getting and strikes up conversation.

See, for instance, the scene in which she tries out for the fall semester musical. The priest-director of the production, reading off her name, asks with a wry smile if this is her “given name,” to which she says, in upright seriousness, “Yeah . . . I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” On the one hand, this smacks of an unearned confidence—it’s the kind of thing only a burning bush could pull off, or else it’s a clumsy emulation of Dickinson in one of her archer moods. But on the other hand, the statement is of a just-being-honest simplicity, a matter-of-fact logic, and ultimately accommodating to the interlocutor’s outside understanding of herself. It is also clear that Lady Bird is most interested in pressing onward to the real business of proving her prowess—in this case, as an actor. Straight through the obvious mimetic thespianism—the hands austerely held behind her back, the flat, almost grave stare—and the naked thrift store sweater—a modern, minimalist approach to your aunt’s Thanksgiving attire—shoots Lady Bird’s direct sincerity.

But the question still remains: why specifically Lady Bird? The choice, admittedly, is curious. A fair number of critics have speculated about the possible “sources” of the name. The most likely references, as I see them, are such:

1)Coccinellidae, AKA “ladybirds,” “ladybugs,” “lady beetles”: a highly proliferated family of beetles, well-known to all post-preschool humans, typically of a reddish hue with black spots on their wing covers.

2) “Lady Bird” (composition): a 1939 jazz standard composed by Tadd Dameron (no relation to Poe). One of the most commonly performed pieces in jazz history. Served as a basis for the lesser known piece, “Lazy Susan”—a name Lady Bird McPherson understandably declined, perhaps for the obvious field-day it would have provided her mother.

3) Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson: wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and thus First Lady of the United States. Famous for her enterprising activities in the office, being the first First Lady to work directly with congress, undertaking an impressive number of civic projects.

So which of these could have provided Christine McPherson with the inspiration to rewrite her title? 1) bears some likelihood, through its sheer universality in the natural world (American or English) and in childhood experience. Plus the more foreign version of this common, under-noticed creature could have proved an ample vehicle for that strong adolescent impulse to be both known and distant. (And isn’t that, in a sense, one of the main modes or stages of adolescence—that esoteric juvenilia, that new version you just don’t get, that personal it you’re not with?)

2) seems to be fairly unlikely, unless the movie isn’t telling us something (or unless I forgot)[4]. Throughout the movie we see Lady Bird engage in a wide variety of music use—there’s splashy Stephen Sondheim; there’s a still Justified (post-Brittney, pre-FutureSex, -LoveSounds, -Trolls-related movies) JT; there’s amateur early ’00s indie rock and the dreaded “Dave” of Matthews—but in no scene do we see her imbibe anything that jives or bebops. In fact, the music that has the greatest influence over Lady Bird—or at least the music that she chooses to have the greatest significance for her situation—is, ironically for most of us, that most infamous single of the now largely disavowed Dave Matthews Band, “Crash into Me,” and this bears as much of a likeness to traditional jazz as Tiny Tim resembles hula music.[5]

In a general thematic sense, 3) may be the most likely, as the figure of Lady Bird Johnson would fulfill the “strong woman” paragon for the self-heroine Lady Bird McPherson. The biggest problem with this, as I see it, is that McPherson never appears to be terribly interested in politics or history—even when she meets the argot mumbling, key terms touting, People’s History twisting Kyle—nor does she aspire to anything approaching studious—quite the opposite, as her mother informs us, and re-reminds her, at the outset. When proclaiming her desire to go to college in the east, Lady Bird refers to Thoreauvian writers as a current reality. When her friend Julie jokes disparagingly about terrorism, Lady Bird’s responds with, “Don’t be a Republican”—hardly a discursive incision. Indeed, Lady Bird seems to inhabit that typical liminal space between lazy and committed, picking what is convenient while she continues her search for what truly concerns her. More than this, Lady Bird is a buff of nothing but the present as it pertains to the future—her future.

The answer, I think, is to be found in that very curiosity of her youthful choice, and not in the specificity of adult questioning. Being still on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird still dwells in that amorphous boundedness of childhood. She is still learning to select her own society, but nothing yet is hard and fast. (As she would say, she does not have any proclivity for history or politics—“that we know of yet.”) Her attraction to the name “Lady Bird” may have a vague, perhaps subliminal, grasp of some historic or cultural significance, but it likely still lives in the fresh sound of the thing. It sounds meaningful. It sounds elegant, but also folksy. It sounds liberated, wild, free. Free and knowing. The fleetest linguistic vehicle to get her to “live through something.”

