Greta Gerwig’s debut foray into directing a film after years of acting and writing resulted in the widely lauded Lady Bird (2017). The film explores the senior year of high school of the titular character, who gives herself the name Lady Bird in rejection of her birth name, Christine. Though the film’s heart comes from an exploration of the mother-daughter relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, this complex maternal dynamic is not the most revealing relationship in the film. Rather, Lady Bird’s two romantic storylines and her friendship with Julie as they coincide with her relationship with the popular Jenna Walton are far more complex from a theoretical standpoint and may reveal why the film was so successful. Teresa De Lauretis writes in “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory,” “most of the terms by which we speak of the construction of the female social subject in cinematic representation bear in their visual form the prefix de- to signal the deconstruction or the destructuring, if not the destruction, of the very thing to be represented.” (De Lauretis 146) Although following a female protagonist deconstructs the patriarchal cinematic ideal of having male leads, Lady Bird is hegemonic in the way Gerwig allows her female subjects to interact with each other and the audience. This hegemony is best represented through Jenna, who becomes an erotic figure for the audience via Lady Bird’s gaze. Despite desiring Jenna platonically, Lady Bird creates the condition for the audience to derive pleasure from looking at Jenna. When considering the way Gerwig uses her directorial touch to suture the audience into Lady Bird’s gaze as viewers follow Lady Bird through the evolution of her aspirations and relationships with Danny, Kyle, Julie, and Jenna, Gerwig’s film is exposed for being patriarchal in her creation of Jenna Walton as erotic object.
As the camera sutures the viewer into Lady Bird’s perspective, Gerwig creates a striking balance between the way her protagonist views her male objects of desire and Jenna Walton. Gerwig then invites a comparison between Lady Bird’s gaze and the male gaze as a vehicle for fantasy. As Laura Mulvey writes in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” (Mulvey 62) The inequality of gendered gazes is exhibited as men retain power by being allowed to look for pleasure at women. Lady Bird reclaims and redefines the gaze in allowing the female protagonist’s gaze to be active in the projection of Lady Bird’s fantastical vision of romance and female friendship. However, Lady Bird’s gaze is first and foremost one of aspiration.
Lady Bird’s aspirations to move beyond her family’s class are best shown when Lady Bird and Julie walk through the forties, a section of Sacramento populated by mansions. Lady Bird and Julie walk in the center of the screen as the camera uses a wide shot to frame them as they pass several houses. In a quiet voiceover the audience hears the pair discussing how pretty the neighborhood is and how much they love it there. After stopping in front of a bright blue mansion with white trim, they discuss how different their lives would be if they lived in a house that could offer Lady Bird a TV room and Julie her own bathroom. This dream house, come to find out, belongs to Danny’s grandmother. After her relationship with Danny falls apart, Lady Bird keeps the blue house as a symbol of her aspirations as proven when she lies to Jenna that she lives in the blue house in an attempt to hide her true financial situation from her new friend. Her lie then proves that Lady Bird both uses this home as a physical symbol of her financial dreams and believes she is not good enough to be friends with Jenna, or not good enough at all, unless she has wealth.
Second to Lady Bird’s aspirational gaze is her romantic gaze, which is most strongly defined when she first encounters Kyle. A slow zoom on Kyle establishes him as a romantic interest while the matching slow zoom on Lady Bird shows her reaction to Kyle. She makes her interest in this bassist known as she gives a soft smile, narrows her eyes, and nods her head slightly off-beat to the music as though she is saying yes to Kyle rather than dancing a small dance. The viewer is clear that although Lady Bird is still with Danny, Kyle will become a presence with import. Kyle’s introduction is distinctive in the way he is shot, giving his character more power in the narrative than Lady Bird’s other interests. Lady Bird’s gaze here is active, evidence of Gerwig’s deconstructing of the male active gaze à la Mulvey. As is true throughout the film, Lady Bird is the one doing the desiring. This moment is different because her desire is sexual. Female sexual desire is often ignored in favor of male sexual desire, and cinematically female sexual desire is often punished should it exist.
