Lady Bird and Cycles of Abuse

Lady Bird isn’t about a “fraught" or "complex mother-daughter relationship." It’s about maternal abuse.

Movies Features Lady Bird
Lady Bird and Cycles of Abuse

Have you ever walked out of a theater, unsure of how you’re meant to take the story you just watched? Or gone to bed that night, wondering if maybe you’re still seeing things all wrong? Or woken up in the morning to find that nothing has changed? That was me after Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s critically lauded feature debut seems on the surface a semi-familiar coming of age dramedy—but underneath is a film of great, and sometimes scarring, emotional depth. Lady Bird presents a procession of occasionally warm, often harsh teenage experiences that will stick with you, but the thought that stuck with me while leaving that theater was this: I don’t know how I’m meant to perceive the characters of Lady Bird.

When I say this, I’m specifically referring to the relationship between Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Reviews like Paste’s own, by Kyle Turner, dedicate no small amount of column inches to this relationship, focusing on its realism and emotional resonance, neither of which I intend to contest. The conversations and actions of both characters are raw, achingly familiar and often painful to watch. Lady Bird is a film about its title character’s coming-of-age, struggling with self-absorption and selfishness, yes, but it’s also a film about lifelong emotional abuse, and most of that abuse flows straight from Marion in the direction of Lady Bird.

A film about emotionally abusive parents is par for the course in terms of indie drama, right? Powerhouse performances and Oscar bait are built on this kind of thing all the time. But for whatever reason, with Lady Bird, it seems like many film writers assessing the movie have taken a decidedly more generous view of Marion than I would have expected. The pieces I read about Lady Bird refer to its central relationship as simply “difficult,” or describe Marion with adjectives such as extraordinarily frank or well meaning, while avoiding the assignment of blame for behavior that is not only abusive but downright cruel at times. Even this piece, which does an excellent job of questioning the health of the mother-daughter relationship, stops short of using the word “abuse.”

What I’m getting at is this: The characters of Lady Bird are all flawed, but it’s a mistake to simply equate their flaws to one another and act as if everything balances out. Christine has her problems, but psychologically scarring, intentional cruelty isn’t one of them.

Be aware: This post will necessarily contain many spoilers for Lady Bird.

An inability to communicate

The relationship between Marion and Lady Bird is indeed tempestuous, but the best word might be mercurial—it vacillates wildly between warm, supportive, critical and cruel within heartbeats. The film’s opening, with Lady Bird and her mother in the car, makes this perfectly clear. One minute they’re cruising down the road, united in emotion, listening to the end of a John Steinbeck audiobook with tears in their eyes and sobs in their chest, and moments later Marion is dressing down Lady Bird’s intelligence while her daughter deludedly professes a desire to live in a place like New Hampshire, “where writers live in the woods.”

Make no mistake, Lady Bird is naive. Living a life considerably more sheltered than most, and attending a Sacramento, CA Catholic high school in 2002, her knowledge of the outside world is extremely limited, and her romanticisation of other places such as the East Coast is a nigh inevitable result. Director Greta Gerwig highlights Lady Bird’s self-centeredness in her ignorance of the family’s poor financial situation, and of her own father Larry’s (Tracy Letts) struggles with depression, showing we members of the audience that “this girl has a lot to learn.” She wants to attend an expensive, out-of-state school, despite the family having little ability to support her, short of getting a second mortgage. Simultaneously, Lady Bird behaves little better toward her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who is struggling emotionally with a multitude of potential stressors, including an unstable home life and an uncomfortable schoolgirl crush on a young male teacher, before she’s cast aside by a social-ladder-climbing Christine.

Lady Bird’s naivete likewise leads her to repeatedly pursue boys who are inherently wrong for her, while her self-absorption blinds her to the pain of her father and others, such as her depressed drama teacher. Although Lady Bird is an intelligent young woman, her worldview rarely extends outside of her immediate needs or desires. In other words: She behaves like a teenager.

But when confronted with new, important pieces of knowledge, Lady Bird demonstrates an ability to grow and change, to grapple with the realities of her own weaknesses. In one scene late in the film, she overcomes a need to be validated by her school’s popular clique by affirming an unironic appreciation for Dave Matthews, of all things, and then makes a beeline to Julie’s home, where she apologizes for her caddish behavior. She gets past her initial hurt at being “cheated on” by a gay classmate to empathize with and support his extremely difficult situation as a closeted kid in Catholic school.

