THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


All the Young Women

Lady Bird and shifting representations of teenage girlhood

by Lisa Borst

Illustration by Isabelle Rea

published December 1, 2017


content warning: sexual assault/harassment

 

There’s a subplot in Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed new movie, Lady Bird, in which the titular protagonist’s best friend yearns after the math teacher at her Catholic high school. In return, the older man heaps praise upon her for her skills in trigonometry, her commendable work ethic. One night he comes to see her perform in a musical. Like much of the film, the scenes between the two characters are banter-y, funny, and relatively realistic, infused with a warmth and slight awkwardness that feel true to life. I liked Lady Bird quite a bit, but I watched the scenes between Jenna and her math teacher on the edge of my seat—and then with surprisingly intense relief when it was revealed that the math teacher was in a committed marriage, that he seemed to just really respect Jenna as a student.  

Gerwig’s film—her first as both writer and director—is the most recent in a robust tradition of coming-of-age movies about cool, independent teenage girls, a tradition unified by a shared adherence to certain aesthetic and narrative tropes. Usually the main characters of these movies are sort of, for lack of a better word, alternative—they wear patched army jackets or, like Lady Bird, have dyed their hair—and have to negotiate high school life without the armor of social popularity. They generally take place in the suburban US (Lady Bird is set in Gerwig’s real-life hometown of Sacramento, which the main character refers to as “the Midwest of California”); the protagonists are mostly white and usually straight, although there exists a very sweet subgenre of cool-queer-girl coming-of-age films too. A lot of these films have killer soundtracks.

I have long had a soft spot for movies like this. As a teenager especially, I loved 10 Things I Hate About You, Sixteen Candles, Ghost World, Heathers, Freaks and Geeks. These films (and TV show) offered exaggerated, narratively tidy maps with which to navigate the dramas of adolescent girlhood, the mundanities of high school life—and none more than what was, for me, the ur-text of the genre: Juno.

Juno came out in 2007, when I was 12. For me, and, I suspect, for many people my age, the film was enormously influential. The smart, funny, grungy protagonist felt like an older sister to me, someone in whose image I could mold myself. The music in the film—Belle and Sebastian, the Kinks, the Velvet Underground—laid the groundwork for what I’d listen to for years afterward. Phrases from the film’s dialogue crept into my middle-school vocabulary.

I re-watched Juno recently. It’s a little embarrassing now: the rose-toned, Moldy Peaches-soundtracked scenes, which had once filled me with hope about what being a teenager could look like, now seemed precious, overdone, and manufactured to make adolescent viewers like seventh-grade me want to go out and buy quirky hamburger phones or, more cynically, abstain from abortion. But I was also struck by an element of the film I hadn’t remembered from my repeated viewings in middle and high school: the tense, creepy relationship between Juno (Ellen Page) and the adult Mark (Jason Bateman), who, along with his wife, has decided to adopt Juno’s baby. In the film, the two characters, probably 20 years apart, bond over a shared interest in music. Pregnant and 16, Juno starts to drive over to the couple’s house while only Mark is home, and together they watch slasher films and listen to Sonic Youth. They never sleep together, but the dynamic between them feels undeniably predatory.

How had I forgotten? Juno is far from the only film in the cool-teen-girl genre to present this kind of relationship as one among many normal aspects of adolescence. Toward the end of Ghost World, Steve Buscemi sleeps with one of the film’s just-out-of-high-school protagonists. Almost Famous, another favorite, revolves around a teenage groupie who’s left her life behind to follow around a rock band and sleep with its grown-up members. And then there are the movies whose creepy adult-teen sexual dynamics horribly mirror real-life ones: for years, to sound more grown-up, I told people my favorite movie was American Beauty. I mean, I even loved Manhattan!  If Louis C.K.’s disastrous I Love You, Daddy had somehow presaged the present onslaught of sexual assault allegations and come out when I was in high school, I probably would have loved that too, in that uncritical way we consume bad media made by people whose other works have spoken to us. 

In the weeks since its theatrical release, Lady Bird has been widely praised for its realism, especially in its depiction of a mother and daughter’s relationship with each other and with class. And much of the film does feel very true to reality, at least for a specific slice of white, lower-middle-class suburban adolescent life: not much really happens in the film—over the course of the 2002-2003 school year, Lady Bird applies to college (despite not having much money, she dreams of going to school in New York, or at least “in Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods”), fights with her mother, dates a nice boy who turns out to be gay and a punk boy who turns out to be a jerk—but the writing is sharp and funny and there is realism, too, in the absence of much drama. 

