Arts, Contemporary

She’s My Person: Exploring Female Relationships in the Films of Greta Gerwig

By Angelica De Vido

Only the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director in the Academy Awards’ ninety-year history, Greta Gerwig has made her name in Hollywood as a versatile writer, director, and actor whose work focuses humourously and poignantly on the everyday lives of women.

Rather than centring on the dominant Hollywood narrative of heterosexual romance, Gerwig’s work instead consistently explores the unbreakable bonds of female relationships: those between female friends, sisters, and mothers and daughters. This is most poignantly witnessed in the romantic comedies Frances Ha (2012), Mistress America (2015), and Lady Bird (2017), in which Gerwig featured as actor, writer, and director. Gerwig’s films do not offer fairy tale romantic narratives, but instead showcase stories full of humour and strength, which focus on women supporting each other as they find their way in the world.

Frances Ha explores and celebrates female friendship. Akin to other New York narratives such as Sex and the City (1998-2004), the film underlines the notion that female friendships are the essential bonds that help women to negotiate the often-challenging nature of contemporary urban experience. As Frances says of her best friend, Sophie, “she’s my person”; the one she wants by her side during the highs and lows of life, and the one she believes is her true “soul mate”. Frances and Sophie are depicted as each other’s central support networks, as Sophie helps Frances through the numerous challenges of trying to forge a career as a professional dancer. The film celebrates their friendship through a central montage of their daily life together in New York, as they are shown ecstatically running through the streets, having lunch in the park, attending parties, riding the subway, and reading together in their apartment. This montage evokes famous cinematic love letters to New York, including Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1989). However, rather than Allen and Ephron’s focus on heterosexual romance, Frances Ha instead explores female urban experience, and the unbreakable bonds of female friendship. In a similar style to the Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding (1994), which also explores the friendship between two unconventional, inseparable women, Gerwig’s film foregrounds how Frances and Sophie encourage, support, and empower each other to pursue the lives that they want to, and to live them to their fullest.

This understanding of the essential nature of women supporting other women is also explored in Mistress America, through the relationship between Tracey and her soon-to-be older step-sister, Brooke. Even though they are not connected by blood, they develop a true sisterly bond, as Brooke takes Tracey under her wing, and helps her to adjust to life in New York when she moves to the city to attend Barnard College (Gerwig’s own alma mater). Brooke teaches Tracey such ‘essential’ information as where the “hip” places are in the city, and through her zaniness and unwavering optimism, she inspires Tracey to make the most of her time in one of the most exciting cities in the world. This exploration of the enduring bond between sisters has been prominent in American culture for centuries: from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1869), to the contemporary film Sisters (2015). Akin to these other American narratives, Gerwig’s film centres on a depiction of sisters supporting each other and having fun, while navigating life’s challenges together and carving out their own unique paths in life.

Gerwig’s multi-award nominated Lady Bird follows the life of seventeen-year old Christine, who is growing up on “the wrong side of the tracks” in Sacramento, California (Gerwig’s own home town). At first glance, this is a film that focuses on exploring the common themes of female adolescence: first sexual experience, adolescent rebellion against society (which leads Christine to dye her hair pink and change her name to Lady Bird), and deciding which path to pursue after the tumultuous experience of high school draws to a close. However, the real allurement of Gerwig’s film is the primary focus on the two key relationships in Lady Bird’s life: with her mother, Marion, and with her best friend, Julie.

Marion and Lady Bird’s is a turbulent relationship. The film uses this mother-daughter narrative to explore the tension between parents and their adolescent children that is typical of the coming-of-age genre. The narrative centrality of Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is immediately foregrounded in the film’s opening shot, which depicts Lady Bird and her mother lying facing each other in bed, with their curved bodies each seemingly forming one half of a heart – an image that visually underlines their fundamental love for each other, despite the frequent tension between the two in the film. Lady Bird’s family are living through the everyday financial struggles faced by many American families in the economic tumult of the early 2000s. Lady Bird relies on a scholarship to attend her Catholic High School, and her dream of attending an east coast university hinges on securing financial aid; her mother works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, and this financial struggle leads to many arguments between the two. However, rather than depicting their confrontations as a negative, destructive experience – as explored in The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Thirteen (2003) – Gerwig instead frequently focuses on the humour of their bickering, since one minute they are fiercely disagreeing with each other in a tense confrontation, and the next they are admiring a dress that Lady Bird has picked out for the prom. It is clear to the audience that Marion chastises Lady Bird out of love and protectiveness, as she tells her daughter, “I just want you to be the best version of yourself that you can be”. This is something that Lady Bird comes to realise as she matures. Indeed, when her friends tell her, “your mum’s hard on you”, Lady Bird recognises that, “she just loves me a lot”. This focus on the unwavering love between mothers and daughters is in keeping with the post-millennium tradition established in the television series Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), which focuses on the friendship between Lorelai and Rory, mother and daughter. Rory describes her mother as her best friend and role model, and when everything goes wrong in Rory’s life, Lorelai is always there to pick up the pieces: through break ups, the challenges of college, and career failures. Gerwig explores the ties of such a relationship in both Frances Ha and Mistress America, but especially in Lady Bird. Indeed, after her disappointing first sexual experience, Lady Bird cries with her mum in the car, as Gerwig uses this moment to underline how Marion is always there to pick up the pieces for Lady Bird, and to support and love her.

Significantly, rather than narrative fulfilment lying at the hands of a heterosexual romantic match, as the female coming-of-age genre conventionally dictates, Lady Bird instead concludes with Lady Bird and her best friend Julie slow-dancing together at the prom. This scene evokes the ending of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997), which also examines the unbreakable bonds of friendship between two life-long best friends, and ends with Romy and Michelle dancing together at their high school reunion. Lady Bird’s ending rewrites the dominance of the ‘marriage plot’ in narratives of female adolescence, where narrative closure is only achieved through the protagonist finding her soulmate in a man. Through this powerful scene, Gerwig indicates how it is her best friend, and not a boy, who ‘completes’ Lady Bird, and who has been the most significant partner in her life. As in Thelma & Louise (1991), Gerwig highlights how men might come and go, but Lady Bird and Julie will be there for each other forever: like that of Frances and Sophie, Brooke and Tracey, and Marion and Lady Bird, their strongest ties – of loyalty, love, and trust – lie with each other.

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