During the peak of Lady Bird’s sexual exploration when she is deflowered by Kyle, Gerwig does not fully complete her deconstruction as she allows Lady Bird to be punished for her sexual exploration. The scene is paradoxical: during her deflowering, Lady Bird is framed through a series of close-ups and medium-close-ups, and she is open to the camera. Kyle is afforded less screen time and his face is often obscured when he is shown. In this block of the scene, Gerwig asserts that Lady Bird’s sexuality is the driving force of the interaction, thereby rejecting the male gaze. However, when the sex comes to an abrupt end after Kyle climaxes, Lady Bird gets a nosebleed. Again, Kyle is not shown as she deals with this new development. Because of how the sequence of events unfold in conjunction with the close framing of Lady Bird, Gerwig has implied that the nosebleed is punishment for Lady Bird’s sexuality. Gerwig’s punishing of Lady Bird reveals her most blatant adherence to traditional male cinematic views on female sexuality. The nuances of Lady Bird’s gaze are far more subtle, and reveal gender bias through close observation rather than richly colored blood running down a recently sexually active face.
While Kyle’s slow zoom introduction forces him to stand out, Danny and Jenna are introduced far more similarly. Both Danny’s and Jenna’s introductions begin wide and cut closer and closer. Danny’s introduction as he sings his audition song for Merrily We Roll Along is intercut with Lady Bird’s reaction. Lady Bird gawks at Danny and shares a knowing look with Julie as he sings, thus clearly revealing Lady Bird’s interest in her first romantic fling. Lady Bird’s initial interaction involving Jenna also occurs between Lady Bird and Julie, though Julie is much more a key player here. As the camera cuts closer and closer to Jenna, Lady Bird and Julie fixate on how pretty Jenna is, why she is so pretty, and how they, too, can be as pretty. The closeness of the camera to Jenna emphasizes Lady Bird’s desires to get closer to and be like Jenna. However, Lady Bird has a romantic fixation on Danny. While her preoccupation with Jenna is born out of a desire for Jenna’s life and wealth more than sexual attraction, Lady Bird nonetheless creates a fantasy involving Jenna’s presence in her life. Gerwig then uses the apparatus to heighten the tension between Lady Bird and Jenna as the scenes are constructed with consideration for how Lady Bird’s gaze interacts with all objects of desire.
Both Danny and Jenna are separately involved in plausibly realistic yet fantastical scenes with Lady Bird, and both interactions formally mimic the sequence in which Lady Bird and Julie are desiring the homes in the forties. As Danny and Lady Bird frolic through a rose garden, the shallow depth of field keeps the viewer focused on the two subjects of the frames while also softening the setting to give the garden a mystical quality. Voiceovers again parallel the voiceovers used as Lady Bird and Julie comment on the houses, but here Lady Bird and Danny discuss Marion, thereby breaking from the theme of using voiceover to indicate Lady Bird’s desires. However, the dreamy setting and delicate framing make clear that this sequence is meant to embrace Lady Bird’s fantasies. Lady Bird’s sequence with Jenna does not take on the same ethereal, pastel qualities of her sequence with Danny. Rather, the color palette is brighter and vaguely tropical to match the swimming pool, palm trees, and cabana as the pair swim at Jenna’s house. Underwater shots as they dive and twist through the water add to the otherworldly feel of the scene. Here, voiceover is again used to express the desires of both Lady Bird and Jenna. Lady Bird hopes to leave Sacramento; Jenna hopes to stay. While the scene with Danny emphasizes his and Lady Bird’s innocent and romanticized fling, the scene with Jenna emphasizes Lady Bird’s aspirations to move beyond her class. Jenna, by contrast, does not have the same financial aspirations because she is already in a higher class. There is little room for Jenna to move up, but Lady Bird wants nothing more than reach the class in which Jenna comfortably resides.