In particular, she consistently extends lines of communication to Marion, whether or not they’re received. She works alongside her father to figure out how she can potentially afford college, taking some degree of responsibility for the family’s financial situation in the process. By film’s end, she’s by no means “fixed” all of her personal foibles, but one gets the sense that she’s become much more aware of them.

Marion, on the other hand, seems ossified in comparison, stuck in place and unable to change or grow, despite the higher expectations we must place on her as a middle-aged parent rather than a high school student. Niggling little criticisms are her native tongue, and she’s seemingly unable to stop herself. Even when her daughter collects her diploma and graduates high school, her mother’s first comment is that she “walked weird” across the stage. When her daughter picks a dress color, Mom’s immediate reply is something along the lines of “isn’t it a little too pink?” Her instinctive, almost autonomous reaction to any action by her daughter is to instantly and effortlessly undermine it with passive (or active) aggression. Even when something positive happens for Lady Bird, Marion can’t bring herself to simply be happy for her.

lady bird dress (Custom).jpgMarion considers which words would cut her daughter to the bone most efficiently.

Heaven forbid you actually piss the woman off somehow. When Marion learns that Lady Bird has had the audacity to dare apply to a college in New York, her response is to completely sever all lines of communication and acknowledgement between her and her daughter. Imagine you’re a mother, washing dishes, and your teenage daughter is weeping, apologizing, begging and pleading for you to have a conversation with her. Your response is to avert your eyes and keep scrubbing while your daughter whimpers in quiet devastation, building life-long neuroses right next to you. I can’t comprehend any scenario in which you could show the interaction in this scene to a clinical therapist and receive a reply other than “this is abuse.” Is it realistic? It 100% is—realistically abusive.

Despite all that, it’s not as if Lady Bird simply hardens her heart against her mother as a result. Heaven help her, Christine honestly tries to rebuild that relationship. She gives her mother chances, saying goodbye at the window of the car when they get to the airport, asking her mother if she won’t come inside to see her off. Mom refuses. Lady Bird is willing to work at this relationship. She wants her mother’s love. And Marion seemingly wants to be a loving parent as well … as long as it doesn’t compromise her pride in any way.

This last point is made devastatingly clear by the series of notes/letters that Marion attempts to write in order to express her feelings to Lady Bird, none of which she chooses to deliver. Nevertheless, Lady Bird ends up being able to read them, if only because Dad went behind Marion’s back to collect them from the trash and send them. We don’t actually get to read them ourselves in full, but they’re proffered as apologetic in tone. Still, the fact of the matter is that Marion chose not to send those letters.

You don’t get credit for letters you choose not to deliver, any more than you should get credit for a letter you considered (but didn’t) write at all. The question faced by Marion is “Does my daughter deserve this rationalization of my actions, and why I am the way I am?” Her choice was either “no, she doesn’t,” or “no, I can’t bear the thought of looking somehow weak in front of her.” Marion couldn’t swallow her pride. That’s not an endearing quality, and shouldn’t earn sympathy from the audience.

What’s worse is the fact that Marion can’t even be honest with herself for the reasons why she chooses not to deliver the letters—instead, Larry says she was “afraid Lady Bird would criticize the quality of her writing.” Utter BS. Marion knows her daughter well enough to know that this isn’t something she would do, because Lady Bird is nowhere near that petty. But that doesn’t stop her from using her daughter as the excuse for why she can’t apologize to her daughter. It’s always Lady Bird’s fault somehow.

The occasionally tender moments the two share similarly do not absolve Marion. Does the fact that Marion sometimes provides a shoulder to cry on, or takes Lady Bird on an excursion to view expensive homes and forget her troubles, somehow counterbalance refusing to see her daughter to her departure gate, or not speaking to her as punishment for showing any sort of ambition in life? Not any more than occasional kindness can cover up the damage of regular abuse. One does not erase the other.

“My mother was an alcoholic”

There’s exactly one line of dialogue in the film that attempts to offer some kind of rationale for Marion’s abusive behavior. After Lady Bird arrives home one night, her mother seizes upon yet another opportunity to aggressively criticize something around her—in this case the slightly disheveled state of her daughter’s room. Christine’s response is a surprisingly mature one; a misguided attempt to appeal to her mother’s sense of empathy. “Didn’t you ever go to bed without putting your clothes away?” she asks. “And didn’t you wish that your mother could understand that?”

