In indelible black felt tip, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson writes a name onto her light pink bedroom wall: ‘DANNY’. Thirteen minutes into Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird (2018), this coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in her final year of school gives way to the inevitable – a crush, first love, the real deal. Over the course of the film, Lady Bird falls in love not once but twice, discovering what it means to love another person and how to better love yourself. These boys, Danny and his successor Kyle, are firmly based in reality. Loveable and desirable, too good and not good enough, their contradictions make them essential to Lady Bird’s own growing pains.
Gerwig gives us a portrait of a young girl in a genre of movies so often populated by boys’ stories. The film succeeds in both showing the subtleties of her character as a young woman and in giving real detail to the characters who surround her. Her relationship with her mother, Marion, confrontational and at times messy, is at the centre of the film, but it’s also the case that in romance and in friendship Lady Bird learns from the men in her life. Although there’s obviously no shortage of complex male characters in film and literature (and still, in many ways, a distinct lack of their female counterparts, as the hype around Lady Bird as an novel example for young women shows), what makes Gerwig’s depiction of Danny, Kyle and the others interesting is that they are consistently considered through Lady Bird, their stories satellite to her own.
This is a reversal of the typical coming-of-age narrative, in which female characters are often accessories, tools for male self-discovery. In more subtle ways, Gerwig shows how patriarchal ideology is bad for men too: they suffer due to these expectations and an inability to express their feelings. And, like Lady Bird, these men are loveable and trustworthy because they’re imperfect; the antithesis of the brooding, strong-jawed masculinity that haunts our screens – they cry, they’re annoying, they hurt. They are the kind of men that we recognise from our own lives too.
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