A Comparison of "Lady Bird" & "Crazy, Stupid, Love" in Terms of Feminism and Post-Feminism
This essay aims to analyse the cultural politics of gender in the 2017 film Lady Bird, while comparing aspects of it with the 2011 rom-com Crazy Stupid Love. I will be contrasting the ideals of feminism and postfeminism that are discussed in the films, while also trying to reach an understanding of how the genres themselves (comedy-drama and rom-com) can have an effect on how the concept of womanhood is portrayed in film.
In spite of being an independent film, Lady Bird was one of the most widely acclaimed movies of 2017. It was nominated at the 90th Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The main juxtaposition I want to bring to attention is between Emma Stone’s Hannah Weaver & Saoirse Ronan’s Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. In Crazy, Stupid, Love Hannah is used to represent elements of postfeminism, while in Lady Bird Christine is used to represent a nuanced form of modern feminism.
Crazy Stupid Love is a film that discusses the idea of postfeminism mainly through its characters Jacob and Hannah. Before delving into this however, it is important to define what the term postfeminism actually means. Being a word that has both feminist and anti-feminist connotations, postfeminism has many aspects to it. Some of its properties are: the reaffirmation of differences between both sexes, the sexualisation of culture and the emphasis on individualism. For the purposes of this analysis however, I will be using a general definition of the term as an ideology that tries to present the woman’s body as a source of power and in need of constant surveillance, contrary to feminism which tries to move the focus away from women’s bodies altogether (Gill, 2007). In the film, Jacob is a womaniser- a representation of everything that stands against feminism. He objectifies women, rates them just by their physical appearances and then uses them to satisfy himself sexually. However, the other male protagonist, Cal is shown as the complete opposite. Postfeminist texts often have the tendency to antagonise certain elements of feminism. According to Negra and Tasker, the idea of feminism is rarely ever mentioned in postfeminist texts. It seems that in most cases feminism is ‘at some level transformed into a form of Gramscian common sense, while also fiercely repudiated, indeed almost hated” (Bowler, 2013). Cal is thus used as a tool to criticise feminism, as he is projected as a victim of the emasculation that accompanies feminism. As Jacob tries to teach Cal how to “be a man”, he says at one point: “The war between the sexes is over. We won the second women started doing pole dancing for exercise.” This refers to a popular critique against postfeminism itself, which highlights the freedom and ability of a woman to make independent, autonomous decisions about her body and sexuality. Postfeminist theory suggests that contrary to feminist perspective, the sexual relation between man and woman does not automatically have to be linked with the “male gaze” or the objectification of women. Instead, it could be the woman desiring a sexual subject. However, some scholars find this claim to be counter-intuitive and implausible, as it cannot explain why the so-called independent decisions made by these women result in a ‘look’ that is “so similar [to what men want] – hairless body, slim waist, firm buttocks etc.” (Gill, 2007). The film thus uses Jacob to acknowledge this critique, implying that the world has become so skewed by the patriarchy, that the autonomous decisions made up by women end up being habits akin to “pole dancing” which happen to be what men have always wanted for them in the first place.
His female counterpart Hannah, is used to showcase the same message from a woman’s perspective. Although she is portrayed as a very intelligent woman in the beginning- one who is rightfully suspicious of Jacob’s advances, as the movie progresses her character undergoes a complete transformation. The scene where she asks Jacob to perform his ‘big move’ on her is pivotal for this reason. When Jacob reveals that the ‘big move’ he uses to get a girl into bed with him is to re-enact the dance scene from the movie Dirty Dancing, Hannah at first finds it ridiculous. This shows us that Hannah, like us- the audience, is aware of how ludicrous the idea sounds. However, once the re-enactment is done, her response is not that different from the other girls’. Like many postfeminist texts, the film thus uses irony to make it clear that it understands the underlying workings of what’s going on, and yet chooses to portray it anyway, implying that these decisions are not entirely made by the man but the woman as well. It touches on the idea of individualism that is very core to postfeminist theory. Hannah is perfectly aware of the situation she’s in. While from a feminist perspective this scene could be seen as manipulative and sexist, when viewed through the film’s postfeminist lens the scene is simply portraying two people making conscious, independent decisions.
Lady Bird is also a film that discusses ideas of feminism and postfeminism, but in a way that is much less common in Hollywood. Lady Bird engages in a “feminist recalibration of the sort of genre tropes associated with the teen film” (Williams, 2018). The film has postfeminist elements in that it gives emphasis on the importance that the main character Christine gives to her body and her sexuality. However, the film has feminist elements as well, as it is made clear throughout the film Christine’s ambition towards her education and career.
