The hidden secret of “Lady Bird”

A still from the movie Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s 2017 solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, is highly relatable to the youth of today-a disobedient young girl’s memoir full of self-discovery, warmth and poignancy of parenthood, friendship and romance. The protagonist, Christine…oh no! we should call her “Lady Bird”, or she’ll get upset.

Okay, let’s do this again. Christine Lady Bird spends her senior high school life trying to be cool and (feeling obliged to) hate mediocre-a conventional mode of youth.

However, one of Lady Bird’s lines confused me for a while. At the beginning of the film, in her mother’s car, she complains that she has never really lived through something, saying:

‘The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it is a palindrome.

Gerwig, Greta. Lady Bird. 2017. Scott Rudin Productions, Management 360, and IAC Films.

What is the purpose of this line? Is the year of 2002 where the whole story takes place? Is there any hidden meaning to the word “palindrome”?

For a long while, I thought Gerwig never revealed the answer to this. I was surprised, then, to find that she actually did.

Palindrome

More than 2002…

Palindrome means a word that reads the same from either left or right. The only palindrome word ‘Lady Bird’ manages to come up with is 2002. She is , in fact, too young to know that there is another one, “home-away-home”.

Her story is indeed a “home-away-home”, just with a bit of a twist.

Of everything she finds unsatisfactory, “home” seems to be the place she least adores. It is a site of argument. Like magnetic repulsion, Lady Bird’s similarity to her mother makes them push each other away. It is somewhere less, even, than ordinary. In Lady Bird’s account, it is “the wrong side of the tracks”. The longer she stays “home”, the more she is prompted to be “away”-away to the East Coast, where she thinks the culture is.

And she does land on the East Coast. There seems to be something more recognisable, though, than the East Coast’s cultural sophistication. The film ends with Lady Bird standing on a New York sidewalk, saying “I love you” to her mother through the phone. The scene comes after she eventually understands her mother’s care, deeper than ever, through the latter’s hand-written letters. After she no longer needs to follow what her Catholic senior high school teaches about the distance men and women should keep at the school ball-”six inches for the Holy Spirit”-her new man in New York, it turns out, is not charismatic enough to for any durable intimacy. He does not even know Sacramento!

When Lady Bird wakes up from her hangover, she does not go straight home but to a church, praying just as she has done over the last few years. This is how Gerwig plays with the pattern of “home-away-home”. Lady Bird’s feet may still be in New York, but her heart is already in Sacramento. Lady Bird’s final arrival at home is not physical, but emotional. She used to look down on that which is close to home, and romanticise that which is remote. When “home” becomes what is remote, however, she realises its romance, which reflects brightly in the eyes of “Lady Bird” Christine.

Echo

The palindrome also symbolises an echo. When Lady Bird says that 2002 is a palindrome, she is in her mother’s car. She is still then grumpy, still then dares to jump out of the car on the edge of an eruption induced by her mother’s nagging. She is still then born Christine, but only happy when called “Lady Bird”. Yet before she says “I love you” to her mom at the end of the film, she asks her:

‘did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?’

ibid.

The scene then shifts to the affection deep in ‘Lady Bird’s eyes towards local Sacramento landmarks while driving-Jibboom Street Bridge. California’s State Capital. The river. The local shops. It is akin to the one her mother earlier had for home while driving, as the next scene suggests. The final scene of Christine driving is a response to two things. When she moves at the end from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat, she is no longer unhappy as before with her real name given by her parents, as she realises ‘”Christine” is a good one. She also eventually grows into the individual whom her mother has long wished, someone who appreciates “home”-the firstness of life.

Lady Bird’s Potential “Goodbye to All That”

In fact, Lady Bird is meant to go home. No matter how far Sacramento is from her mental utopia, ‘Lady Bird’s homecoming seems destined, set even in the beginning. In her epigraph, Gerwig quotes someone who had, more or less, felt like Lady Bird in her real life- American writer
Joan Didion.

‘Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a
Christmas in Sacramento.’

Kakutani, Michiko. ‘Joan Didion: Staking out California’. The New York Times, June 10, 1979. https://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html.

At first glance, it seems like Sacramento never looks fancy enough for young girls. But interestingly enough, the story behind the quote is that Joan Didion herself eventually went back to California.

Born in Sacramento, Didion moved to New York at 23, to take up a research assistant position at Vogue-a coveted position of prestige. In her personal essay, ‘Goodbye to All That’, however, what Didion said a farewell to was precisely New York. Didion used to think that, when she was very young, one could make mistakes as much as possible in New York-a dazzling playground-and none of them would really count. Eight years later, when her tears dropped in more than one place in New York, she knew that:

‘it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair’.

Didion, Joan. 2006. ‘Goodbye to All Thant.’ In We Tell Our Stories In order To Live:
Collected Nonfiction
, intro by John Leonard, 168-177. New York: Everyman’s
Library.

Setting the quote as an epigraph, and the first driving scene as an end, Gerwig seems to say that Lady Bird’s arrival at New York, possibly as an inevitable incarnation of Didion’s, is just a prelude to her return to Sacramento.

Header image credit: A24