The Unknown Known: On Privilege in Lady Bird

“I always had a sense of ‘it’s not enough’ or ‘I’m not right,’ of not wearing the right things. Particularly for girls, they attach a lot of their self worth to their family’s economic situation, because they judge each other on how much they spent on their clothes. With Lady Bird, it’s also that she has so much, and she can’t see what she has.”

– Greta Gerwig, for Indiewire

“The more particular you make something, the more universal it becomes.”

– Greta Gerwig, for America Magazine

* * *

In February 2002, shortly before the action of Lady Bird begins, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld introduced America to the Johari window. Originally created as a personality inventory that compared self-perception to the perceptions of others, its four-part taxonomy had migrated into the intelligence community through slightly different vocabulary:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

Rumsfeld was fumfering over the nonexistent threat of WMDs that served as pretext for the invasion of Iraq. But, as cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has famously pointed out, Rumsfeld’s list contains a glaring omission, the “unknown known,” the common sense of how things work that everyone else seems to know, but that we have either not yet discovered or, more tellingly, have tried to disavow.

In criticism, we love the unknown known. In the original Johari window structure, it corresponds most closely to the “blind spot,” a version of the subject that the subject cannot see for themselves, that demands the disclosure of someone else. At its most benign, we refer to what we do through the visual metaphor of “constructing a lens,” as though, in somewhat ableist fashion, we’re just helping the subject see themselves more clearly. But this metaphor elides the considerable violence that the consequent disclosure can sometimes have for the “blind” subject, and the considerable difficulties in not only crafting a lens that is free of distortion itself, but that really does serve to bring the world back into a just and helpful proportion – that eliminates a blind spot – without thoroughly damaging the person.

Watching Lady Bird feels like a visit to an ophthalmologist, running you through such a succession of different lenses that it can feel a bit disorienting, even if the lenses are more or less the same, varying only in magnifying quality and degree of resulting clarity. The goggles we’re given are designed to illuminate varieties of human sadness, but presented as a disarrayed mass of melancholy that director Greta Gerwig sharply demands we anatomize ourselves. Which is sadder: a parent dying of cancer, or surviving an alcoholic mother? Parents who kick you out of the house, or losing a son to potentially suicidal drug abuse? Body image issues, financial precarity, sexual predation, or global war? Which helps you to see better? One, or two? One, or three?

In certain corners of the internet where angels fear to tread, such thought experiments are denigrated as “Oppression Olympics,” an identity politics rooted in antagonism rather than in coalition and recognition of mutual difference. The presumption, of course, is that the utopian multicultural Dream of the 90s can be accomplished without all of the ookiness of testifying to individual anguish – that the chief product of such testimony is merely guilt on the part of those fortunate enough to be suffering less. But the point of such an exercise is not to declare a winner and be done with it. Rather, weighing our sorrows together should help us better recognize their different etiologies, to reveal to us not only our oppressions, but our (perhaps not inconsiderable) privileges.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) has no idea how good she has it, uttering the thesis of her particular kind of suffering, and also her particular privilege, in the film’s opening minutes. “I wish I could live through something,” she laments, gazing out the window as her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) drives them back to Sacramento. For Marion, struggling to make ends meet as a nurse while her husband wrestles with depression and unemployment, her daughter’s anguish is ridiculous: “Okay fine,” she scoffs, “yours is the worst life of all, you win,” thus inaugurating the first of many confrontations between them. But as an opening ceremony for the Oppression Olympics, Gerwig invites us to view her creation for both her sincerity and her uninformed ridiculousness. We know, and Gerwig knows we know, how much Lady Bird doesn’t know. Looking to justify her pain, she pitches herself out of the moving car.

One of the hallmarks of privilege, particularly of whiteness, is the ability to view one’s identity as inherently protean. Be the best you can be. Dye your hair. Give yourself a new name. Sure, maybe you have to lie a little, telling the rich kids you live in the swanky part of town, but hey, maybe someday you will! The fewer aspects of your identity determined by the prejudices of others, the easier it becomes to see yourself in any number of possible alternative lives, roads not yet taken, even when one’s reach exceeds one’s grasp. For Lady Bird, this means realizing her own manifest destiny of eastward migration, making it big in the big city at a big-ticket college. Maybe she should join Math Olympiad, to strengthen her application. “But math isn’t something that you are terribly strong in?” offers Sister Sarah-Joan (Lois Smith). “That we know of yet,” insists Lady Bird.