Among her peers, Lady Bird has four distinct relationships: her relatively innocent romantic relationship with Danny, her sexual relationship with Kyle, her long-lasting friendship with Julie, and her brief venture with Jenna. Lady Bird’s friendship with Julie, the only relationship established before the start of the film, is constant through the film except when Lady Bird becomes close to Jenna. Julie supports Lady Bird through her romance with Danny, and even develops a minor romance of her own with one of Danny’s friends, though Julie’s infatuation with Mr. Bruno certainly takes precedence. After Lady Bird and Julie catch Danny kissing Julie’s beau, the audience sees the friends rush out of the men’s room shot with a shaky, handheld camera to increase the tension of the incident. Lady Bird and Julie then attempt to heal their wounds by lying down in a car, crying and listening to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.” The overhead shot that allows the girls to fill the frame emphasizes how close they are both physically and emotionally. Moreover, this shot mirrors that of the sequence in which Lady Bird and Julie eat unconsecrated communion wafers and discuss masturbation. The similarities between the framing of these two moments bond Lady Bird and Julie, showing that their friendship can be both goofy and heartfelt.
Lady Bird inserts herself in Kyle’s circle by first befriending Jenna. Although Lady Bird’s fascination with Jenna is founded on her ideals of wealth and popularity in conjunction with Jenna’s desirability among men, she only explores an inclusion in Jenna’s life when she believes it will bring her closer to Kyle. While Jenna is first established as an aspirational figure for Lady Bird, Jenna is secondly established as a romantic role model. After Kyle’s band finishes performing their Thanksgiving show, Kyle exits the stage to see Jenna and her boyfriend. Given Lady Bird’s previous gaze on Kyle, this shot is presumed to be about Kyle. However, Jenna and her boyfriend take up much more of the frame, therefore implying that Lady Bird is more focused on the couple than her future love interest. After seeing Jenna’s boyfriend hug Jenna close, Lady Bird hugs and kisses Danny as though she needed visual permission from Jenna that physicality is allowed. Lady Bird’s gaze on Jenna rather than Kyle coupled with her mimicking Jenna’s actions then confirm that Jenna, much like the blue house, is a physical manifestation of Lady Bird’s fantasy.
Because of Jenna’s, and subsequently Lady Bird’s, rejection of Julie, Julie is then not a strong presence in Lady Bird’s life during Lady Bird’s sexual conquest in the film. Indeed, Julie’s disappearance is heightened by Lady Bird’s deeper mimicking of Jenna as Lady Bird begins tying her pony tail with a ribbon just as Jenna and her other, unnamed friend do. Gerwig then creates tension between female friendship and sexual relationships by keeping the two separate. This tension results in the prohibition of a female community to be formed in spite of Lady Bird’s attending an all-girls school and her being constantly surrounded by women. Judith Mayne writes in “Female Authorship Reconsidered,” “Female friendship acquires a resistant function in the way that it exerts a pressure against the supposed ‘natural’ laws of heterosexual romance.” (Mayne 103) She continues on classical Hollywood narrative structure, “communities of women may be central, but boy still meets girl.” (Mayne 103) Although these thoughts were written in response to Dorothy Arzner’s films, Lady Bird nonetheless corroborates Mayne’s argument, thus proving the longevity of the heteronormative relationship in cinema. Lady Bird’s friendship with Julie resists sexual romance, but is not immune to heterosexual romance on a basic level. By contrast, Lady Bird’s friendship with Jenna is designed to completely support a heterosexual, sexual relationship. Gerwig then prizes “boy meets girl” over female communities, but does not necessarily prize boyfriends over Lady Bird’s friendship.