There is, to be sure, some of the greenest idealism in Lady Bird’s name—she introduces herself (“My name’s Lady Bird”) to Kyle with not a tinge of protective irony. There is also a bit of evasive arrogance in it: that teenager’s whim toward untouchability that parents hope and pray is merely budding self-ownership; that autocratic setting of oneself apart from those servile peers and all their coteries of associations. And certainly by requiring other people to call her by this new name she is usurping the role of parent of herself in relation to others as well—a move that could easily stray into pride or pretentiousness. And finally there is that most common indictment she gets from her family and closest friend, that she is self-centered, and it is hard to deny at least some neutral truth to this claim for anyone with a self-given name.

But as we follow her through what is no doubt her most pivotal year thus far, witnessing her in her most public and private vicissitudes, Lady Bird’s behavior is marked not so much by pride as confidence, not so much by enormity as eagerness. Of all the pretensions she operates under, arguably the biggest one is that she is entitled to radical agency in her life, which implies an eager, if callow, yearning for responsibility. And if she is sometimes self-centered in the negative sense—carelessly taking the hard work of her mother, the forbearance of her father, and the true love of her best friend for granted—she is also thus in the most positive sense. Lady Bird is centered in herself. Her intent is never secondhand: she wants to do the things she does because she, and no one else, wants to do them. And what she wants to do most is to be known—but properly, by herself and others. And that qualitative distinction is the real crux of her progress.

It is from the center of her self that we see Lady Bird choose to know and be known. If she evades, it is to avoid being misunderstood—being reduced to insignificance (hence she resorts to being from “the wrong side of the tracks”) or to risibility (as of a miniscule lower class to her wealthy schoolmates). But there is nothing the least aloof about Lady Bird. She is often the opposite of dismissive toward the other characters around her, no matter their age.[6] Through her name she commands not just address, but also interaction—a determination of relationship that in a way goes beyond mere coolness, or gets too close for it. One need only see her face-forward approach to any situation to tell this. Though she may, when compelled to be passive, slide lazily into that more stereotypical “teenage” eye-rolling, she addresses her interlocutors—from the cool kids to her guidance counselor—with wide, steady eyes, ready for the moment to meet her. And this is her problem.

Or, in a sense, this is the moment’s problem—the stumbling block of the people around her at this stage in life’s way. How can this “girl”—still becoming a woman, just recently a child—have the gall to rename herself? The name “Lady Bird” is a sign of offence, a sign at times for people to reject. Because in requiring everyone to address her by her self-given name, Lady Bird insists that everyone have an inordinate faith in herself. The name is a symbol of an extravagant trust in her choices, a belief that goes beyond the usual support. (It is this same self-trust that we see driving her to apply to schools far outside her grade range—a drive that is rejected with doubt and laughter.) In this name, Christine McPherson has created a new beginning—and while this is something that, in essence, every adolescent does and must do in order to become a fully independent adult, Christine’s leap to “Lady Bird” overshoots the common steps. It’s a leap that looks like a lunge, and loses its balance when it lands.

But it’s to the film’s peculiar credit that Lady Bird never falls. It’s Lady Bird’s particular strength that she maintains her own sense of balance—a kind of clumsy nimbleness that knows how to stumble elegantly. (Perhaps this is one of Greta Gerwig’s most original assets as an artist—whether actor, writer, or director—for in “France Ha” she wielded the same off-beat talent, “like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.”[7])

There are many times in the movie when Lady Bird slips or misses, or is taken down a peg. The first boy she says “I love you” to turns out to love boys. The first boy she gives her “flower” to turns out to be pretty petal-less—and gives her an unwelcome dismal lesson about the frequency of “unspecial sex.” She strays into the usually tiresome teenage seduction toward the cool kids club, and all too easily forsakes her time-tested—and clearly more lovable—companion, Julie. In an effort to impress these soulless peers, she outdoes them in cruelty, vandalizing Sister Sarah Joan’s car—and, in a tangible way, her religious belief and moral authority—with the words, “Just married to Jesus” (and all the appropriately garish, slapdash habiliments). And finally, she consummates her hoped for college freedom with perhaps the most clichéd pratfall of all: having too much to drink at a party, and waking up in the hospital.