Her hunger for a new plot drives her to the theater, a daffy high school take on Sondheim’s most miserable musical about adult anguish. Instead of a lead role, and despite already having her own stage name, she is shunted to the chorus. Little matter that her best friend Julie (the adorable Beanie Feldstein), an affable softspoken nerd far outclassed in conventional beauty, snags the “romantic” lead; that role, and the opportunity to romance strapping charmer Danny (Lucas Hedges) was supposed to be hers. “It’s probably my only shot at that, you know?” Julie observes as Lady bird crosses her given name off the list – Christine McPherson – and storms off.

Fine. Maybe she’s more suited for a romance, anyway. Her first kiss with Danny goes off remarkably well after the fall dance, even if his desire that she teach him how to curl his hair – “very 70s, like Jim Morrison” – and his love of Disneyland and his French and his Giants in the Sky and his shell necklace all signify very pointedly for the Millennial gays in the crowd. Lady Bird has no idea what kind of heartbreak she’s in for when she finds him in a bathroom stall after opening night, making out with another boy, even though he “respects her too much” to fondle her on a starlit date night. Desperate to talk to her again, Danny’s paranoia reads as brooding to Lady Bird, who eventually calls him out with a massive “You’re gay!” that immediately breaks his façade. “Can you not tell anyone please? It’s going to be bad and I just need a little bit of time to figure out how I’m going to tell my mom and dad.” Confronted with his despair, Lady Bird hugs him and apologizes.

A sex comedy, then, with a twist of Pygmalion. Magnetized to her next boyfriend, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) by unbearable erotic longing, Lady Bird glosses over his patent absurdity, conspiracy theories delivered in monotone about cell phones the government will implant in your brain. As their relationship intensifies, Lady Bird finds herself committed enough to suggest they lose their virginities together, a moment that she “just wanted to special” even as it comes off awkwardly both for him (he lasts all of sixteen seconds) and for her (she gets a nosebleed). In the afterglow, Kyle admits what we have already suspected: Lady Bird is not his first time – there are maybe… six? He’s not sure. She is stunned, and Kyle replies by evoking ever increasing scales of misery (perspective is so important): “You’re going to have so much un-special sex in your life. Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since invasion in Iraq started?”

Lady Bird, finally, loses it, giving us not the thesis of her own life, but that of the film: “Shut up! Shut up! Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.” Kyle knows this, though, and she knows he knows it: downstairs, his father is wrapped in five sweaters dying of cancer – she’ll see the obituary the day she gets accepted to her New York school. And by this point, regardless of what Lady Bird has learned, Gerwig expects us to understand that sadness is the lingua franca of adulthood. Take Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the priest directing the musical, who leads the cast in a game of “first one to cry wins” to get them in touch with their emotions. The camera circles the young faces for mere seconds as a sob begins offscreen. Naturally, it’s Leviatch himself, who apologizes awkwardly. Tormented by the premature death of his son by drug overdose, he eventually admits himself to Marion’s hospital, begging her during his admit interview not to tell her daughter anything.

Of course she won’t. Because even if sadness is common currency for adult experience, and crucial to Lady Bird’s growth as a person, the adults in her life have some pretty maladaptive strategies for disclosing it. Her father Larry (Tracy Letts) just wants to see her feelings spared, and while his protective impulses allow for a much more apparently nourishing relationship than she has with her mother, Lady Bird’s obliviousness to his – and the family’s – financial uncertainty repeatedly comes across as cruel. Only after she discovers his antidepressants in the medicine cabinet does she stop to consider what exactly she has asked of him, culminating in refinancing the house to further her education. Her relationship with her adopted older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) is rooted in antagonism, as she lets slip that she believes the only reason he got into Berkeley, rather than her own consolation prize of UC Davis, was affirmative action (“I didn’t put down my race!” “I’m sure they had no idea, Miguel!”).

