When watching Moonrise Kingdom recently my partner noted how much the character of Suzi reminded her of me. She said she could image that if I had been cis I would have been like her when I was twelve. Suzi loves music, her cat, and loves to read. She is also rebellious and has trouble behaving and fitting in. She's a misfit. So like me in many ways.
That conversation reminded me of my first viewing of Lady Bird. After watching the trailer, I bought tickets for the first ever public screening of the movie. This is because my absolute favorite genre of film is independent drama/comedies with a female protagonist. Plus I love Greta Gerwig's writing and actress Saoirse Ronan. Because we were the first to see Lady Bird, we even got to take marketing surveys.
Lady Bird tells the story of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, a high school student growing up in Sacramento, California where she attends an all-girl Catholic school. While she dreams of one day moving away to somewhere exciting like New York City, her family's money struggles make this unlikely. This is only one source of conflict between Lady Bird and her mother, a nurse who is constantly working hard to provide for the family. The film follows Lady Bird as she navigates her senior year of high school and a deteriorating relationship with her mother.
Even on first viewing, I loved Lady Bird. It was the movie that let me, for a brief moment, get a glimpse of what my teenage years would have been like had my chromosomes not screwed me over. The character of Lady Bird is much like teenage me in so many ways that watching it was almost eerie. I grew up in the boring town of Augusta, GA and dreamed of one day moving away to somewhere more exciting. During my teen years my family was struggling with money and I was often in conflict with my own mother. Beyond that, Lady Bird's own personality, her style of teenage rebellion, and the way she handles school, dating, friends, and family was quite remarkably similar to how I was during those tumultuous years. As a transgender woman who never got to experience my teens as a girl, Lady Bird gave me a glimpse into what that might have looked like had I been cis.
When we first meet Lady Bird she's in the middle of an on-going argument with her mom about college. The two had just finished a visit to check out the nearby State school where tuition will be affordable for the cash-strapped family. This is abhorrent to Lady Bird. None of this is what she wants. She wants to go to public school instead of Catholic school. And she wants nothing more than to be done with high school so she can get out of her boring hometown and go somewhere exciting.
One of my most common arguments with my parents involved my religious schooling. I wanted nothing more than to go to public school like regular people did. My senior year was filled, not with bittersweet nostalgia like so many of my classmates, but with an incessant itch to get the heck out of high school so I could leave "Disgusta," Georgia and could go somewhere more exciting. For Lady Bird it was New York and its culture, and for me it was Athens, Georgia and its music scene.
The movie kicks off at the beginning of the school year, Lady Bird's senior year. She has been sent to the principal's office in response to her campaign for student council president. A perennial losing candidate, Lady Bird's campaign is mostly a way to show off her weirdness so she can stand apart from the other students. Her campaign posters are bizarre and I can't help but be reminded of my own weird student council runs. Like Lady Bird, I often found myself in the principal's office to explain my not-quite-against-the-rules antics. While my posters didn't consist of googly eyed lady birds or birds with human heads, they did have drawings of winged bowling balls and penguins dancing with spoons.
Being a teenager is really hard. What makes is even harder is that no one tells you how to do it. When you're slightly weird and don't fit in well the other kids can be brutally merciless. You can either emulate the popular kids and aspire to be one of them, you can be hopelessly out of touch with cool, or you can rebel against everything popular and embrace your weird side. You can forge your own identity that says to the popular kids "You're not so great. I don't even want to sit at your lunch table." You feel like you have nothing but your own weirdness to set you apart so you embrace it as a way to cope. Lady Bird portrayed this perfectly.
Of course Lady Bird, like all teens, is not immune to the allure of popularity. When her brash attitude and penchant for getting in trouble catch the eye of the school's richest, prettiest, most popular girl, Lady Bird takes the opportunity to lie about her family's income so she can work her way into the popular crowd. Ultimately though, she realizes that she doesn't feel at home with the popular kids and rejects them, preferring to go back to her true best friend back in the unpopular camp.
Lady Bird is, like many a frustrated teenager, rebellious. But she's not a bad kid either. We see her shoplift a magazine, smoke cloves, cigarettes, and pot, and drink. She also steals a teacher's grade book to help cheat in math class. She lies, she fights with her parents, but she's not really bad. They're all pretty normal teen actives. What I most loved about this was that Greta Gerwig managed to capture just the right level of rebelliousness and badassery.
Like Lady Bird, I wasn't a bad kid, though I did rebel plenty. But it was also mostly in normal teenage ways. I smoked cigarettes and cloves (it was the Nineties, cloves were a thing), drank but not too often, cheated in school but not too often, fought with my parents, and the only drug I ever touched was pot. It's so rare that a film captures just the right level of teenage rebellion. So often teenage rebels are depicted as truly bad kids who live to break every rule. But most teens aren't like that. Lady Bird is realistically badass. She rebels not because she's bad, but because she's frustrated by rules, by her parents, by her own struggles with school, and by her family's working class situation.
Money is something that's always on the mind of Lady Bird's mom. And she never lets Lady Bird forget that the family is on a budget and having trouble making ends meet. The family's economic situation is a constant source of tension. Her mom won't let Lady Bird go to an East Coast school because local schools are more affordable. Lady Bird's mom has taken it upon herself to be the disciplinarian and hard ass in the family, something she does with loads of guilt-inducing, passive aggressive comments about Lady Bird's work ethic, appearance, habits, and friends.
As I grew up in a family that was struggling with money, I find this easily relatable. My own mom took on the exact same role and never let up with passive aggressive criticisms or attempts to make my sister and I feel guilty about every little failing. I knew well what it was to feel out of place and rejected by my peers because my family didn't have a lot of money. Like Lady Bird's family, we shopped at thrift shops, drove older cars, and lived with a mom who never let us forget how much she was always sacrificing for us (whether we asked for it or not).
When Lady Bird does finally get to college, her dad gives her a gift that lets her realize, perhaps for the first time, that her mom really loves her but didn't know how to show it in a way that Lady Bird understood. Ultimately, as I grew up, I came to realize that my own mother wasn't the horrible person I thought she was. She loved me in her own way but was in a difficult place herself and unable to show it well. I was able to come out to my mother and she has accepted me as her daughter. And I think that Lady Bird, once she grows up, would be able to have a similarly improved relationship with her mom.