But Lady Bird is always quick to recover. Though her first romantic relationship (at least in the movie) ends in a confused sense of betrayal, this is not the end of the relationship per se: Lady Bird has enough composure to see beyond her hurt to how fragile Danny is; and she evinces a sudden, profound openness not only to forgiveness (acceptance in spite of) but to compassion (acceptance because of). Though her ideas of love and love making lose their primrose innocence, she is able to share the experience openly and with equanimity to Julie, thus avoiding the flinching privacy of woundedness; she even finds redemptive humor in her disappointment—voicing a positive preference (“I think I preferred dry-humping”) to Kyle’s neutral-at-best declaration of resignation (“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life”). And if this lively, red-haired Lady Bird does try to clothe herself in other people’s coolness, she soon undresses their meretricious habits to discover the pale truth. She gets out of the car, and goes the way of Dave (Matthews) and finds her way back to Julie—choosing for her prom date the person most mature adults would vote “least likely to regret,” her best friend. And if in a moment of proto-vainglory Lady Bird seeks to deface Sister Sarah Joan’s clerical aegis, she shows that deeper spirit to seek the truth when she’s willing to see the older woman eye-to-eye; she admits not only her wrongdoing, but also the fact that the nun’s faith is more than a compulsory taxonomy—in other words, that Sister Sarah Joan, like Lady Bird, has her own self-committed terms to live by. Indeed, the sister delivers through example an important lesson about all self-confessed symbols (and a memorable one about “love and attention”), and Lady Bird receives it: laughing at the obvious limitations, the unwitting silliness, of applying American matrimonial language to the man Jesus of Nazareth, Sarah Joan states in all seriousness that she has been married to Christ for many, happy years; Lady Bird, with a serene and unsarcastic smile, responds that he must be a lucky guy.

And finally, if Lady Bird does seem to crash the first time she really flies, she makes of the fall such a recovery that it doesn’t turn out as a fall at all. Waking up to a glaring, hovering light, and slowly coming out of boozy purblindness, Lady Bird sits up to see, a few beds across from hers, a boy and his mother. The boy has been injured in the eye somehow, and he holds his hand to his patch; the mother sits closely by, bent over with her arm around him. The image is a mirror of her previous years: child and mother, the past half now whole-seen. Now that she is entirely on her own, she sees her mother’s fuller presence.

I believe this sight is the seed of recognition that, after a second sight, leads to Lady Bird’s acknowledgment of her greatest foreground, her mother. After her awakening, Lady Bird leaves the hospital to wander the nearby streets. She eventually comes across a church, and, approaching the doors like a potential acquaintance, she goes in. She sees indeed a familiar sight—a choir of children singing together—and something spreads across her face. The next we see her she is in the church courtyard, her phone to her ear, leaving a voicemail specifically for her mother. The message is her only speech alone in the movie, but it is also her most communal statement in her life as we know it. It is a daughter giving thanks for her mother, a child’s gratitude for givenness: for love and care and life itself. It is Lady Bird becoming Christine.

In this closing scene, we see Lady Bird resolve the problem of her identity. It is to her credit that she has never placed herself too absolutely on her self-given name—she understands that quotes surround her. But of all the offences she has given (founded or not), the greatest and most unfounded are those she has given to her parents. She has been ashamed of them—asking her dad to drop her off some distance before getting to school, and later lying about her address, in order to avoid revealing her humbler origins—and she has been recalcitrant with their express wishes and concerns—applying schools well outside of their budget, even to the point of subterfuge with her mother. Indeed, the greatest conflict Lady Bird has in the movie is with her mother—their story is of the perpetual giving and taking of offense. Because in her mother Lady Bird finds her most circumscribing relationship. If Christine McPherson is the Tempest, Marion McPherson is the primordial whirlwind. Behind her every act of scrutiny—her quizzical looks and critical glosses—behind all of her anger and exasperation in every heated argument, Marion McPherson is asking her daughter, “And where were you when I made you?”

By seeing her mother’s part in her story—and reading her mother’s story of the both of them in her salvaged letters (the epistles of Marion)—Christine realizes that a certain faith has preceded her own. Before she believed in what she could be, her mother believed that she could be. This is the faith that has borne so much sacrifice—so much money, sure, but so much more that so-called “time and energy,” which is so much life spent caring, worrying, trying, hoping—and it is this faith that bears so much offence at the sign of that name. For the name of “Lady Bird” too often points to the daughter’s careless flight from the nest that took so much of the mother to make.