And maybe that’s what troubled me so much about what I saw as the threatened student-teacher relationship in the film: it feels very plausible that those scenes could have taken a darker, creepier turn and still been realistic, that—despite the surprise with which recent and highly visible allegations of sexual assault have been publicly met—this kind of thing is built into the realities of many young women. When I watched Juno once with my mom, I remembered recently, she paused on a scene in which Ellen Page and Jason Bateman slow-dance together to Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” to tell me that, when she was 14 years old, the adult lead singer of Mott the Hoople had tried to sleep with her after a concert.

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Next week, Juno will turn 10. The week after that, the citizens of Alabama will likely vote into the US Senate a twice-disgraced Republican judge who has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct with minors. It’s no coincidence, I think, that a number of the allegations against Roy Moore—and much of the press surrounding those allegations—have centered around the site of the mall, that widely acknowledged locus of adolescence.

As the New Yorker reported last week, conflicting accounts suggest that Moore was likely banned from Alabama’s Gadsden Mall in the 1980s in response to inappropriate behavior toward a number of teenage girls who worked and shopped there. Building on the Washington Post’s reporting on allegations against Moore by four women (the number has since grown to nine), who have all said that Moore tried to date them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers, the New Yorker suggests that many residents of Moore’s hometown of Gadsden were aware that Moore spent a lot of time at the mall. And according to one source, the Gadsden Mall, in the early 1980s, was “the place to be. There were no empty stores. And lots of kids came around. Lots of teenagers. You went there to see and be seen.” 

One young woman, who worked at the mall as a Santa’s helper, told the Washington Post that an adult Moore approached her at the mall when she was 14, and then, when she was 16, asked her out on a date, which her mother forbade. Another former resident of Gadsden told the New Yorker that in the ’80s, for his teenage friends, a movie theater near the mall was a hangout spot. He remembers a movie theater employee telling his friends that “some older guy had been trying to pick up younger girls” outside the theater. “They didn’t go beyond that but one of the concession workers whispered to us later that it was Roy Moore he was talking about.” 

These allegations, of course, come alongside the widely publicized accusations that Moore, in 1979, exchanged phone numbers with then-14-year-old Leigh Corfman outside a child custody hearing, then picked her up from her mother’s home, took her to his home, and molested her—a felony in the state of Alabama—and that in 1977, he picked up then-16-year-old Beverly Young Nelson from her restaurant job, signed her high school yearbook, and sexually assaulted her in his car. 

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Yearbooks, the mall, the movie theater: these, as much as pink-dyed hair and college applications, are the familiar tropes and codes of adolescence, the metonyms of school-year nostalgia and suburban sprawl that we expect to see in movies like Lady Bird or Juno, and I hate thinking about the young Alabamian women whose relationships with these tropes were so conditioned by the desires of a powerful man. But perhaps that’s always, at some scale, true of spaces like the mall or the movies, which are at once important sites for identity formation and for the production of a certain kind of adolescent subject whose entry into adult sexuality is contingent upon and codependent with her participation in a consumer economy. This participation is never quite unmediated by the interests of powerful men: a mall, it almost goes without saying, is a fundamentally top-down operation designed to maximize profits from teenagers (largely girls) while moderated by wealthy adults (largely men). Consider, for example, that once-ubiquitous genre of “mall rock,” which reached its height in the mid-2000s, the same time Lady Bird takes place. Aping and sugarcoating many of the styles and aesthetics of youth-driven, DIY, and often explicitly feminist punk and emo music of the 1990s, the pop-punk that you might remember hearing over Hot Topic speakers or at Vans Warped Tour (recently cancelled after a 20-year run, amid allegations of sexual assault against a number of performers) was always a corporate attempt to manipulate the tastes and buying patterns of young consumers, and it’s no surprise that toxic masculinity was central to the workings of this music from its inception. 

