'Lady Bird' Shows That It's OK for Women to Be Hungry
Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated film tells the story of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, a 17-year-old who takes—and eats—exactly what she wants.
Photo via Universal.
Every year, as we get to what feels like winter’s bleakest point, solace comes in the form of Oscars season. Escaping from sub-zero temperature and gloomy nights, we bathe in the lens flares, sweeping scores, and questionable male characters of the past year’s most acclaimed films.
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, is one of nine nominees for this year’s Best Picture award, sharing the category with movies about people having sex with fish and sewing dramatically for two hours. The coming-of-age-film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, as she navigates her final year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. Unfulfilled by small town life and restricted by her religious education, Lady Bird yearns for a more intellectual existence at an East Coast university (“I want to go where culture is,” she tells her long-suffering mother Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, “like New York.”) As Lady Bird nears her 18th birthday and the looming spectre of her departure for college, she hits a string of classic teenage milestones: losing your virginity, pretending to know who Jim Morrison is to impress a guy, staring at microwave food while stoned. For a film about a high school in a city I’ve never heard of, Lady Bird’s depiction of female adolescence is remarkably universal.
Despite experiencing the anxieties—and the overcompensating arrogance—expected of any 17-year-old, Lady Bird is tough. She dreams of going to a school in New York, so she applies. She runs for school office, despite knowing she definitely won’t win. She wants to have sex, so she finds a boy, albeit a highly unsuitable one, and makes it happen. And she deals with the resulting heartbreak. She shouts at her mother, she criticises an anti-abortion speaker in a packed school assembly, and she exists defiantly as a person with ambitions and hunger.
Lady Bird has an intellectual and creative hunger (as evidenced in her endearingly enthusiastic audition for the school play that earns her a non-speaking chorus part), but there’s also a hunger for food. Throughout the film, she eats in ways that make statements about control and desire: Lady Bird doesn’t just consume food, she takes it.
In an early scene, we see Lady Bird, her dad, brother Miguel, and his live-in girlfriend Shelley at the breakfast table. It’s a weekday morning and Marion is rushing to get to her nursing shift at the hospital and ensure Lady Bird arrives at school on time. She plates scrambled eggs and hurries her family to eat. Lady Bird, however, wants to know why she can’t cook breakfast herself.LADY BIRD: Why can’t I just make the eggs?
MARION: Because you take too long and make a big mess and then I have to clean it up. SHELLY: (Small voice) Eggs aren’t good for the environment, anyway.
LADY BIRD (Too loud) WHAT?
MIGUEL: You heard her.
MARION: (Placing the eggs) Here, eat quickly, please.
MIGUEL: Shelly and I are trying to be vegan. Hence the soy milk.
LADY BIRD: You wear leather jackets.
SHELLY: They’re vintage. It doesn’t support the industry.
LADY BIRD: They aren’t done, there’s white stuff.
SHELLY: You know how you love Brambles? (Referring to the dog on Lady Bird’s lap.) Pigs are smarter than him even.
LADY BIRD: I never thought Brambles was a genius, OK?
LADY BIRD (CONT’D): (Very obnoxious) Mom! The eggs are not done!
MARION: Fine, make your own fucking eggs!
LADY BIRD: I wanted to, you won’t let me!
Sure, Lady Bird is acting spoilt and entitled, but how refreshing is it to watch a young woman demanding to eat, rather than daintily eschewing the act? She’s not dieting, she’s not asking for something different for breakfast; she just wants the eggs. And she wants to make them her own goddamn way.
This scene is quickly followed by another interaction that centres around agency and eating. Lady Bird is walking into school with her best friend Julie, when Julie’s step-dad drives past after dropping her off, handing her a sandwich for lunch. Lady Bird takes the sandwich from her friend and shoves it in her mouth, like someone who gives zero shits about what anyone thinks of her eating habits. Neither of the girls say anything about this small, quietly rebellious act.
Lady Bird is the latest in a recent string of female-led films to touch on eating and power. In French director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw , a vegetarian in her first year of veterinary school develops an appetite for human flesh after having to eat rabbit in an induction ceremony. Her hunger—be it for food or flesh—coincides with a sexual appetite, climaxing in a scene that sees her trying to eat her male housemate while they fuck. Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2016 lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Colour, also frames sexual discovery and around eating, setting the first kiss between its two female leads at a picnic.
Lady Bird isn’t as graphic as Raw, nor as explicit as Blue is the Warmest Colour, but it does weave sexual appetite with hunger for food. In another scene at school, Lady Bird and Julie are in a storeroom, laying on the floor with their legs against a wall as they shovel Communion wafers into their mouths like crisps and discuss masturbation. The puritanical rules of Catholicism and school are subverted by their gleeful chewing. Here, Lady Bird and Julie aren’t being told what to eat or how to behave. Instead, they are taking both their hunger and their sexuality (metaphorically and literally) into their own hands.
I spoke to Sarah E. Tracy, an assistant adjunct professor at the Centre for the Study of Women at UCLA about the connection between food and feminism on film. “The relationship between food and gender (and food and power!) has been discussed by feminist scholars for a long time,” Tracy tells me over email. “Much of the lowest paid and lowest status ‘food work’ in agriculture, food processing, and commercial kitchens is done by women and people of colour, and this makes food a really important place to talk about how status and power is performed.”
For Tracy, the food in Lady Bird functions as a tool for teenage rebellion.
“Lady Bird is shown eating in ways that subvert some of the most important authority figures and forms in her life,” she says. “The scene where she and her friend pop Communion wafers like popcorn—a totally unsanctioned and sacrilegious use of the Eucharist—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. She's not just stealing food; she's rewriting the food's meaning, turning a religious rite of conformity and submission into an act of pleasure and defiance."
Tracy continues: “It's liberating to see female characters, in particular, relating to food and their body in a way that reflects a practice of care and celebration, rather than judgment.”
In Lady Bird, young female appetite—whether for illicit Communion crackers or dry-humping or admission to an Ivy League college—isn't something to be ashamed of. The film celebrates demanding, taking, and eating exactly what we want.
Because why would you accept the eggs if they’re not done exactly how you want them?