There is something distinctively female about the endeavour to investigate your acutely humiliating adolescence to redeem something out of it. Wasn’t that piece of pop culture, which you liked when you were younger — probably something feminine with a perfect amount of mush — actually iconic? Ahead of its time? Affirming? Greta Gerwig — who's next directorial venture Barbie is releasing this week — has chalked out her urgent preoccupation to be how adolescent girls deal with the burden of contortion till the act is in danger of chipping away at them.
These are girls like Christine Mcpherson (Saoirse Ronan) from Lady Bird (2017), who confides in her mother, “I wish I could live through something”, in the tone of a searing confessional, as she wistfully looks at the Sacramento landscape — with a singular feeling of having outgrown it, or wanting to. It is one thing for ambition, for desire, to bustle within. It is another for it to puncture its way out of you because of the force with which you feel for it, and then you cannot feign indifference. The confession is followed by a disenchanted remark by her mother (Laurie Metcalf): “So yours is the worst life of all, you win.”
There is Amy March (Florence Pugh) from Little Women (2019), an adaptation based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic of the same name, who educates and divulges the context of the gendered economic realities to her future beau, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). Amy is generally considered a misunderstood character in Alcott’s novel due to how she is constantly pitted against Jo March, her older sister and the obvious protagonist who has traditionally resonated with fans of Little Women. In contrast, Amy’s frank ambition to marry rich has often incited admonishment from fans of the book, who compare the younger sister’s aspirations to Jo’s economic ambitions, which prioritise self-reliance and independence. In the film, Amy is at one point questioned about why she would even consider a man with whom she has a significant age gap as a candidate for marriage. With a quiet but intense conviction, she offers an explanation that is absent from the book: “Well, I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don't, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married.” Immediately, we see her in a new light; a light held by Gerwig.
And there is Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — who is known to have been based on Alcott herself. If there ever was a literary character who made her literary ambitions to go to New York City clear, in very loud words, multiple times, to anyone who came at a close range, it’s Jo. Yet she ends up with Professor Bhaer at the end of Alcott’s book, because the publisher did not want an uncoupled heroine for Little Women. In Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation, instead, she writes an alternative ending: Jo becomes an author of the book where the titular character based on her ends up with the Professor, but she herself is spared from that commerce-driven decision. There is a suggestion here of how the act of being perceived, and the act of being scrutinised, are interwoven into each other if you are a woman.
There is a scene in Lady Bird in which Christine is flirting with Kyle Scheible (Chalamet), the cool and popular dude about school. He spouts generally relevant (but situationally irrelevant) nonsense about government surveillance to Christine in a bid for self-importance — and also in a bid to inflict intellectual self-consciousness upon her. He calls her a “good girl” because she doesn’t have a cell phone yet, because the government spies through cell phones. During their courtship, for a brief period of time, Christine contorts herself in pursuit to being ‘cool’, but she can only betray herself to a significant degree: Pretend she lives in a posh house, pretend to find Kyle interesting (or even likeable), pretend she doesn’t like the nun whose car she vandalised on behalf of a popular girl, pretend that she is okay not talking to her best friend whom she has forsaken to hang out with the popular kids.
Suspended in this uncomfortable state of artificiality that is necessary to sustain the act, Christine’s feelings, and convictions, eventually rip through her and her elaborate facade. Kyle lies to her about being a virgin (he’s already slept with six people), just after Christine has lost her virginity to him. “Who the fuck goes on top during their first time?” she shouts, referring to how she was on top while they were having sex. He listens, nestled in one corner of the bed, with a book in his hand, frustratingly nonchalant about the situation. Christine finds affirmation in the very things she has derided — her best friend, the nun whose property she vandalises, as well as the parents she feels ashamed of due to their economic status.
Gerwig’s filmography, through its therapeutic, sorted and introspective quality, wants to take this humiliating process of contortion, inherent in female adolescence in some ways, yank it by its throat, lay bare the act itself clinically, and offer an earnestly reflective story about veering away from it. Through wisdom that can only come retrospectively. Through earnestness — because how else can you affirm something?