Marion, however, is the most attuned to such microaggressions in Lady Bird’s world, though politeness usually obliges her to couch her criticism in the vague threats of passive aggressive needling. Keeping detailed account of exactly how many privileges she has worked to assure for Lady Bird, including the school she finds so detestable (“Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High, is that what you want?”), she finds herself at a loss to explain Lady Bird’s snobbishness, which reads to her as lack of gratitude. But their recent financial instability has calcified into a warped lens of its own. Many of Marion’s barbs are couched in the language of worth and value – “You’re not even worth state tuition, Christine,” “That’s something rich people do. We are not rich people,” “I don’t know what your rich friends do…” – and that does not escape Lady Bird’s notice. During their knock-down drag-out after she is suspended for talking back to an anti-abortion activist, Lady Bird rears up to strike, thinking she can land the master stroke: “You give me a number for how much it cost to raise me, and I’m going to get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I never have to speak to you again.” Her mom’s response is caustic, a doubt that she can ever get a job good enough to do that.”

The tragedy of their relationship, the tragedy of Lady Bird’s privilege, is that the person best suited to communicate its contours to her can neither see why Lady Bird cannot grasp it for herself and only gives her direct testimony in moments of profound rage. Yet as difficult as the year in their lives is, Gerwig gives us just enough not to write Marion off as a monster. “My mother was an abusive alcoholic,” she deadpans before closing Lady Bird’s door one night, leaving her to pick up her clothes. And, to console her mysteriously sobbing daughter after picking her up from Kyle’s house (post-coitus), she suggests they do their “favorite Sunday activity”: posing as a wealthy mother and daughter and touring open houses around the city. The scene is blissful, an admission that Marion, too, has dreams – it occurs, though, in perfect silence, highlighting the disconnect between Lady Bird’s investment in a possible future and Marion’s despair over unrealized social mobility. The camera lingers on her face, dejected in a massive kitchen, as her daughter beams in the next room.

At the beginning of the movie, before that first fight, Lady Bird and her mother share a similar moment of grace, tears silently falling down their faces, as they listen to the end of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Lady Bird’s reading of the novel is superficial; she wants to live through something, like Rose-of-Sharon Joad, whose growth from selfish dreamer to empathetic mother culminates in a radical act of giving – she turns from the stillborn corpse of her baby to offer her breast to a starving fellow migrant. No one can want to live through such a deliberate horror, Marion scoffs with reason. Living through it isn’t the point. Everyone is always living through something, even if it’s not the stuff of American epic. Life itself is cobbled from so much linguistic bric-a-brac and insult. There’s a whole world of pain inaugurated in Lady Bird’s casual joke to Danny, later repeated to Marion, that she comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.”

Lady Bird is a film of almost unbearable privilege – almost. While it would be easy to write off Gerwig for not fully investigating the lives of the many substantially more oppressed characters at its edges, such a critique misses the work that she set out to accomplish: to chronicle what it feels like to first feel oneself decentered. We are supposed to be smarter than Lady Bird, to know more than she knows, to see her privilege for what it is and be just as impatient that she grow up. But we are also supposed to remember what those first forays into empathy feel like and the enactment of the ideal feminist consequence of recognizing privilege: to acknowledge the invisible calculus that we use in making ethical decisions on a day-to-day basis, as well as the forces that conspire to render such mental and social gymnastics invisible, and to determine what we bring to the table to offer to those in greater need than ourselves.

Gerwig also knows her limits. Created by a writer-director with deep ties to the indie elite, beginning with her early improvisational work among the largely white mumblecore movement as spearheaded by Joe Swanberg and continuing through her apprenticeship (and romantic attachment) to chronicler of bourgeois malaise, Noah Baumbach, Lady Bird is the result of one woman’s lengthy induction into a corner of the entertainment landscape that has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its failure to attend to diversity. As Swanberg himself admitted in an interview with Vice, on the subject of his Netflix serial “Easy,” “It’s just easier [for me] to tell stories about white people who were my same age and going through the things that I am going through like that comes naturally and I don’t have to think about that […T]his isn’t born out of any hatred or prejudice, it’s just born out of laziness.” Swanberg’s anxiety, while a bit too dismissive of actual prejudice in the industry, reflects a broader insecurity among white artists about the kinds of stories available to tell in 2018, how to testify to experiences that often marginalize while opening up spaces for marginalized storytellers themselves.

