Lessons in loving: masculinity and tears in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’

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.

***

Past the romantic love of fresh-faced boys, the older male role models in Lady Bird’s life create a framework of deeper understanding. Between her father, Larry McPherson, and her drama teacher, Father Leviatch, Lady Bird is gently confronted with the difficulties of depression, loneliness, the mundane struggles of money and having – and keeping – a job. In The Will to Change, bell hooks explains the importance of welcoming men into an ideal society. She explores patriarchal expectations, and highlights how toxic masculinity is also harmful for men.When new stories for women are being told, it’s vital to include an array of different voices. “Militant feminism gave women permission to unleash their rage and hatred at men”, hooks writes, “but it did not allow us to talk about what it meant to love men in patriarchal culture.” It’s this tentative experience that Gerwig explores in Lady Bird: the experience of discovering one’s own values as a young woman, exploring how varying forms of love, for and from men, shape this growth.

And Lady Bird sure does love. Her first boyfriend Danny is charming, kind-hearted and shares his dreams with her. He’s taking French at school so he can one day go to Disneyland. He respects her too much to touch her breasts. Why? Because, as he timidly admits, he loves her. And she loves him too. In the production notes for the film, Gerwig explains why it’s so easy for Lady Bird to fall for Danny: “Lady Bird loves love and is looking for an object to project that onto, and Danny is a good object. He’s the kind of boyfriend you dream your daughter brings home.” The idea of enjoying the concept of love as its own entity tends to be associated with male protagonists in traditional rom-com narratives, looking for the perfect girl to provide the happiness they’ve been lacking. It’s often a young man who turns to crooning pop songs and classic movies, idolising stories of love to be adored as just that; projections of this feeling as a fully-fledged concept in its own right. In Lady Bird’s case, her relationship with Danny reverses this conventional gender dynamic as she takes the lead in crafting a perfect romance with this boy to best suit her dreams; from play-fighting in a rose garden to a late-night first for them both when they share their first kiss.

Soon after, Lady Bird’s troubled family life tempers her overflowing emotions. Her parents sit at the kitchen table and work out their finances. “Your father doesn’t have a job. He lost his job”, Marion tells her daughter, after she notices Lady Bird giddily sneaking up to her bedroom. It’s in this moment that the nature of parents as imperfect role models becomes clear to her. Her perfect relationship with Danny soon runs into difficulties too. After a successful opening night of the school play, she walks in on her boyfriend kissing another boy. “Oh my God” are the only words she can find – and the scene cuts to an emotional and immersive moment between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie. They deal with the shock and betrayal by holding hands, crying and listening to Dave Matthews Band. She strikes Danny’s name straight off the wall, with an uneven mark-through in the same black felt tip.

After losing her first love, Lady Bird starts to learn about lust instead through her encounters with the school’s rockstar heartthrob (and potential replacement for Danny), Kyle. Just as she did with Danny, Lady Bird approaches Kyle first.  She starts by telling him that she likes his band and he corrects her pronunciation of its French name – “L’Enfance Nue”. He lets Lady Bird talk at him, for him, and effortlessly lets her love him. This conversation is all it takes – ‘KYLE’ has made it onto the wall. On Lady Bird’s first impressions of Kyle, Gerwig specifies in the stage directions that “she understands all R&B songs in one second. It’s true lust.” Now in her second term of senior year, Kyle represents a shift towards the person that Lady Bird thinks she wants to be. He’s politically wary and aware – he anticipates the technological overturn of the world and warns her about the government using mobile phones as tracking devices. He reads A People’s History of the United States and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. It’s a lot, perhaps too much, and certainly miles away from the earnest and unassuming Danny. He might not be as nice, but after the demise of Lady Bird’s first love and at the beginning of the new future she envisions for herself, Kyle is exactly what she wants.

When Danny comes to visit Lady Bird at the coffee shop she’s reluctant to let him back in. But in his apology, the tangible struggle of his repressed feelings come to life. Torn up by his newly admitted sexuality and the expectations that have been placed on him, Danny soon breaks down. In this moment, Lady Bird comes face to face with the kind of struggle faced by the men in her life. “Learning to wear a mask is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity a boy learns”, hooks says, “He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviours sexism defines as male.” Danny’s confession highlights the difficulties of male friendship. Lady Bird has Julie, her best friend who she feels comfortable with, who she can say anything to – but Danny doesn’t have this (as far as we see). He, like a lot of young men, is contained and self-critical, in line with a restrained model of male relationships that doesn’t necessarily allow as much candour or trust as female friendships like Lady Bird and Julie’s. As Danny begins to apologise to Lady Bird for betraying her, he quickly unravels. He asks her not to tell anyone what she saw and says that he needs time to figure out how to tell his parents. On these last words he chokes, and Lady Bird strokes his hair as he begins to sob. She holds him, comforts him and promises she won’t tell anyone. She enables Danny to express his emotions and escape his feelings of shame, giving him the confidence to share his thoughts and feelings. In this moment, she sets him free.

