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The Sexual Politics of 'Lady Bird'

Photo: A24 / Everett

Lady Bird is not a political movie. It tells the story of a lower-middle-class student in her last year of high school, in 2002—a particularly fraught political moment in recent American history, what with the hanging-chad election of George W. Bush, the aftermath of 9/11, and the prelude to the war in Iraq—and how this student grapples with family, friendship, and her own identity. It is presented as a coming-of-age story, one that cannot be summed up in any slogan or scene.

That said, Lady Bird is composed of scenes, one of which replayed in my mind this week, as America barreled into the third month of headlines and allegations about men sexually harassing and assaulting women.

The scene—spoiler alert—comes in the second half of the movie. The titular character (played by Saoirse Ronan), is thinking, as young people are wont to do, about sex—having it, not having it, wondering when they’ll have it—and the concept of virginity—having it, losing it, considering it a sort of gauzy dividing line between girlhood and womanhood. She is in bed with Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), her second boyfriend of the film. She had previously said that she was a virgin; he had previously said that he was, too. They have sex. She marvels at how they were both each other’s firsts (“We have each other’s flowers,” she coos). He tells her that he was not, in fact, a virgin. She yells at him. He reminds her that there are people dying at war (this line elicited laughter at the viewing I was at). She yells back that things can be not about war but still be sad. She asks if they are still going to prom together. She gets in her mother’s car and cries. Viewers get the sense that her mother’s talk about condoms did not prepare her for this. Lady Bird moves on with her life. We move on with the movie. Later, she tells a friend that she prefers dry humping to sex.

That scene, at once darkly funny and heartbreaking, is not about sexual harassment or sexual assault or rape, but still, somehow, about sex and manipulation, and sex and power, and sex as it is considered by some: a game, one girls seem set up to lose. That scene, too, is about agency over one’s own body, and the thousand subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which that is taken from girls and women. It isn’t followed up by the character writing a diaristic think piece or a counter-think piece, or by a protest or a movement. But it is there, all the same, in the course of the character’s life, waiting to be dealt with, or not.

And, I thought of how, if Lady Bird—or Christine, as she calls herself again, once she goes to college—were really a high-school senior in 2002, then she would be in her early 30s in 2017. She would have likely encountered, in that decade and a half, several other men who thought, in personal and professional settings, that her body was theirs to look at and touch and use, in one way or another, without asking, or under conditions to which she never agreed. It would not matter in which city Lady Bird lives or what field she enters, or whether or not she actually ends up making enough money to pay her parents back for raising her, as she threatens to do in one scene. She would have learned how to navigate her body as a woman in the world—walking to work and at work and after work—because she would have had to.

Fifteen years after Lady Bird yelled at her second boyfriend for having sex with her under false pretenses, hers would be a president whom at least 20 women have accused of sexual assault, and for whom 53 percent of white women voters voted, anyway. Maybe she would think, in this strange moment, of her second boyfriend senior year, who took what he wanted with a kiss and a lie. Or, maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d have moved too far on in her life.

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.

That, too, the movie seems to say with more authority and sincerity than a take or tweet could ever muster, is part of coming of age for many girls and women. Coming to know that there are those in the world who would, maliciously or otherwise, manipulate our bodies and what we do with them. Coming to understand how to yell at them that they were wrong. Coming to determine whom to trust and tell (Lady Bird does not tell her mother, at least not in a conversation to which the audience is privy). Coming to the realization that virginity is a construct, not an identity. Coming to whatever relationship we want to come to about sex and sexuality, all the while learning that there are those who would dictate what that relationship is.

Coming to the sad admission that the first line of this essay is a lie, because to be a woman, and any number of other identities, in America is, and always has been, political.

Author:

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.