Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lady Bird: But what does this movie say about ME?

Peeps, I am old. Not old like OLD, CAN YOU HEAR ME ALRIGHT?, but old enough to have my life depicted in a period film. Is that the benchmark for middle age? I realize my age on a near-daily basis now that I teach people who are, effectively, permanently 20. But it still "wrecks me" (a phrase I recently learned from my students) that the movies find my youth to be suitable material for a nostalgic coming-of-age film. My youth. I am a nostalgic artifact. Like Rory Gilmore, Lady Bird is exactly my age. High school class of 2003 represent. However, Gilmore Girls was a contemporaneous production, whereas Lady Bird is...ughhhhh...a nostalgic period film.

Anyway, the Self-Importants love Greta Gerwig and all the films Greta Gerwig is connected with, including even Damsels in Distress and Mistress America, and also almost all the films Noah Baumbach makes even though yes they're pretty repetitive (but it's a good theme!), so my normative evaluation of this movie is completely predictable and not of any interest.

So let's talk instead about the politics. The movie is about The Youth in the early 2000s, a time when The Youth had nothing significant to pay attention to but themselves, but to themselves they were exquisitely attentive. (Lady Bird overlooks the ubiquitous online diaries for public consumption which Miss Self-Important of course never had...10 versions of and none of those became this blog ahem.) Perhaps this does not reflect well on us, but as Lady Bird notes ("I wish I could live through something"), these were not dramatic times unless you were in New York in September 2001. So the movie is about the perennial subject of peacetime dramas, finding yourself. But since it's not terrible, it's more specifically about valuing the given vs. the chosen.

Lady Bird thinks she hates everything about herself at 17: her name, her hometown, her Catholic school, her lowly social status. The problem with these things is that they're arbitrary, imposed on her by her parents (especially her mother). So she decides to change these things by choosing alternatives: she renames herself something absurd ("Is that your given name?", the theater teacher asks her, and she replies, "Yes, it was given to me by me."), she applies to colleges in New York without a clue as to where that even is, she openly defies Catholicism, she invents a persona to befriend the rich girl in class. The problem, as she realizes by the end, is that all her choices were just as arbitrary as the given things, and no more lovable simply for being chosen by her. At the end, she asks a guy at a party whether he believes in God, and he dismisses the proposition as stupid in a way she would've agreed with five minutes ago, but now she's struck by the irony of such insouciance: "People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God." So she reconsiders the value of self-assertion against givenness. Maybe her real name isn't so bad, and Sacramento has some charms, and even Catholicism... Look, you know things are heading in a dangerous direction when a character is poised to embrace Catholicism.

But, despite this quite conservative epiphany about the self-constituting value of given things, Lady Bird never really turns right, because it can't quite condemn youth culture, even as it can't really embrace it. Youth culture is depicted as the promise of a lot of potentially exciting experiences (first love! sex! drugs! prom! going away to college!) that in the end are not nearly as exciting as they appeared, but disappointment is no reason to reject it. Anyway, there are no grounds to reject youth culture even if you wanted to. It just exists, ubiquitously and without plausible alternatives, and our task is to adjust to it. What you're supposed to learn, what constitutes "growing up" in this movie, is that, while there remains no way of knowing who you are or what you want except by experimenting with experiences, you have a duty not to cause harm to others in your experimental pursuit of experiences. Of course, you already understood the harm principle as a child, but what you didn't understand was the scope and subtlety of "harm." You learned not to bite and hit and taunt, not to cause overt harm. But the task of adolescence is to understand that causing harm also encompasses causing distress to those individuals to whom you have, for largely unchosen reasons, heightened obligations - your parents, your friends. Only once you understand this expanded version of the harm principle, as Lady Bird does after arriving at college, can you pursue your serial experiences and experiments in living in a responsible way. There will necessarily be disappointments along the way (science tells us that most experiments fail), but so long as you're taking responsibility for yourself and respecting the rights of others (including their rights not to be harmed by you), you are on the right road to...something. Well, the audience is satisfied enough by the time the movie arrives at this conclusion not to worry whether it's really conclusive or whether Lady Bird's road leads anywhere. Her life has only just begun! The future is unknown! The roads before her as yet untraveled! And so on.

