Why the mother daughter relationship in Lady Bird is abusive


Lady Bird, a quirky coming-of-age drama directed by Gerta Gerwig has received high praise for its witty dialogue, clever use of space, and most extraordinary performances by leading actresses Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Ronan plays the vibrant, bright, fearless titular character Lady Bird, while Metcalf plays Lady Bird’s mother, Marion McPherson, an overworked mother and sole provider for the family of five. The movie’s wide critical acclaim does not stop at glowing reviews, the film even won several notable awards that includes Best Motion Picture- Musical and Comedy at the 75thGolden Globes Awards, and Best Actress for lead actress Saoirse Ronan at the 90thAcademy Awards.

The foundation of Lady Bird is both the explosive and unsaid tension that weaves its way through the narrative and forms the crux of the relationship between different characters. Arguably at the forefront of the tension is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson a 17-year-old girl from a recent single income family, who comes as she says, from “the wrong side of the tracks” and her relationship with her mother, Marion. Lady Bird attends a costly private catholic school that her mother insists upon as she has lost all trust in the public school system after her son “saw someone get knifed” there. The reality of the family’s financial situation and yet their exorbitant expense on Lady Bird’s education can be said to be one of the key rifts between mother and daughter. This is only heightened because of Lady Bird’s dream of attending college on the east coast and her mother’s consistent demoralizing comments- not only that their family cannot afford an expensive school, but that Lady Bird herself lacks the necessary attributes to enter one.

Lady Bird screaming. Source:

Most of the film’s glowing reviews are aimed at the explosive mother daughter relationship that is seen on screen. Bradshaw, a reviewer, even goes as far as to say that the “film’s emotional center” lies with the relationship between mother and daughter. While I do agree Ronan and Metcalf’s acting on screen holds the weight of the film, I disagree with the language that is used to describe the relationship audiences’ witness. I argue that the emotional relationship seen on screen is not one that is based on love- but instead is an abusive relationship that has been sold to audiences as love.

Throughout the movie, audiences explore the narrative of the film through the perspective of Lady Bird. Therefore, there is never any point of the film where Lady Bird herself has to explain her choice of hair, her use of language or even the reasons why she has given herself her name Lady Bird. We as the audience simply embrace her and the person she presents herself to be. However, the audiences are also privy to the struggles Lady Bird experiences trying to be her authentic self while having the people around her doubt her actions. For instance, the most common justification Lady Bird has to provide is the reason why her name is Lady Bird. It is only through the sheer brilliant resilience of Lady Bird that she does not break at the constant sarcastic comments made at the expense of her name, her way of being, and herself.

That to me is why the mother daughter scenes are painful to not only watch but also to endure. Most of the mother’s scenes with Lady Bird revolve around Marion not only criticizing Lady Bird but also attacking her. Perhaps what frustrates me the most is the framing of this relationship. Marion is positioned as the tough, perhaps too critical mother that only says mean things because she wants the best for her daughter. Lady Bird on the other hand, is seen as a self centered, perhaps a little too naïve 17-year-old that dares to dream big without thinking of its effects on the people around her. It is for this reason why Lady Bird and Marion have such a tumultuous relationship.

Lady Bird throwing herself out of the car in the opening scene. Source:

This is evident from the way the movie begins with Lady Bird and Marion in a car together crying as they emotionally experience the end of the audiobook recording of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Then quite suddenly the mood of the car changes when Lady Bird begins expressing her hopes and dreams of moving far away from Sacramento, to a lavish expensive college on the East Coast. To this, her mother not only gives her a painful dose of reality of the state of their family situation, but then she moves forward to crush Lady Bird’s aspirations by pointing out the many ways she lacks.

I would even argue the scenes in which Marion is particularly tough on Lady Bird are often right after she has a positive experience or a moment of self confidence. It seems as if Marion is not only unable to be happy for her daughter, she compulsively has to bring her daughter’s happiness down. For instance, when Lady Bird’s secret of being wait listed at an expensive college in New York is revealed, there is an unbearable scene audiences have to endure where Lady Bird begs and pleads her mother for forgiveness for not telling her the truth about applying while Marion simply moves around the house doing her chores. In fact, Lady Bird even begs her mother to say she is proud of her for getting in the college- and all Lady Bird receives is silence.

