‘Lady Bird’ isn’t a political film — but the Oscars need it to be
Lady Bird has been part of what the Oscar-industrial complex calls “The Awards Conversation” for so long that we’ve forgotten it doesn’t belong there. That’s not to say that Greta Gerwig’s warm, funny, keenly observed solo directorial debut isn’t deserving of accolades. But let’s look at the facts: We’re talking about a modest dramedy that centers a high schooler whose biggest problem is that she and her mom don’t agree on where she should go to college. Seeing as it neglects to tackle a relevant social issue, restage a historical atrocity or stoke Hollywood nostalgia, the Academy’s affection for this low-stakes story about a teen girl is an anomaly.
I know this because I’ve become an accidental connoisseur of movies like Lady Bird. Since I was younger than Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, I’ve been drawn to the rare coming-of-age films — like The Edge of Seventeen, Sweetie, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Pariah, Stealing Beauty, We Are the Best!, Princess Cyd, and the cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains — that take their teenage heroines seriously without descending into melodrama. Lady Bird’s plot is, in fact, startlingly similar to that of Real Women Have Curves, which launched America Ferrera’s career in 2002. Screenwriter Josefina López has even called Gerwig’s movie the “white version” of her own. A few accolades from film festival juries and critics circles notwithstanding, none of these titles were part of the awards conversation.
So, why Lady Bird, which is not a more original or realistic or affecting film than We Are the Best! or The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Real Women Have Curves? Gerwig’s A-list status, a charming lead performance by Academy favorite Saoirse Ronan, and a savvy marketing campaign surely contributed to its ascendance. But a list of nominees for any major artistic award is a sign of the times, and Lady Bird had something else going for it: the tense conversation we’ve been having since October about women, men, sex and power in the entertainment industry.
In other words, a movie that is as apolitical as any movie for adults can be has been politicized simply because of its story about a relatively empowered young girl was written and directed by a woman. A few weeks after The New York Times dropped its Harvey Weinstein bombshell in the fall of 2017, and just days before Lady Bird hit theaters, New York magazine framed the conversation around the film with an in-depth profile titled “Greta Gerwig Is a Director, Not a Muse.” In December, an essay on “The Sexual Politics of Lady Bird,” published by the centrist think tank New America, began by allowing that “Lady Bird is not a political movie,” before lamenting that its protagonist would grow up to see Donald Trump become president. Its author, Emily Tankin, wrote:
‘Lady Bird’ was made before the first Harvey Weinstein exposé was published. But I like to think that it was not by accident that a film that deals — subtly and with humor, yes, but still deals — with socioeconomic inequality, affirmative action, gay identity and depression and suicidal thoughts also includes, as part of a larger coming-of-age story, a scene in which a woman loses, and tries to reclaim, agency over her own sexual experiences.
At the Golden Globes in January, big wins for Lady Bird, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Big Little Lies and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri were widely understood to be part and parcel of the #MeToo moment. When Oscar nominees were announced, headlines trumpeted the depressing statistic “Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig Becomes Fifth Woman Nominated for Best Director” and proudly proclaimed, “Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird Best Director Nomination Is a Huge Deal.” A few weeks ago, Digg’s L.V. Anderson asked, “Does Lady Bird’s Best Picture Nomination Represent a Breakthrough for Female Directors?”
Meanwhile, art-agnostic Oscar bloggers have posed a more practical question: Do Lady Bird’s female subject and filmmaker make it a likely winner? In a close read of Entertainment Weekly’s Lady Bird Oscar issue cover, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily argued that the idea “that the year of the woman might end with a film written and directed by a woman winning big” is “a narrative that won’t be stopped.” Awards Circuit noted, “The ‘Year of the Woman’ has been very kind to [Lady Bird] and if they’re looking to get behind something, Greta Gerwig’s beloved film could be it.” Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan judged Gerwig unlikely to win the best director race, but didn’t rule her out, either. “Do you remember when Natalie Portman introduced the five ‘all-male nominees’ for best director at the Golden Globes? Of course you do. Oscar voters do, too,” he writes.
It’s not that Lady Bird was the only film by a female director that had a shot at awards this year. Kathryn Bigelow, the sole woman ever to win a directing Oscar, released Detroit to audiences primed by the Black Lives Matter movement for a serious exploration of police violence against the black community, but it came up long on exploitative torture scenes and short on genuine insight into institutional racism. (Its summertime debut also suggests the distributor might have predicted it wouldn’t fare well during awards season.) Dee Rees’ Mudbound, a more humane meditation on race in America, was among the most positively reviewed films of 2017. Its snubs in both the best picture and best director categories were likely due to its release on Netflix. Patty Jenkins’ girl-power blockbuster Wonder Woman had some Oscar buzz, but Warner Bros. failed to mount a convincing campaign for it.
With those movies (and plenty of more obscure features, like Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, Julia Ducournou’s Raw and Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family) out of the running, Lady Bird has become the cause célèbre for everyone who wants women and their stories to take home awards. In a way, that’s encouraging. Gerwig wrote wonderful dialogue and coaxed lovely performances out of her actors. Lady Bird is one of just a few films about a teen girl who isn’t pregnant or abused or raped or murdered or kidnapped or otherwise victimized that the entertainment industry and the public have ever taken seriously as a work of art.
But its absorption into the #MeToo movement doesn’t necessarily reflect a long-term change in Hollywood’s attitude toward works of its ilk. Yes, Lady Bird is a small, relatively apolitical movie by and about women that has benefited from the current political climate. Sure, it’s great that so many people have seen it because of the special awards attention that has been lavished upon it. What remains to be seen is whether its influence on the kinds of films that get made, publicized and respected will linger after the Oscars — and hashtags — of 2018 are forgotten.