Only I worry about it because, as I said, Lady Bird is now me. My life has not only just begun, a bit of my future is known, and several roads have already been traveled since 2003. And I would like to suggest, from a point in the less open future, that serial experimentation in pursuit of culturally pre-formulated experiences undertaken in light of an expanded understanding of the harm principle is never going to stop being disappointing.

On the other hand, the movie could also point in a different direction, though it never does this explicitly. If what is given is arbitrary and therefore of questionable value, but you discover that what is self-chosen is also essentially arbitrary because you had no coherent reasons for choosing except the desire to make a choice, then you might be moved to wonder, what's required to make a non-arbitrary choice? Are there coherent reasons or standards that would lead to a good choice? And then of course you'd become a philosopher. Just like that! Anyway, I trust that you get my point.

In conclusion, in this movie, we were kids. And now we have kids. That is a jarring thought when exiting a dark room in which you had just been immersed in your own adolescence for two hours.


Julia said...

As someone who a) has seen Lady Bird, and b) knew you in 2003, I can say with confidence that you and Lady Bird are not—and never were—alike. So I think the statement, "Lady Bird is now me" isn't true. I doubt Lady Bird in 2017 is tired of serial experimentation, or is self-aware enough to understand its disappointments.

But I also found the '00s nostalgia part of the movie jarring. Soon music from 2000 will be on the oldies station. Gah!

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, no, I definitely did not mean she was me in any sense beyond the temporal. I am nothing like her. I just mean that she is my age, so it's easy for me to see her adulthood in her youth even though the movie obscures that. Did you think she was unself-aware?

Did you think the '00s depiction was right though? I thought some of the wardrobe choices were more mid-90s than early '00s, although I wasn't sure if that was intentional, to emphasize that her parents couldn't afford nice things.

Julia said...

Yes, I think she was unself-aware. Or maybe just selfish? I don't to spoil the movie for those who hasn't seen it, but I think almost everything she did was pretty awful. I guess most people assume all teenagers are like this? But had she been self-aware/unselfish I guess the movie would have been boring.

I had no issues with the wardrobe choices, personally. I didn't think Saoirse Ronan looked ungainly enough to be 17, though—that threw me off more than anything.

Miss Self-Important said...

On this blog, we spoil movies.

Yes, I did assume she was just being a regular teenager, following the prescribed course of teenage experiences that American culture has set out on the assumption that this was her right. The selfishness was due to her failure to grasp this expanded understanding of harm, that you're not just prohibited from outright beating your parents, but also from making them suffer on your account. But then she learns this, goes back to her uncool friend and reconciles with her parents. So henceforth she will be less selfish, pursuing the course of experiences in a more constrained way, to avoid causing these people distress. It's like American Coming of Age as told by JS Mill.

She had terrible skin, which I liked.

Julia said...

OK, so that's where we disagree: I don't think she learned much. She dumped and then un-dumped her friend, lied to everyone, cheated in school, got her unemployed father to mortgage his house so she could live in New York, and still managed to end on a high note. This, to me, is not a good message. And I'm pretty convinced that anyone who doesn't understand your expanded version of harm theory by age 8 is probably a sociopath.

Miss Self-Important said...

But the expanded version of the harm principle is not that logical, especially as long as you believe that what is given about your identity is illegitimate b/c it's arbitrary. Why should you have heightened obligations to your parents or your church or your old friends, when these ties are just accidental rather than self-chosen? Only once you determine that accidental ties matter too can you determine that you owe them more than just non-harm in the most basic sense (no overt injury), which is all you owe to strangers. Liberalism can't ground these heightened obligations very well b/c it values choice over givenness. Why should you be bound more by your parents desires for you than, say, the school librarian's desires for you? Only for at best semi-liberal reasons (blood ties? sentiment of gratitude? love that you do not as an 18-year-old feel very strongly?). So it takes an extra intellectual step, beyond the principles of contemporary liberalism to accept them. But I think a lot of people never take that step and thus are sociopaths (or just strike others as immaturely selfish!).

Anonymous said...