What makes Lady Bird different from Crazy Stupid Love, apart from the contrasting genres, is that the former uses the body and sexuality of its protagonist as just one of the narrative elements, not the whole plot. While Hannah is portrayed as just someone wondering what to do with her body throughout the movie, Christine’s story involves friendship, ambition, peer pressure and family. The film carefully tries to explore themes of both feminism and postfeminism, but doesn’t make the mistake of using the female body just for this sole purpose. Christine therefore feels more like a real, relatable character as opposed to Hannah who while ironically aware of the romcom that she is in, still proceeds to be a cliched female protagonist. In Lady Bird, Christine forms two intimate relationships at different points in the movie. However, they form just a small part of her personality; they do not become something she “structures her identity around”, but rather just “a thing that happens” (ibid.). Being a drama that narrates a coming-of-age story, Lady Bird has the liberty of portraying a larger portion of the protagonist’s life without just focusing on romance. Christine’s relationships are shown with the element of romance and sexuality that is expected, but the film makes it clear that there are other aspects of her life which are just as important.
Different elements of feminism are carefully intertwined with the narrative from the very beginning of the movie. According to Sarah E. Tracy, an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Women at UCLA, “the scene where she [Christine] and her friend pop Communion wafers like popcorn- and talk about masturbation with their legs in the air is a beautiful depiction of young women rejecting the rules about how they should govern their bodies” (Lavigna, 2018). Christine is shown as someone who is struggling to create an identity for herself, so much so that she has replaced the name she was given by her parents by one that she has made for herself- “Lady Bird”. A main thread of the film involves Christine trying to move out of her hometown to study in a more sophisticated environment. She craves for better education, career prospects, money and status. Like many modern women, Christine has a hunger for life and adventure that far exceeds the mere romantic struggles that the female protagonists of most romcoms concern themselves with. It is clear then that the creators are trying to stray away from the clichéd female protagonist and trying to create something truly feminist in its theme. This narrative is quite the inverse of the postfeminist ideology that is used in Crazy Stupid Love, where the whole journey of the female protagonist involves her having a revelation about the kind of man she wants to be with.
An interesting way to juxtapose the two films would be to use The Bechdel Test on both. The Bechdel Test is a test devised by Alison Bechdel in 1985 as a way to assess the representation of women in film (Murphy, 2015). It consists of three questions:
1. Are there at least two women in the film who have names?
2. Do those women talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
Both Crazy Stupid Love and Lady Bird have a mother-daughter duo as the two most important female characters in the movie. The relationship between them however, is shown in completely different lights. In Crazy Stupid Love, the mother-daughter relationship takes a backseat to the central theme of male-female relationships. They hardly ever talk to each other in the film; in fact, their relationship is only revealed by the end of the second act. Lady Bird on the other hand paints a very realistic picture of a mother-daughter relationship. Although the tension between the two is present throughout the film in the form of constant bickering, the film makes it obvious the amount of closeness that exists between them as well. The relationship is complicated and strained, much like real mother-daughter relationships. “Mothers in movies are portrayed as devils or angels. It’s hard to think of films where they are human beings with flaws”, said director Greta Gerwig, as she explained her attempt to create a relationship which felt more nuanced (Stevens, 2018). Lady Bird also has more fleshed out female side characters compared to Crazy Stupid Love, like Christine’s best friend Julie, the popular girl that Christine feels pressured to befriend and the school principal nun.
The film touches on postfeminist ideas as well. There is a sense of control over one’s own sexuality that is conveyed through the character of Christine. Her open discussion about masturbation and her willingness to make the first move towards potential relationships point to her self-expression as a being of sexuality. There is also a sense of insecurity within Christine, something that makes her want to continuously work on both her physical and social appearance. Thus, the film in some ways does shed light on Christine’s desire to make herself more attractive and constantly survey herself, but it is mostly embedded within a universal human trait of being ambitious, and not represented as something that is a uniquely feminine struggle.
Unlike Crazy Stupid Love, Lady Bird does not give much focus on the relationship or interaction between genders, almost as if to imply that the more sophisticated way of portraying female characters is to not fixate on just the ‘feminine’ aspect. Director Gerwig has stated that she wanted to make a film that was different from typical Hollywood teen films. According to her they were problematic for the reason that “they revolve around one romantic interest; they inhabit a reality where there’s one right person” (Stevens, 2018). According to Social Cognitive Theory, people develop expectations for real world situations from the observations they make while consuming media (Hall et al., 2012). It is therefore necessary for films to be responsible in the way they portray their characters. Lady Bird takes this responsibility seriously as it tries to narrate the life of a young girl who battles through the pressures of adolescence, relationships, ambition and family. Unlike most romcom films which blindly follow classic sexist tropes or films like Crazy Stupid Love which ironically but inevitably falls into the same cliched love story, Lady Bird tries to balance different aspects of feminism to create characters that feel relatable. The comparison between the two movies should also be taken as a hint that perhaps it is time that we as a society try to assign and retrieve values from more serious, dramatic pieces of film instead of formulaic romcoms.