By Toni Cruz and Megan Cole
The underrepresentation of women in Hollywood is no secret. While women have historically been in front of the camera, men have been predominantly behind it, directing films that usually feature actresses in small, unimportant roles that box them into stereotypes — dumb, vapid or over-sexualized. However, the progressive nature of our time has pushed women’s empowerment narratives forward, diminishing the one-dimensionality of stories told about them in film. The rise of female directors like Sofia Coppola, Patty Jenkins and Greta Gerwig has given rise to a new type of women-led cinema, celebrating female leads in all their complexity.
Gerwig is in the limelight after this month’s release of “Lady Bird,” her independent film about a teenage girl struggling to finalize her after-high-school plan while battling her love-hate relationship with her mom and hometown of Sacramento. The semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird” shares common themes with many coming-of-age stories, but Gerwig’s female perspective surpasses the depth of typical teenage drama. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, personifies what most girls face in high school — the struggle with self-love and trying to fit in. Gerwig’s conflicted, strong-willed protagonist represents this transitional period in a young woman’s life very realistically. Ronan’s strong female role in “Lady Bird” deepens the simplified character teenage girls typically play, proving that the lives of young women are interesting in their own right. In many ways, Lady Bird is an average teenager, and Gerwig’s spotlight on her seemingly mundane development suggests that young girls — often overlooked or sidelined in major movies — have stories worth telling.
Each character is complex and fully human; Gerwig does not allow flat, predictable performances. A notable quality of the film is the tenuous friendship between Lady Bird and a “popular” girl named Jenna. Although Jenna is conventionally pretty and cool, while Lady Bird hangs out with the drama club and lives on the “wrong side of the tracks,” Gerwig bypasses the stereotypical rivalry between such characters and instead focuses on a friendship between the two. The relationship isn’t devoid of drama — Jenna’s influence shapes Lady Bird’s development, straining other friendships and questioning her values — but it is complex, and doesn’t rely on the usual girl-versus-girl tropes. Gerwig treats them as more than flat characters, and that’s why their interactions feel so real.
The amount of attention this film has received is not surprising, but impressive. It has a rare 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and on its opening weekend, received the highest-ever theater average gross from a limited-release film directed by a woman. The deserved attention is a good sign that Hollywood is beginning to move away from old trends. Those behind the camera are diversifying, and it shows in the quality of movies coming out. “Lady Bird” opens opportunities for other female directors, with Gerwig proving that women directors can be successful in the competitive, male-dominated film industry when they tell stories of their own.