As many have noticed, it is significant that both daughter and mother have very “Christian” Christian names: Christine and Marion, variations on Christ and Mary. But it is also significant that the film, like Lady Bird, diverges from its sources even as it carries them with it. Like Sister Sarah Joan, it prefers Kierkegaard, the poet of dialectic and becoming, of fraught risk and passionate faith, to the guilty history of Augustine and the vast, cramping system of Aquinas. Like Kierkegaard’s Christ, Christine is a “sign of contradiction,” through her name indirectly declaring herself more than she immediately is.[8] Her name contradicts her contemporaries, who know where she comes from and know (or believe they know) what she is capable of. Like this existential (i.e. fully human and fully God) Christ, she yearns to find her believers: “‘Blessed is he who is not offended at me!’ . . . [Christ’s] joy over the believer is like a human being’s joy over becoming understood, completely understood, by another.”[9]

(LB and SK)

But the film even chooses to contradict—to lovingly part ways with—this formative source. Because unlike Kierkegaard—at least the early and rebellious and fertile (i.e. adolescent) Kierkegaard—“Lady Bird” believes in the potential for direct communication. It believes that people, without irony, without signs—without despair, without “the incognito,” without at last, pseudonyms[10]—that flawed, in-flux people can speak forth from their conditionality and in so doing be more than they are, or were. They can become, be created anew, not only through their ultimate privacy—in which the Wholly Other (God) knows them—but also through their healing relationships—in which another (family, friends) knows them—and crucially through recognition—in which they know themselves. “Lady Bird” puts its faith in the eyes and the mouth.[11]

This is the humanistic, the very positive theological anthropological core of “Lady Bird.” If there is a God in the movie, it is a God of given Grace (or the Grace of givenness): the gift is already planted and nurtured there; we only need to pluck it. The fullest manifestation of that gift is one’s total identity—i.e., one’s particular humanity. All may be in need of healing,[12] but everyone deserves becoming. Through Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, we see the worth of what we no doubt so often ignore. At least in my first viewing, and in my subsequent reflections on the film, so sanguine was this “teenager’s” essential humanity that I found myself trusting in her even as I disagreed with her choices (though I often approved of them too). I believed that deep down she was capable of becoming better, and that, given time, that deeper being would win out. I believed in a person—a very Christian thing, if said person is properly known.

During her first falling flight, Lady Bird drunkenly states, “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.” The statement seems to be half-remonstrance, half-reflection. It seems, perhaps, to be a passing bit of bleary theology. But I believe it is also a confession of sorts. It is a prevenient profession of gratitude, a closer identification with that most Original Name, who speaks new life into being with a couple of words.[13]

(All photos: A24 Films)

Notes

[1] What’s in a name? Well, power, for one thing, but mostly other people’s. We do not choose the names we were given at birth, and not one of us gets to decide the meanings of the dictionary’s worth of names we’ve inherited. Our parents or guardians, if they were thoughtful, may have selected a name for us that circumscribed at least something of our meaning to them at the time, or what they thought or hoped we’d mean to the world in time—the monicker thus wrapping us up in vague or certain moral cerements. If they were considerate, they would at least have chosen names (first or middle) in no way resembling, even through the most garbled reproduction, anything in the verbal families of the crude or fatuous. For nothing besides a nose is more subject to humiliation than a name. In ancient times a name was the way to invoke a presence greater than attention; in modern times it is a social contract we never officially agreed to. If we like it, we are blessed with Abraham. If we don’t, we will enter the wilderness of words to earn a nickname. For the most part, we take them for granted. When someone calls our name, we immediately agree to its power. To refuse in any way would be to contradict more than mere words. To the person calling, such an act would seem nothing short of rebellion.

[2] See Robert Alter’s notes to Exodus 2:10 in his translation of The Five Books of Moses, pp. 313-4.

[3] See The Brown-Drivers-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 218, and also Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, pp. 321-2n.

[4] Likely.

[5] Plus, as the AV Club has noted, besides being period sound-dressing, the (for most) now-detestable song primarily seems to serve the movie’s remarkably forgiving presentation of juvenilia, making the claim that the passing fads will one day lament nevertheless had a profoundly formative, even morally fortifying purpose to our younger selves.

[6] Indeed, even when she petulantly dismisses herself from the car—a locomotive self-jettisoning for the ages—I imagine Lady Bird getting up directly from the ground, slapping the clouds off, and staggering straight toward the now halted, now reversing car—puling louder to an approaching growl—to see just what her mother thought of this terrific stunt and gesture.

[7] Stephanie Zacharek, “Greta Gerwig Stars in Noah Baumbach’s Dating Manual, ‘Frances Ha.’” Village Voice (May 15, 2013).

[8] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton UP, pp. 124-5.

[9] Ibid., p. 78.

[10]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard#Note_on_pseudonyms

[11] In this sense, “Lady Bird’s” anthropology may be more of Kierkegaardian Socratic (or vice versa) than Kierkegaardian “Christian” (maybe), as it prizes the act of recollection (Philosophical Fragments, pp. 9-14) over courageous faith (all of Fear and Trembling) out of existential despair (all of The Sickness unto Death)—at least, it seems to do so at this stage in life’s way.

[12] According to a recent Pastearticle, Marion is the film’s most broken vessel.

[13]yehi ’or = “let there be light.”

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