But if one facet of a culture of sexual assault is its reliance upon the manipulation of an adolescent female subject in the name of market interests, then a contingent effect is the making and remaking of an image of girlhood so abstract and pliable as to constitute not just market but commodity. Rethinking a movie like Juno, I’m led to wonder who it was really for when it was released 10 years ago—whether it was ever targeting a Juno-aged audience or something closer to a Jason Bateman demographic. What is the point, really, of the unsettling, half-formed relationship between the teenage Juno and the adult Mark? Part of why this tertiary plot point totally escaped my memory is that it’s not, in the end, all that necessary for the film. More than developing the character of Juno or moving the narrative along, what the scenes between Mark and Juno really do is make the film’s vision of adolescent femininity palatable and familiar to male viewers. (While I was writing this, a friend reminded me that the demographic among whom HBO’s Girls was by far the most popular was middle-aged males.) 

What’s refreshing about Lady Bird, then, is how relatively unmoderated it feels by the kinds of top-down interests that produce and regulate the adolescent space of the mall, how unencumbered it feels from a male directorial or spectatorial gaze. It’s certainly not of the breed of ultra-low-budget mumblecore film that brought Gerwig to prominence as an actor and writer in the mid-2000s, but it does feel small-scale and autobiographical, and that is, I think, what lends the film its realism and believability. In that way I think it’s a stronger movie than something like Frances Ha or Mistress America, those Noah Baumbach-directed films in which Gerwig is in front of the camera instead of behind it, and which can thus never quite avoid being about the real-life romance between Baumbach and Gerwig—which is to say, about the camera’s desire for its female subject. 

It feels trite and recycled to say, in the contemporary midst of what writer Claire Dederer calls the “the free-fall pig-pile of the #MeToo campaign,” that what’s needed now are more movies made by women, more music made by people who aren’t men, more political or cultural power afforded to people who fall outside of the white male subjectivity that unites Baumbach and Jason Reitman—the director of Juno—with Roy Moore and Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. But certainly there is something about Lady Bird that has resonated in the present moment. The critical conversation surrounding the film has been nothing less than gushing: A.O. Scott called it “perfect,” Richard Brody “exquisite.” (That these critics are both middle-aged men should not escape our attention.) This past week, Lady Bird beat out Toy Story 2 to hold the record for “longest unspoiled streak of positive reviews” on Rotten Tomatoes, making it, by one definition, the best-reviewed film of all time. In response, film critic Guy Lodge wrote in the Guardian on Tuesday that it’s no wonder Gerwig’s movie has resonated so strongly with critics at the current moment: the film, along with “speaking generously to the ‘just getting by’ belt of America that rarely sees itself on screen,” also effectively “counters the crisis of gender representation now coming to a head in Hollywood. That makes it tacitly a film for the moment, a modest cinematic antidote to Trump culture.”

This is timely praise of a sort we maybe haven’t seen since the release of Moonlight, another film toward which critics turned (rightly, I think) as a reparative amelioration of certain election-season anxieties last fall. And it may be true that at a moment when adolescent girlhood is regarded more as a potential object of creepiness or predation than on its own complex and multiple terms, there’s something particularly comforting about a film that sweetly, carefully depicts adolescent femininity—and even adolescent sexuality—outside of the leering gaze of older men. But I’m not actually convinced that Lady Bird, for all its realism and charm, is all that revolutionary in its resistance of any sort of representational crisis or culture of sexual assault. Sure, the math teacher passively cuts short his flirtation with Jenna. But that the bar for resistance could be that low—that just the absence of monstrosity could constitute any sort of reparation or critique—is pretty disappointing. 

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I wondered, for a while, what those girls at the Gadsden Mall were doing when the man who is now a US Senate candidate approached them: whether they were selling shoes or shopping for records, buying Bibles at Books-a-Million or playing with the drum kits at Guitar Center. Maybe, since it was the ’80s, some of them went to the Gadsden Mall to see Sixteen Candles at the movie theater nearby.

But it doesn’t really matter what brought these girls to the mall. I realized I was trying to determine whether the teenage objects of Roy Moore’s lechery were aligned with Veronica or with the Heathers, whether they were more like Juno or more like the normie girls who tease her in chemistry class. Ultimately, what’s so insidious about a culture of sexual assault—what it seems like some kind of mainstream zeitgeist is just starting to reflect—is that it does not discriminate; it does not slow down or speed up in any deference to what you wear or what kinds of music you listen to. But even if Moore’s victims were standing outside a showing of Lady Bird instead of Sixteen Candles, and even if they were allowed to be whole people as opposed to Heathers or Veronicas, and even if they didn’t conform to the normative vision of race and class that these movies often present as though it were the full spectrum of girlhood—even then, they would still be subject to the same predation.

LISA BORST B’17.5 still loves Freaks and Geeks.