But consider Julie, abandoned by Lady Bird for the cool kids. Her substantial troubles, in fact, barely register before Lady Bird’s intense egotism for the majority of the movie. Her own mother’s rocky relationship with a handsome but insubstantial “uncle,” her body image issues, the quiet intensity of her crush on her supportive math teacher and the hideousness of her realization that he is already married (with one on the way) on the very night of her big debut – these moments briefly scintillate before us as we wait for Lady Bird to take some notice of the girl she calls her best friend. When Lady Bird finally does return, abandoning Kyle to collect Julie as her prom date, she finds her at home, crying for what seems like no reason: “I’m just crying – some people aren’t built happy, you know?” she explains. Julie is Lady Bird’s slightly more miserable doppelgänger; she doesn’t have the money to go to college, she’ll spend her summer hanging out with her real dad who hopefully won’t hate her. And in Julie, Gerwig gives us a firmer sense of the couple of swerves that might have made Lady Bird a little less entitled, even as she comes to comprehend the scope of that entitlement.

Or, more significantly, consider the abortive letters Larry packs into Lady Bird’s suitcase, the scraps of legal pad paper that Marion agonized over to break her silent treatment of her daughter and finally, fully, disclose her sadness in direct fashion. Of course she couldn’t – if pain weren’t painful, it would have substantially less value. Larry swears Lady Bird to secrecy, knowing that Marion would be furious if she ever found out her daughter had gotten ahold of these insights. The flashes we get onscreen are suggestive, intimations that Marion wants to spare Christine the anguish she suffered because of her mother, that Christine’s birth was perhaps not planned, that she understands the difficulty of wanting more. But there they are: the broken fragments of a lens like so many others, with no one but Christine McPherson to put them into a coherent form.

It seems especially telling that, when she wakes up in a hospital after having her stomach pumped for drinking too much at her first college party, the first thing she sees is a child whose vision is literally impaired, with a giant beige patch over his eye, holding his mother’s hand.

So – does the film go far enough? In many ways, I think this yearning for more speaks more to expectations about what movies deserve critical attention and acclaim in 2018 rather than what I take to be the content of the film itself. But it’s unusual to see a coming-of-age story that is about recognizing the value of other people in one’s life, rather than about finding one’s own place in the world. Lady Bird knows, at the end of the movie, no more about her future than she did at the beginning. But she has learned how to compare sadnesses, how to apologize, and how to pay attention to things other than herself. And from our vantage point, in America in 2018, the vocabulary for recognizing and describing different forms of privilege is infinitely more robust than where it was in 2002. Even if it is what feels, for most Millennials, like a history of the recent past, the world in which Lady Bird lives, the world in which she must come to a kind of awareness of not just how but why to decenter her own experience, is fundamentally different than our own.

Feminism’s conceptual coherence has come under considerable (and productive) strain thanks to the urgent demand for intersectionality, a women’s movement that takes into account not only gender difference, but which recognizes and challenges the gendered dimensions of other frameworks for charting identity: class, race, age, sexuality, disability, ethnicity. Detractors decry this shift in attention as a form of ideological cannibalism, another manifestation of “the left eating itself.” I’m more inclined to see it as Sister Sarah-Joan does in trying to account for Lady Bird’s attentiveness to the detail of Sacramento as she writes it in her college application essay: “Don’t you think maybe,” she asks, “they are the same thing? Love, and attention?” Lady Bird is, like all teenagers, begging for attention – but only to suggest, in the end, that we turn our attention elsewhere.

It’s 2018. People I love are dying of cancer. My gay tribe, and LGBTQ+ Americans more generally, are being menaced every day. Black lives mattering is still not common sense. I hope I can get a real job, even as I spend hours putting a review of a film together. The War in Afghanistan is still happening after sixteen years. Different things can be sad, and I don’t mean for this to sound like the Oppression Olympics. Rather, I make this list because Lady Bird is one of the most thorough and honest stories of how to discover one’s blind spots – how to start to pay attention to other people’s sadness – that I have ever seen. So, having put these lenses up to our faces, the real work begins. We’re living through something, and it’s time for us to show some gratitude.

Next week (2/15), The Shape of Water.

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