"The sense of “harm” as that term is used in the harm principle must represent the overlap of senses two and three: only setbacks of interests that are wrongs, and wrongs that are setbacks to interest, are to count as harms in the appropriate sense."
-The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law: Harm to Others by Joel Feinberg (1984)

Anonymous said...

"Why should you have heightened obligations to your parents?"

Because your mother went through the terrible misery of childbirth to give you life (personal physical sacrifice).
Because your parents worked 60 hours a week to earn the money to pay for your interests and goals, when they only needed to work 40 hours a week to pay their bills.
Because your parents spent their money on your interests and goals rather than taking vacations.
Because your parents spent their time going to your games and recitals, rather than hanging out with their friends, or getting more sleep on their one day off each week.

Anonymous said...

"Why should you be bound more by your parents desires for you than, say, the school librarian's desires for you?"

A person should not be bound by any other person's desires for them--nor by their own desires that are in bad faith. People should actively determine what their own authentic desires for themselves are (that are consistent with the golden rule and the bill of rights) and be bound by those because they are genuine.

Anonymous said...

"serial experimentation in pursuit of culturally pre-formulated experiences undertaken in light of an expanded understanding of the harm principle is never going to stop being disappointing"

I don't the message is supposed to be that life will stop being disappointing under certain conditions (like finding the right way to live), but that the disappointments will be small enough that they'll be manageable and won't lead to suicide.

Due to our instinct for self-preservation, we don't need to be happy and hopeful to not do ourselves in, just not be constantly miserable and disappointed. The movie suggests that it is possible to minimize disappoint to a level that we can deal with (with drugs and sex?).

Withywindle said...

I think the only period piece about the '80s that I've yet seen is Hot Tub Time Machine. Which is gloriously not-quite-the-decade-I-remember.

Do you think there were any old cowboys watching John Ford movies and saying That ain't precisely the way it was?

Half of the ethical lesson of Lady Bird sounds like that in Austen's Emma. But I take it that the changes to our moral framework in the last two centuries are not net improvements.

Andrew Stevens said...

Why should you have heightened obligations to your parents or your church or your old friends, when these ties are just accidental rather than self-chosen? Only once you determine that accidental ties matter too can you determine that you owe them more than just non-harm in the most basic sense (no overt injury), which is all you owe to strangers. Liberalism can't ground these heightened obligations very well b/c it values choice over givenness.

This indeed was W.D. Ross's critique of G.E. Moore's ethical intuitionism and I side with Ross. I'm not sure I agree that liberalism requires valuing choice over givenness, though I certainly agree our current culture does.

Withywindle, give Stranger Things a try.

Andrew Stevens said...

I should say that Stranger Things has been overhyped and overrated, but acknowledging that does not imply that it's not good.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, sorry, you meant liberalism as opposed to conservatism. Carry on then. I've been reading too much Deneen lately. (Also now that they have re-labeled themselves progressives, I am in favor of reclaiming the liberal label for both progressives and conservatives.)

Anonymous said...


I'd never heard of Deneen. Guess I better follow Nietzsche's advice and read him

"A man says: “Judging from my own case, I find that this book is harmful.” Let him but wait, and perhaps one day he will confess that the book did him a great service by thrusting forward and bringing to light the hidden disease of his soul.—Altered opinions alter not at all (or very little) the character of a man: but they illuminate individual facets of his personality, which hitherto, in another constellation of opinions, had remained dark and unrecognizable."

Andrew Stevens said...

I've never read much Deneen myself, quite frankly. But I just read a piece of his in which he referred to "progressive liberalism" vs. "classical liberalism" and wrote about the failure of liberalism itself, meaning the liberal order. I took Ms. Self-Important's comment about liberalism as also meaning the liberal order, rather than left-liberalism, but when I read back her original post, I realized that I was mistaken. Sloppy reading on my part.

Miss Self-Important said...

Anonymous: You'll have to translate that doctrine of harm.

Yes, all those might be reasons to have heightened obligations to your parents, but they're only sort of liberal reasons. Gratitude for unasked-for benefits, whose content was not chosen by oneself, is hard to justify in a contractarian context that prioritizes consent. Of course, in practice, people didn't have much trouble with it for a long time, and even liberal philosophers encouraged it, but the fact remains that it's not a principle easily reconciled with choice and consent. And of course it's a classically teenage sentiment: "Well, I didn't ASK to be born!" So it's not at all strange that you'd have a movie in 2017 trying to walk us back from that cliff.