The film’s and Lady Bird’s gaze on Jenna then becomes more intense than Lady Bird’s gaze on her romantic interests. Mulvey writes, “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium….” (Mulvey 63) Although a male protagonist’s gaze is typically turning a female character into an erotic object for both himself and his audience, Lady Bird’s gaze deconstructs Mulvey’s argument. Lady Bird does not make Jenna an erotic object for herself given that her gaze on Jenna is largely aspirational. However, her desires nonetheless allow for the audience to have a desirous gaze that could translate into an erotic gaze. Both Julie and Lady Bird’s initial gaze on Jenna is defined by her looks and their reaction to and desire for her. Jenna is then someone to be desired, an erotic presence for the audience of Lady Bird despite Lady Bird’s desire for Jenna being born out of hope. The only way in which Gerwig’s use of Jenna differs from what Mulvey discusses is that Jenna is pleasurable for a female protagonist rather than a male protagonist. Though Lady Bird’s gaze on Jenna certainly has homoerotic tendencies, their relationship relies more on homosocialism. Their relationship builds through shared hang-out experiences, such as swimming together, rather than through sexual energy. Lady Bird’s gaze is not scopophilic as she derives pleasure from means other than looking; moreover, Jenna is not her erotic fixation. However, Lady Bird creates the conditions for the audience’s gaze to become scopophilic. Lady Bird’s yearning for Jenna’s life may be construed by male audience members as permission for them to yearn for Jenna as an object. Therefore, Lady Bird’s and Gerwig’s female gaze mean little for the direction of the film because their gazes are deployed similarly to the patriarchal expectation of gaze.
Many directors and screenwriters who exist on the margins are praised for achievements they have not necessarily achieved. In Gerwig’s case, she as the author has been praised for being a feminist filmmaker and for making strides towards a more diverse film industry. Gerwig has not proven herself to be a feminist filmmaker. The confusion about feminist filmmaking comes from the term’s linguistic vagueness. As B. Ruby Rich writes in her essay “The Crisis of Naming In Feminist Film Criticism,” “…our only name, ‘feminist,’ is one with little critical attachment to the work, describing instead the context of social and political activity whence that work sprung more often than the actual text of any given film.” (Rich pdf 2) Given the term’s evaluation of an era rather than the film itself, Gerwig’s release of Lady Bird as it coincides with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements certainly contribute to the film’s and Gerwig’s being labeled as feminist. Indeed, women making films is an inherently feminist act in its rejection of patriarchal standards. However, because of Gerwig’s transference of the male gaze onto Lady Bird’s gaze towards Jenna in conjunction with a lack of any strong feminist themes, Lady Bird is not a feminist film by any criteria other than its being directed by a woman.
One of the dangers of this labeling is that, as exposed by Gabrielle Kelly in “From Hollywood to Indiewood to Chinawood,” “[because] women directors…[are] so few in number, each becomes perceived as representative of all women.” (Kelly 115) What Kelly argues is not unique to women directors; this statement applies to any underrepresented group in the film industry. Because Gerwig fell prey to patriarchal cinematic tradition, her film not only continued to represent women as erotic objects but also did not benefit from having a female director. A fallacy of film direction is that having diverse directors automatically makes the films they produce immune to the pitfalls of patriarchy. Rather, because of the difficulty in breaking free from the patriarchal world in which everyone has been raised, directing a film with little to no evidence of a fixation on masculinity can affect everyone regardless of gender. Therefore, Lady Bird was so highly lauded at awards ceremonies, by critics, and in mainstream culture because Gerwig contributed to the patriarchal expectations of how films are to be constructed. Rather than deconstruct, Gerwig added another film to the male gaze canon.
DeLauretis, Teresa. “Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. New York: NYU Press, 1999.
Mayne, Judith. “Female Authorship Reconsidered.” The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Rich, Ruby B. “The Crisis of Naming in Feminist Film Criticism.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. New York: NYU Press, 1999.
Kelly, Gabrielle. “From Hollywood to Indiewood to Chinawood.” Celluloid Ceiling: Women Directors Breaking Through. Twickenham: Supernova Books, 2014.