Although the film presents some rather tender moments between Marion and Lady Bird that clearly expresses Marion’s investment in the well being of her daughter, I would argue that those scenes are not enough to pass this relationship as love. In fact, I would argue that I am tired of watching films that present abusive parents as figures that should derive sympathy from audiences simply because they themselves have had a troubled past. It is revealed in a passing comment made by Marion that her mother “was an abusive alcoholic.” Through this comment, layers are supposed to be added to Marion’s character- and we as the audience are meant to understand her better. But the film itself prevents me from garnering any sympathy towards Marion mainly because of the consistent position Lady Bird has to be placed under. In most of their scenes, it is Lady Bird that attempts to form an emotional connection with Marion by being vulnerable and in those same scenes, Marion’s response is either to reject Lady Bird or dismiss the topic at hand.

Final Scene in the film Lady Bird, when Lady Bird calls and leaves a message for Marion. Source:

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about this mother daughter relationship- is the notion that Lady Bird has to grow and learn to be ‘more of an adult’ than her mother to have a relationship with her. The film perpetuates this ridiculous notion that children have to learn to understand why and how their parents think because they need to be grateful for all that their parents have done for them. I have to ask, why is the weight of Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship placed heavily upon Lady Bird? Why does it have to be Lady Bird that has to make the first move towards forgiving her mother, despite it being Marion’s decision to not speak to her daughter because she applied to a fancy college? Why does Lady Bird have to be her mother’s container of emotions and justify her mother’s abusive tendencies?

I believe one reason why the film itself does not call this mother daughter relationship abusive- is because of this compulsive need we have to understand and justify why adults behave poorly. We choose to want to have a reason why Marion behaves the way she does. I would even go as far to argue we need to stop romanticizing troubled mother daughter relationships to use them as interesting plot devices in telling a coming-of-age story. If we are to use them, we have to be clear that specific languages used by parents can have a damaging effect on the self-esteem of children and the way they interact with the world around them.

I felt the film itself failed by the end because of its decision to have Lady Bird choose to use her birth name “Christine” as she leaves a message for her mother. It felt as if the autonomy and freedom Lady Bird fought for throughout the film was lost. More than that, it felt as if Lady Bird was sacrificing a piece of herself in order to reconcile her relationship with her mother. Once again I have to ask- why has this become her responsibility to do so? If Lady Bird felt the need to sacrifice her sense of self to build a relationship with her mother, what does it tell audiences of a similar age group to Lady Bird? I think it is time artists creating and writing narratives about abusive relationships get their story straight- abuse is never okay, and more than that, it is okay to remove people from your life that are abusive.

Bradshaw, Peter. 2018. Lady Bird Review- A Hilarious Love Letter to Teenagers and their Mothers.Brody, Richard. 2017. Greta Gerwig’s Exquisite, Flawed “Lady Bird”. Vorel, Jim. 2017. Lady Bird and Cycles of Abuse.
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Ashley Liza

Eagerly awaiting for the revival act of Jesus Christ.

1 Comment

  1. She wasn’t sacrificing herself, she was showing she wasn’t embittered, or under her mother’s control. From what I can tell, Christine felt like she didn’t want the identity she was born with, and she made a new one, an appellatory mask, and when she was leaving, she didn’t need that mask anymore as a defense mechanism, even if she continued to identify with her self-creation. It seems in my perception that the need to never be able to recognize any good in the other side a sign of futile resentment, and a lack of self-awareness; like Heller in Fountainhead, a slave to noncompulsion. I loved this article, and I would definitely agree their relationship was exemplary of the abuse that a huge amount of people experience nowadays. But we can always grow stronger, grow past the person, the abuse, the pain.

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