You think the argument of Lady Bird is "disappointments will be small enough that they'll be manageable and won't lead to suicide"?

Withywindle: The entire genres of female-centric coming of age and rom-com are derivative of Austen, aren't they? Modified for the moral standards of the age.

Andrew Stevens: No, you had it right the first time, I am thinking of liberalism as philosophy not liberalism as current partisan position, though admittedly in a reductive, Deneen-ish way. Seventeenth-century liberalism contained the seed of Lady Bird's ideas, but was insulated by a pre-existing culture in which unchosen obligations were not problematic. To some degree, modern youth culture (and partisan liberalism) just works out the coldest internal logic of liberalism that was always there. But early liberals did try to account for and justify things like authority and love, etc. These arguments just never became as popular as precepts about choice, consent, rights, and the willed invention of a self.

Julia said...

OK, sure, I see your point. I think you're too easily dismissing family attachment, though. Lots of 17-year-olds love their parents and do things to make them happy/proud/whatever. A lot of 17-year-olds also follow parental direction in exchange for financial support. So to answer your question: the school librarian has no emotional or financial sway over you, but your parents do. If you need an extra intellectual step to accept these ties then I guess that's where your expanded understanding of the harm principle comes in?

In the case of Lady Bird, her mother's love was made out to be a form of coercion, and much was made of financial issues but ultimately they turned out to mean nothing compared to her New York dream. (Personally I think her parents should have given her $500 and a plane ticket to New York and sent her on her way.) So I guess my (somewhat naive and childish) point is that I didn't like the moral of the story. Or the heroine.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, but those 17-year-olds who are esteem- and recognition-seeking or even just loving obscure the cultural problem (Lady Bird's uncool friend seems to be such a person). Obviously not everyone is going to be a self-interest maximization machine, but of all people, teenagers are the most inclined to this. Think of the popularity of Ayn Rand among this demographic! So even if it's not a universal affliction of adolescents, it's a common enough one not to be sociopathic. It's just a logically reductive position, arrived at by people who are not by disposition people-pleasers or overly affectionate, but who are not insane. They're probably more numerous than the pleasers and lovers.

Lady Bird's mother was just confusing to me. What did she want from her? She just wanted her to make money and be respectable? It's true that the financial problems of college tuition were sort of magically solved, but I got the sense that the problem for her mother was that she didn't want Lady Bird to re-live her life, and that it wasn't so much that she was trying to coerce her as to save her from the long-term disappointment that her life had been. But Lady Bird perceived it as just arbitrary obstruction.

educatedwhinge said...

My wife and I liked it, but I was struck by how stupid it was that her family took out a second mortgage on their house to send her to college, when she could've gone to Cal Davis. And how it never dawns on her how selfish it is that she would want her family to do that.

Andrew Stevens said...

And how it never dawns on her how selfish it is that she would want her family to do that.

A little unfair. Most kids just going to college that I have met have only the vaguest idea about financial realities and what their parents can and cannot afford. If her family refused to take out a second mortgage and she was still bitching about it 10 years later, that would be really selfish.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I agree that's just in keeping with the premise of the movie and her character: she doesn't understand her obligations to her parents. Also, in 2003, we were being much more aggressively told that a college degree was worth a million times its cost in future income and happiness, and taking out lots of loans to get one was a good investment. The error of this was not widely apparent until 2008.

Anonymous said...

We also didn't know that tuitions were paying for pensions, not salaries.

Students are being asked to pay more and more into the University of California system. In-state tuition has increased from $3,859 (in 2017 dollars) for the 2000-2001 academic year to $12,630 today.

Crucially, this money is not funding better educational opportunities, but rather is going toward covering the gold-plated pension benefits of university employees. According to a Sunday report in the Los Angeles Times, the average pension for 30-year retirees was $88,000 a year. Some 5,400 UC retirees received annual pensions of over $100,000, a 60 percent increase from 2012. Nearly three dozen retirees are pulling down annual pension payouts of over $300,000.