That’s Marion’s cue to unsheath her big line: Her mother was an “abusive alcoholic.” She says those words and leaves the room; conversation over.

Is the audience meant to hear this single line and think, “Ah, so that explains it”? Being a child of abuse may “explain” Marion becoming abusive herself, but it doesn’t take responsibility for the situation.

Worse, this line implies—at least in Marion’s head—that Lady Bird herself is doomed. If “my mom was an abusive alcoholic” causes Marion to be unable to communicate with her daughter, and such a fatal flaw is so inevitably passed on via abuse, then our takeaway must be that Lady Bird will also end up pathologically unable to have a normal relationship with her own children, and will likewise blame her mother, as Marion does. If you don’t assign personal blame and responsibility to Marion, you’re implying that there’s no hope of ever breaking this chain of abuse, and that’s simply too nihilistic for me to accept.

lady bird metcalf and christine (Custom).jpg

Don’t get me wrong—I do believe that on some level, Marion loves her daughter, but the film will make you at least question it, because Marion consistently does things to hurt Lady Bird, despite evidence that Marion understands the impact of her actions. It’s infuriating to see her working at a hospital, casually extending what seems to be genuine empathy to depressed clients, such as Lady Bird’s drama teacher (Stephen Henderson), while simultaneously withholding it from her daughter in the moments when her daughter really, really needs it. Case in point: There’s a moment in which an exceptionally vulnerable Lady Bird asks if her mother actually “likes her.” Marion’s reply is “of course I love you.” Sensing the dodge, Lady Bird restates her actual question: “But do you like me?” Marion flat-out refuses to answer, and the scene ends.

If you love someone, and you care about their mental well-being, and you work every day in the field of mental well-being, then don’t you know enough to protect someone with a lie when they ask, “But do you like me?” Marion must know exactly what her failure to reply is doing to Lady Bird. It’s her job to know.

It comes down to the level of expectations it’s reasonable to have for each character. Lady Bird/Christine is a sheltered, 18-year-old girl lacking in real world life experience. Marion is a middle-aged mother with 20-plus years of parenting under her belt, not to mention an apparent background in counseling. It’s not unreasonable to hold Marion to a significantly higher standard in terms of communication and empathy.

Maybe only because of film convention—the kind of convention influencing a viewer to see Marion as an archetypal “tough parent” who we inevitably know works in her kid’s best interest—do we want to overlook that Marion is abusive. Call it an instance of tropes working against the viewer: Characters like Marion typically redeem themselves, usually in a hug-filled reunion, by movie’s end. We expect that kind of cathartic redemption, even if we know no one deserves it. Lady Bird’s subversions of typical melodramatic, coming-of-age tropes is brilliantly executed, but we can only read Lady Bird succeeding in that way if we acknowledge that Marion is unredeemed.

I still love Lady Bird

Lady Bird is an effective drama. It’s often effective as comedy. And it can be downright devastating as tragedy.

It is tragic that Marion cannot communicate with her daughter in any substantive way. It is tragic that Marion would rather cut her daughter out of her life than humble herself by supporting her or carrying through on her apology letters. It is tragic on some level when Lady Bird eventually drops her “given name” and starts going simply by “Christine” when she reaches New York. The world has stripped some small piece of her agency away.

It was no crazy flight of fancy or narcissism for a girl like Christine to do a thing so small as choose a name for others to call her. It was simply an application of independence, one of the few small units of it she had. But if giving up that bit of herself is all it takes to rise out of the shadow of her mother’s influence and start a new life in New York, then at least there’s still hope for Christine.

lady bird nyc ending (Custom).jpgA wounded but wiser Christine.

At the film’s end, Christine still needs time to become familiar with the newness that surrounds her. She realizes she still has an attachment to California, to her home and to her family, while simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery elsewhere.

She’s even still committed to patching things up with Marion, whether or not her entreaties are returned. In doing so, she has shown herself to be a bigger person than Marion will ever be. Christine will be able to find an equilibrium—to find the people and pursuits that give her life meaning, and thereby breaking a multi-generational chain of abuse. But no evaluation of Lady Bird is complete without the acknowledgement of that abuse in the first place.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can “follow him on Twitter for more film writing.

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