This scene is followed by Father Leviatch opening up to Marion about his own depression. Lady Bird’s drama teacher was last seen in class, winning the ‘First Person to Cry’ game he initiated as an acting exercise. It took him only four seconds to start crying, gasping “I’m sorry” to his onlooking students. Later, Marion asks him whether he has a support system and he doesn’t even know what that means. Father Leviatch doesn’t have anyone that he can talk to. He then apologies for expressing his distress at all. “Please don’t tell your daughter”, he asks Lady Bird’s mother. Of course she won’t. Mirroring the previous confession, it shows how these men struggle to come to terms with their biggest insecurities, skirting fears of shame and acceptance. The way that Lady Bird’s friends and lovers hide their own worries shows that patriarchal expectations don’t make life any easier for men, either. “Is dad depressed?” Lady Bird asks her mum after finding a bottle of pills in the bathroom cupboard. She doesn’t confront him directly and his struggles are only shown by the words he doesn’t say, rather than an open explanation of what hurts the most. But despite his mental health struggles, Larry never stops trying to be a good father to Lady Bird. In his 2014 book ‘Do Fathers Matter?’ Paul Raeburn discusses the importance of dads and their influence on their children’s happiness. He explains how the time that a father spends with his daughter can influence the way she approaches sex, and her own self-confidence. Larry drives Lady Bird to school and carefully delivers her birthday cupcake on a plate that says “You Are Special Today”. He mediates mother-daughter arguments where he can, and looks out for who Lady Bird goes to prom with. With a father providing such a nice, unobtrusive presence, her confidence in approaching her first time with Kyle seems to make sense. “I’m ready to have sex!” she gleefully whispers.

Although Kyle isn’t a nice guy, even he’s given more nuance and made into a little more than the ‘bad’ pretentious lover. He and Lady Bird have sex – it’s a pretty unsexy encounter and Kyle barely touches her. Nine seconds later, he raises his arms in a ridiculously regal manner. He’s already done. “We deflowered each other!”, Lady Bird gushes next – but it turns out that Kyle wasn’t being entirely honest when he told her that he was a virgin too. “I’ve probably slept with, like… six people?”. It’s possible that he’s not telling the truth, but for someone who so openly discusses intimacy and casually encourages everyone to flirt with him, his disdain for Lady Bird’s biggest milestone reveals his struggle to accept and give love. And by this point Lady Bird knows when she’s been wronged. “I was on top! Who the fuck is on top their first time!”

Kyle doesn’t exactly redeem himself to earn boyfriend of the year by the time they go to prom together. He decides that he’s too cool for prom and at first Lady Bird goes along with it. But when ‘Crash Into Me’ comes onto the radio – the same song she used to cry over Danny and bond with Julie this reminds her of what she’s learnt and what she loves. She asks Kyle to drive her to Julie’s house and he agrees straight away. Kyle isn’t a monster – he’s a normal teenage boy. He has too many of his own insecurities to spend his life ruining someone else’s. From the way he talks (even he can’t make “hella tight” seem casual) to his fast disillusionment with most conversations that don’t address a post 9/11 anxiety (“different things can be sad”, Lady Bird tries to tell him, “it’s not all war!”), Kyle’s day-to-day attitude reflects a clear disconnect in his emotional makeup. He lets slip that his father is dying of cancer without talking about what really scares him. The books he reads and music he listens to are mentioned as reference points, with no clear insight as to what it is about them that he really enjoys. When he talks about sex it’s only in numbers, and he just nods when Lady Bird realises she deserves better than him. In Lady Bird’s story, he plays his part but doesn’t take over. He drives her to see Julie. They’ve made their peace. “It turns out I prefer dry humping”, Lady Bird tells Julie when she arrives at the ‘Eternal Flame’ themed dance.

Lady Bird finds peace with Danny too. When he performs as Prospero in the school production of the Tempest, she watches him, beaming from the audience. After graduation, Danny makes an appearance at the McPhersons’ celebratory dinner. “I miss you guys”, he tells them, before asking about Lady Bird’s college applications. In this, Danny shows the care that has been part of the relationship he had with Lady Bird all along. Gerwig highlights that although their romantic love wasn’t real, their connection is still strong: “[Danny] wishes he could be her perfect boyfriend. But he ends up being her perfect friend.”

***

At her first college party in New York Lady Bird introduces herself as Christine (“It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one,” she later tells her parents on the phone) to a boy she meets. Everything in their interaction points to the foundations the men in her life have given her and the things that she’s learned about herself through them. She shakes hands, and the boy, David, comments on this – but Kyle already pointed this out, long ago. Drunk and somewhat dissatisfied with their conversation, Lady Bird leans out of a window and screams to the skies: “Bruce!” she beckons – it’s the name of the star she shared with Danny.

In this new world, the one she’s always dreamt of, Lady Bird blooms. She’s a passionate, confusing and self-determined woman by the end of the film. There was never any doubt about her confidence in getting there, but the impact of the men who were on the journey with her is undeniable. Without ever losing sight of her own goals, Lady Bird learns from her lovers, friends, family and male characters who, in this instance, help develop her narrative as well as their own. In this story, the lives of these men exist and grow within her orbit. Earlier, we see Lady Bird packing up her bedroom in Sacramento. She takes down posters, photographs, laying the memories of childhood to rest before her departure to New York. In one frame, the two halves of her young heart say goodbye. A white paint stroke to the right and one back to the left. The two crossed-out names in indelible, black felt-tip are gone.

Originally published on Another Gaze

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *