Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ and High-School Era Nostalgia

Olivia Rodrigo in the music video for her hit song Drivers License (2020)

By Isabella Rosete | March 14, 2021

“I just wanted it to… capture the feeling of teenage heartbreak in the suburbs,” Olivia Rodrigo gushes in a clip, taking us behind the scenes of the music video for her smash-hit song ‘Drivers License’. 

The song, a pivotal cultural touchstone in more ways than one – landing Billboard’s top spot on the Hot 100, breaking the global streaming records on Spotify, then breaking them again – is more than just another blip on the (teen) pop radar. The chart-climber has exceeded some listeners’ expectations and let down others’ (see, for example, Hunter Harris’s tweet: “girl what is drivers license […] it’s giving me very youth group crush”). It sparked explainers on the song’s purported love triangle; a wave of reactionvideos; praise from Taylor Swift (one of the pop stars Olivia has cited as a major influence on her work); and multiple trends on TikTok inspired by the song and its characters

But if you’ve heard of the song – or if you’ve been on social media at all the past month and a half – you’ve likely heard of all this; this piece isn’t an explainer. Rather than fleshing out the records Olivia has broken and mapping out the cultural reach of her debut single, I’d like to touch on a more personal note, on this idea of teenage heartbreak in the suburbs. 

I grew up in Southern California, like Olivia, where perhaps the most freeing feeling in high school is going for a drive. Freeing in the way that connects you to the rest of the world, freeing in a way that can feel equally liberating and daunting, freeing in a way that opens you to all these emotions you never would have expected something like a driver’s license could draw out.

The beginning of the song features a sample from the startup sounds of Olivia’s mom’s car, a detail she shared in a TikTok; these sounds transition seamlessly into the opening piano notes of the song, just like getting into your car and immediately plugging in the aux to kick off your drive with your playlist de jour. As she details the excitement of finally getting her driver’s license, a feeling most sixteen-year-olds can relate to, Olivia immediately evokes that feeling of freedom. But as the song goes on, her relationship with driving becomes one not so much associated with freedom, but more with disillusionment: “you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,” she almost whispers. Post-breakup, driving can only remind her of the restrictions of teenage love and of teenagerhood in general. 

For driving teens everywhere, the license can be a means of liberation, but also a frightening reminder of everything tied up in capital-A Adulthood; along with the open-ended opportunity to head out of the house comes the nagging sense that you still have to be home at this time. You can anticipate your license for months, years even, and then when you finally have it, it’s quite different from what you expected.

Lady Bird’s first time driving alone evokes nostalgia for the place she is wishing to get away from in Lady Bird (2017). A24.

Like Olivia, you can finally drive to your boyfriend’s house in the suburbs, but then he breaks up with you for someone who seems to represent the maturity you have yet to achieve. Like Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, you might feel really emotional the first time you drive in the place where you grew up, but this newfound freedom of movement – and initial desire to get as far away from home as possible – may ultimately turn out to evoke a nostalgic homesickness when you actually achieve the crest of adulthood that is leaving the nest. This sentiment is echoed towards the ending of Olivia’s music video: as she coos in her breathy falsetto, “I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay, now that I’m gone,” she gets out of the car she’s been driving and abandons it in the center of an empty road to walk instead. For both Olivia and Lady Bird, the freedoms associated with driving carry with them the bittersweet implications of the kinds of heartbreak inscribed in the experience of growing up in – and growing out of – the suburbs. 

The license is symbolic of all these feelings, and it also serves as a reminder of everything you have yet to do as a teenager. What Olivia laments in the song is that her license would have allowed her to more fully experience her first real love, but this also opens her up to her first real heartbreak. Experiencing these things for the first time is terrifying. Sitting in the driver’s seat of your own life for what truly feels like the first time, seeing the expanses of roads in front of you, how do you know which is the right one to take? How do you know when – if – it’s time to move on? 

Olivia draws out these very teenage feelings not solely in her lyricism; with the lushly cinematic music video, directed by filmmaker Matthew Dillon Cohen, the lovelorn seventeen-year-old draws on the sorts of nostalgia surrounding everyday life in suburban Southern California that is one of the primary pleasures of films like 20th Century Women (2016). This vulnerability by way of nostalgia is only reaffirmed by Cohen’s choice to shoot the music video on film, utilizing gorgeous Kodak tungstenfilm stock

The ethereal, nostalgic quality of 20th Century Women (2016). A24.

Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women immediately imbues the minutiae of suburban life with a sort of ethereal quality, as highlighted by the ambient synth sounds of the score; the opening scene flips through collective memories and images that carry in them the experience of the world: dancing, music, movies, animals, the sky. Olivia’s take on image as intertwined with memory skews more individual than collective: in one of the most striking images from the music video, she stands with her back to the camera as iPhone home videos are projected onto the back of her neck. This delicate handling of the memories we try to turn our back on, but stick with us anyway, intimates the all-too-familiar feeling of spending hours scrolling through your camera roll. The careful intimacy evident in these varied approaches serves to render the suburban experience at once universal, and incredibly personal. 

Memories play out on Olivia’s body in the music video for her hit song Drivers License.

Her music video features a handful of drone shots as well as stunning close-ups, with the bulk of the video pinned by Olivia’s side: as she drives alone; in flashback scenes with a boyfriend character; or in scenes where she walks solo down a wide, sunlit street, rows of middle-class homes lining the edges of the frame and mountains fading into the sky behind her. Olivia seems to embody familiarity in these warm sunlit shots, walking without any real goal and feeling at home just the same. 

In the first verses, Olivia’s lyrics are much more specific to her own experience, referencing the older blonde girl she had always worried about. The song builds to the second chorus and cathartic climax, which express more generic sentiments about the pain of losing someone you know so well, and the little things that remind you of them daily. As she sings about the boy who broke her heart, she lets loose in a cul-de-sac full of nicer homes at the top of a hill which overlooks the city lights below. 

Drivers License.

These latter scenes remind me of the sorts of homes many of my friends grew up in, which, like Olivia, I had quite a drive to get to; my friends’ homes became an escape from the tighter neighborhoods where my own family lived, streets like the ones Olivia strolls through in the earlier sunlit scenes. While my working-class streets felt warm, familiar, and intimate, my friends’ homes were full of a different kind of love, one that felt bigger than us, and more worldly. We would sit on my friends’ patios and look out across the alternating palm trees and street lights that dotted the neighborhoods all the way down to the beach. In these moments, it really did feel like our little teenage bubbles were opening up to the rest of the world, stretched out before us. The lonely cul-de-sac Olivia stands in feels much more alienating than the bright sunlight of before, though, as emphasized by her smaller stature in the frame and the colder purple light that saturates the scene. In these contrasting scenes, a sense of the incredibly personal and relatably universal are easily intertwined and given equal importance. 

Perhaps these comparisons with my own life veer on the side of too-specific, but based on the 246,000 comments on the YouTube video, the 1.9 million videos using the song on TikTok, and the countless posts referencing the song on various other social media, it’s clear that Olivia has hit deeply at emotions and experiences that many empathize with. In her song and the accompanying visual, Olivia’s hopeful and honest romanticization of teenage emotions and all their realities has achieved a sort of zenith of suburban high-school era nostalgia, which, like all the contradictions of teenagerhood, finds itself both sublimely specific and cross-culturally resonant.

Isabella Rosete has subjected herself to film school twice – for her bachelors, and now her Masters in film and media studies. She has lots of feelings on politics and power in media, and just as many feelings about love and empathy in stories. You can find her on Twitter and everywhere else @imrosete.

On Watching White Girls

Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax in Mermaids (1990) dir. Richard Benjamin. Orion Pictures.

by Sara Hashemi | March 6, 2021

Coming-of-age films are an integral part of popular culture. Films like The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Almost Famous (2000),and Superbad (2007) have defined generations of teenagers. Many films within the genre focus on girls: Pretty in Pink (1986), Mermaids (1990), Juno (2007). And yet, while these movies pretend to present different facets of the teenage girl experience, their protagonists are all white — a fact that distanced me from fully relating to their characters, but never stopped me from watching.

I would watch these movies religiously as a teenager — living vicariously through the characters on screen. I would see these American kids go to parties, yell at their parents, sneak out, and mess up in ways that I never could. In my own Canadian adolescence, my Iranian mother would not let me come home past 8pm, go to sleepovers, or have a Facebook account. I felt alienated from my group of white friends who, I assumed, were having the experiences I so badly wanted to be a part of. In a way, my relationship with those girls was similar to the one I had with the movies I watched: I wanted in but was constantly left out. Even as I watch coming-of-age films now, at 22-years old, I can’t help but feel like everyone is in on something I don’t know about, that there’s some universal teen experience I’ve missed out on.

Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (1984)

Molly Ringwald is the bonafide queen of coming-of-age movies, with her iconic roles in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Her characters in these films are unpopular but conventionally attractive, and they go through the typical motions of a teenager in the genre; she wants to go to the big dance, she’s preoccupied with social cliques, and has a crush on a guy more popular than she is. Nothing really happens to her, but she feels as though everything is happening to her. However, I was most taken by Winona Ryder, who played the foil to Ringwald’s more palatable, All-American characters in movies like Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1989), and Mermaids (1990). Her roles were often edgier — she played slightly neurotic, dark teenagers. That drew me in. “My whole life is a dark room,” she solemnly declares behind a black veil as Lydia Deetz. Ryder was the perpetual outsider, and for that, I felt a sort of kinship towards her. 

I was struck by Ryder’s portrayal of Charlotte in Mermaids when I first watched it at 15 — the melodramatic voice-over, the black collared outfits, the constant guilt. I was so attracted to this vision of Charlotte. It’s how I wanted to see myself. It’s as though the complete lack of diversity in film predisposed me to identifying with any character with dark hair. 

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Winona Ryder and Cher in Mermaids (1990).

That’s the thing about coming-of-age movies. They’re meant to be relatable, perhaps more so than any other genre. The audience is supposed to look at the protagonist and recognize a part of themselves—either because they’re currently having the same experiences, or because of nostalgia for when they were—and feel comforted. Their whiteness is supposedly universal, and through it the audience is reminded that high school is miserable, their crush won’t pay attention to them, and their parents don’t understand them. They get to feel less alone. 

These negative experiences are still wrapped up inside the benefits of the leading characters’ whiteness — everything is coated in a privilege that is never addressed, and alienates non-white viewers. When you aren’t white and you’re looking to see yourself in these movies, watching them is like staring into a broken mirror. I’m searching for a reflection, but it can never be accurate. It’s not that high school wasn’t miserable, it’s that many of the reasons it was came from feeling othered by my white friends. They got to be the protagonists, and I was the token character who ate lunch with them; I wasn’t allowed to do much else. As Zoé Zamudzi writes, “[i]t’s almost as if characters like Lady Bird and Juno were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the trials, yearnings, and humanities of white women.” 

I was a side character in my own story.

Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with my life, and that’s why these things weren’t happening to me. I still do. When the lives you see in film are supposed to be “relatable,” it’s hard not to feel inadequate when they don’t match up with your own. My experiences aren’t given the same attention as those of white protagonists, even though I can recognize now that they are valuable. I love being Iranian, speaking Farsi, and eating Persian food. They’re all a part of how I was raised, and they make me who I am, but they seldom are reflected on screen in a nuanced, respectful way.

My reality was entirely different from Charlotte’s, just as it was from Ringwald’s characters, and just as it was from most other female protagonists. But I kept watching these movies, because if anything, they gave me a window into the teenage experiences I felt I was missing out on. I couldn’t fully relate to their narratives, but they helped me relate to the world.

Even in a time when diversity in capital-F Film is a hot topic, all of the major, critically acclaimed female coming-of-age movies I can name from the last five years feature a white protagonist. There’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and more recently, Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (2019). But however varied their personalities, the protagonists all share a specific brand of indie-girl whiteness. Which isn’t to say I didn’t relate to them — their white “universality” leaves enough of a blank slate for me to project onto. 

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Lady Bird (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

Like the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), I went to a Catholic-adjacent all-girls high school (most of the nuns had retired and we only had mass four times a year). I have an intense and often fraught relationship with my mother. I want to go to New York! At the same time, there’s a lot that separates me from Lady Bird. I’m Muslim, instead of Catholic; I’m Middle Eastern, not white; I grew up in Montreal instead of Sacramento. I also considered myself an outsider in my high school friend group for entirely different reasons than Lady Bird. Still, in a way, I felt connected to her — maybe that’s the point. In her review of the film, Aditi Kini writes that “white mediocrity is the lowest common denominator for experience.” Whiteness is seen as neutral, despite its very real — and often violent — social and political implications. People of colour aren’t afforded that same privilege.

My relationship to female protagonists today is a complicated one. Despite my love for these films, I’m simply too aware of the differences between us. Jia Tolentino articulates this feeling in her essay Pure Heroines: “My hesitation, as an adult, to find myself within the heroine universe has been rooted in a suspicion that that identification would never truly be reciprocal: I would see myself in Jo March, but the world’s Jo Marches would rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.” Ryder, who notably played Jo March in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, embodies a figure far removed from my reality. She’s a wealthy middle-aged white woman. I’ve spent years latching onto Ryder and her characters, desperate to recognize a part of myself somewhere, but people like her have never needed to find themselves in me. Our relationship is entirely one-sided. 

There are, of course, many female coming-of-age films that do not centre a white character. Hearts Beat Loud (2018), Jezebel (2019), and The Half of It (2020) are just a few of the movies featuring young girls of colour, each of them tackling different themes. It’s not productive to say that these movies aren’t out there. As Nijla Mu’min states in a piece about Black coming-of-age films, “when we make definitive statements about the total lack of coming of age films about Black girls, we might actually aid in the erasure of the narratives that do exist, and that will exist.” Popular culture relegates these movies to the margins. 

Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud (2018) dir. Bretty Haley

People of colour are told, again and again, that their stories aren’t as valuable as those of white people. It can be disheartening, especially as a teenager, when the things you most relate to, the ones that make you feel the most seen, are sidelined in favour of more of the same. Movies shape the world we live in, and they shape us. They’ve shaped me. They’ve brought me comfort, and they’ve made me insecure. They played a huge part in conditioning my perception of the world, but also of myself. Coming-of-age films made me feel as though my own story was not enough—that I should want to be more like the friends who made me feel like I did not belong. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Kids of colour shouldn’t have to settle — they need to see more than just white kids growing up on screen. They deserve to know their coming-of-age experiences are meaningful. Our stories matter, too.

Sara Hashemi is a writer and editor from Tio’ta:ke (Montreal). You can find her buying statement earrings on Etsy, or on Twitter @sara_wtv.

Finding Your Person: Platonic Soulmates in the Films of Greta Gerwig

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird and Julie in Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

By Claire White | February 23, 2021

I may not have seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but I know Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey, and the phrase “you’re my person.A connection so strong that ‘best friend’ doesn’t even cover it. If someone is your person, they are it for you, they were put on this earth for you. Sure, this term can be used by romantic couples, but Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey made it about friendship. Female friendship has been depicted on screen for a long time, but rarely have I seen the deep connection and fulfilment female friendship can provide as the words “you’re my person.”

This intensity of friendship is something I believe Greta Gerwig knows well. Across three of her films as director, screenwriter and star — Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017) and Little Women (Gerwig, 2019)— Gerwig focuses her love and attention on exploring the relationships between young women. In particular, friendships: deep and fulfilling connections that make you wonder if maybe the love of your life might be your best friend.

Similar to Christina and Meredith, in their book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman find the term ‘best friends’ to describe their years-long friendship too limiting, not meaningful enough. They instead use the term Big Friendship, “because it’s one of the most affirming — and most complicated — relationships that a human life can hold.” They lament the lack of exploration of how friendship can be just as meaningful as a romantic relationship. After all, they are based on the same principles of attraction and connection, and like any long-term relationship, they take work to maintain. The friendships in each of Gerwig’s films go through a stage of break and disconnect. This narrative of bliss – break – reunion is typical of any romantic narrative seen on screen, but like Sow and Friedman’s own relationship, is also typical of friendships. By putting platonic love at the same level as romantic relationships, Gerwig likewise argues the case for the romance of friendship.

Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, is a story about Frances (Gerwig), who considers herself only half an adult, still coming of age. As much as she spends the film trying to find her place in the world, it is also a breaking apart of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumners). The film opens with a montage of their friendship. It’s happy, domesticated: scenes of romantic bliss. However, when Sophie moves out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend, the two become distant, and descend into hurt, much like a break-up. Frances floats from one living situation to another, mourning the loss of her best friend, describing Sophie moving out as “Sophie dumped me.” However, she continues to exercise devotion, clinging to the memory of the one she loves by continually bringing her up in every conversation (even to people she’s just met): Sophie is “the best person I know,” Sophie is her other half.

Sumners and Gerwig in Frances Ha. IFC Films.

When describing feelings of friendship, one usually uses the term ‘platonic,’ which derives from the philosopher Plato. In his book The Nature of Love, Irving Singer describes Plato’s theory of love as a state outside of sex where there is a “yearning for one’s other half.” He believed that in prehistoric times, humans were split into two, destined to roam the earth forever in search of their soulmate to make them whole again. 

Throughout the separation, Frances not only longs for her best friend, but searches for her place in the world, a chance to feel whole again. Although she dabbles in other friendships and romantic relationships with men on her journey, these relationships are found to be unfulfilling. 

At one point during their time apart, Frances describes what true love is to her:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it, but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes, but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life.” 

This definition of love is epitomised in one of the final scenes of the film. At a party after Frances’ debut choreography performance, Frances is talking to her old boss when she looks up across the room, and meets Sophie’s eye. Sophie smiles at her and laughs. Although eventually Frances was able to find the strength and courage to take her career as a dancer into her own hands and produce her own work, with Sophie back in her life she is stronger. Sophie is her person in this life.

The idea of platonic soulmates is something I have been passionate about for a long time. I haven’t dated very much, but I have felt the deep connection between friends, a recognition of myself in them, that makes me wonder “where have you been all my life?” I have no hesitancy to say my friends are the loves of my life, my soulmates, to call a friend my person. This is one of the main reasons why I connect so deeply to Gerwig as a filmmaker. While Frances Ha undoubtedly carries Gerwig’s mark, in her directorial debut, Lady Bird (which she also wrote), she clearly demonstrates how important these ideas of grand romance between friends are to her as a filmmaker.

Lady Bird’s Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), are no doubtedly two halves of the same whole. There is symmetry in the way they dress (matching purple nail polish, backpacks, and friendship bracelets), and they are always by each other’s side for life’s mundane moments (in class, flipping through magazines at the supermarket), as well as the Big ones (homecoming, heartbreak). When they audition for the school musical, they sit so closely together, Julie’s body overlapping Lady Bird’s, it’s like they have merged into one person. 

Julie and Lady Bird, two halves of a whole in Lady Bird. A24.

Best friends are not uncommon in girlhood films, more often than not, these friendships can be toxic (Mean Girls), fatal (Jawbreaker) or center around the pursuit of a boy (most of everything else). To be fair, throughout the narrative of the film, Lady Bird pursues relationships with two boys, sweet Danny (Lucas Hedges) and cool Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and it is during her pursuit of the latter that Lady Bird and Julie go through their own friend breakup. 

But, the relationship with Kyle was never going to last. Not only once she realised how unfulfilling it was, but also because in order to be a part of his world, she had pretended to be someone else. It is undeniable that Lady Bird (her self-given name) is going through a process of identity formation and transformation into her ideal self, but with Kyle, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her. 

This is best encapsulated the night of senior prom. In the car with Kyle and popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), Lady Bird’s dreams are dashed when the popular kids decide to skip prom. Lady Bird’s disappointment is visible, but she concedes. She might have gone through with their plan and lived with this disappointment had ‘Crash Into Me’ by Dave Matthews Band not begun to play on the car radio. It’s the same song that Lady Bird and Julie sang along to while sitting in an empty car, holding hands and crying over Danny earlier in the film, an intimate moment of shared heartbreak. Unlike Kyle, Julie is someone who understands Lady Bird, and feels what she feels. Someone she can feel complete with. 

Instead of a grand declaration of heterosexual romantic bliss, as is typical in the genre, the major romantic reunion in Lady Bird is not between her and a boy, but between Lady Bird and her best friend. Rejecting Kyle’s opinions and declaring she actually wants to go to Prom, when she tells Jenna that Julie is her best friend, it is filled with the same reverence, and sounds a lot like “she’s my person.”

Lady Bird reunites with Julie and takes her to the prom. ‘Crash Into Me’ continues to play as they dance among the other couples on the dance floor, get their pictures taken in the typical prom-couple pose, and cling to each other all night. Their happiness from being together again is palpable. With this reunion, Gerwig once again shows us that romantic moments don’t always have to be sought after with a guy. They can be found with your best friend. 

Frances and Lady Bird both go through a break with their best friends, but it is in reuniting with Sophie and Julie that they are able to become the best versions of themselves, demonstrating how, as Sow and Freidman write, friends “grow in response to each other.” This is equally true of Jo and Laurie in Little Women, albeit their journey is a little different.

Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Sony Pictures.

Even Jo (Ronan) and Laurie’s (Chalamet), friendship represents a wholeness. Not only in the immediate way their energies match as they dance wildly in secret at the ball where they first meet (in a manner most improper, but suiting to them both) but also in the way they share clothes, swapping waistcoats and hats so that in many ways, it is hard to see where Jo ends and Laurie begins. Unfortunately, like Frances and Lady Bird, they also go through their own break, as a result of a rejected proposal, and Laurie escaping, heartbroken, to Europe. During this break, the emptiness Jo feels without her best friend is felt in a letter Jo writes to ultimately accept his proposal, because “the worst fate is to live my life without you in it.” During the time Little Women was set (Civil War-Era America), there were few examples of the way attachments between a man and woman could be expressed, beyond marriage. But, that is not the only way love can manifest. Jo and Laurie eventually reconnect, as Laurie realises the love he feels for Jo is different to the love he feels for her sister Amy (Florence Pugh), who he marries, which he may never have realised if Jo did not stand her ground and refuse his proposal, knowing that marriage is not the way they are meant to love each other.

It is important to have these films such as Frances Ha and Lady Bird focusing on loving-friendships and platonic soulmates, because they offer an example, and recognition, to audiences that Jo and Laurie lacked. Too many times I have witnessed my friends (and myself) in tears over how hard and demeaning dating can be, and it breaks my heart, because being in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be the only way we gain value. 

Often, when I’m with my friends, I sit back and think about how lucky I am to have them, to love them. These beautiful, bright, shining people. It has taken work, but I have never been so happy as when our instant connection is solidified by dancing in a circle, our arms wrapped around each other on the dance floor; passing the mundane hours away by dancing to early-2000’s hits around our bookshop, until we are interrupted by a customer; sending each other flowers; going on dinner-and-a-movie dates; hiding upstairs at a party with a plate of cupcakes between us; or laughing around a dinner table. By consistently bringing attention to these deep and meaningful relationships, Gerwig’s films show us that these close friendships are just as, if not more, important and worthy of attention. We learn that it is possible to find love, romance and fulfillment outside of romantic-sexual love. That no matter what happens, if a person breaks your heart, if you can’t find a date, as long as you have your friends beside you, there is love.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

The Hagiography of Lady Bird: Myth-Making, Growing Up, and Teenage Saints

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Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) in Lady Bird (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

by Anna Burnham | February 7, 2021

Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior at an all-girls’ Catholic school in suburban Sacramento during the 2002-2003 school year. If you haven’t seen it, there actually isn’t too much of a plot to relay; it’s one of those seemingly-simple coming-of-age movies where the plot follows the ebb and flow of senior year: college applications, the school musical, prom. When it was released, it evoked a fervent, familiar devotion in products of Catholic school from boring suburban places everywhere. I’ve seen it more times than I, erstwhile attendee of York Catholic High School in York, Pennsylvania, can count. 

To say that Lady Bird has a lot of religion in it is not, I hope, too hard of a sell. The opening credits are set over a school Mass. There are nuns. Characters snack on (unconsecrated!) communion wafers when ditching class. The Virgin Mary is painted on the school’s walls. The poster features our protagonist in serene, saintly profile, a crucifix blurred in the background, the movie title centered in a gothic font that evokes old religious texts. Religious imagery infuses this film, but its engagement with religion goes far beyond its aesthetic. This is a movie that integrates religion and theology on a deep, thematic level.

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In an interview during the press tour for Lady Bird, writer/director/queen of my heart Greta Gerwig revealed that the inspiration behind the main “organizing principle” of her coming-of-age story was, indeed, divine. “I was always interested in who [the saints] were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired, but they were also kind of just annoying teenagers,” she said. “God can use whatever you have even if it looks unpromising. Even if you’re just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that’s transformed into something holy.”

For the uninitiated, the saints and their lives are an essential part of the Catholic tradition. Growing up Catholic, their stories and examples were conferred with as much importance as biblical stories, their feasts celebrated with regularity (we got our throats blessed with candles on the Feast of St. Blaise, the patron saint of…throats), their patronage invoked when traveling (St. Christopher), taking a test (St. Joseph of Cupertino), or playing a sporting match (Our Lady Queen of Victory). The canonized saints are people who have—we were taught—lived lives of exceptional holiness. They are set apart, marked, otherworldly in that holiness. And yet, as Gerwig mused in that interview, all the saints who lived to adulthood were teenagers who were probably quite annoying at some point in their lives, but we rarely hear about that part of the story in favor of their later “important” deeds. What would the story of a messy teenage saint figuring it all out look like?

In one scene, Lady Bird is about to launch into an earnest performance of a Sondheim piece as her audition for the school musical when she is asked if Lady Bird is her “given name.” Brashly defiant and baselessly confident in the way only a teenager can be, she responds, “Yes. Well I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.” The audition then begins, complete with expressive hand choreography. She receives an unnamed role in the company. In scenes like this throughout the film, Lady Bird is taking her place in a long line of impertinent, self-assured teenagers committed to carving out their own identities as they fervently seek purpose; that is to say, she is taking her place in a long line of saints.

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There is a word for a written life of a saint: hagiography. Hagiography emerged as a distinct literary genre in the Middle Ages, but instead of the true-to-life biographies we’re used to today, these lives of the saints were more akin to myths, used to teach and instruct the faithful. Courageous hero-warrior saints more closely resembled figures in epic poems of the time than real, fallible people. In fact, these stories were so laudatory that over time, “hagiography” came to most commonly be used as a critical term to describe a biography or a profile that presents its subject in an uncomplicated, overly complimentary light. The term has shifted from describing a life of a saint to describing the life of someone the profiler treats as such.

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Lady Bird and Julie (Beanie Fieldstein) snacking on unconsecrated (!) communion wafers.

In Lady Bird, Gerwig imagines what a teenage saint might look like if she were a normal girl in Sacramento, and we see what a hagiography might look like if it were honest. Lady Bird is certainly no idealized Middle Ages hero-warrior saint figure, but instead a brash, kind, loving person who messes up a lot and is sometimes mean to her mom and her friends. Though we mostly hear about the “capital S” saints (the people officially canonized by the Church who get to put “Saint” in front of their name), all people can be small s-saints in the Catholic tradition. Some form of sainthood is available to all of us in our daily lives. In 1949, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton meditated on this concept, he wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding who I am and of discovering my true self.” I think Merton is merely describing a process we know by a more familiar name: growing up.

I would argue that religion and growing up share something vital in common. They are both about myth-making, which is to say they are both about constructing meaning through identity: personal, social, and collective identity. Lives of the saints, especially, start with how an individual (the saint) cultivates a life and an identity, but they live on because a community later builds meaning around that person and their life. Growing up—finding our identity and our place within our society and community—is the process of building our own myth and figuring out what the truest forms of ourselves are. 

Merton also wrote, “Our vocation is not simply to be but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.” According to him, the process of becoming—alongside God (if that’s your thing) or just in the world with and among others (if God’s not your thing)—is saintly action because it is about co-creation of our own life, our own identity, and our own destiny. We see Lady Bird constantly trying to become the best version of herself while also navigating that the “best” version might not always be the same as the truest version of herself. There is a scene where Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), are shopping in a thrift store for a prom dress for Lady Bird when Marion says something hurtful. As explanation, she continues, “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” to which her daughter quietly responds, “What if this is the best version?” In this scene, I see a teenage saint at work. 

Through Lady Bird, Gerwig gives the life of a modern-day teenage saint the care and attention of a hagiographer. By taking girlhood and adolescence seriously—by deeming it worthy of artistic attention—she assigns significance where many others do not. And by directing that care towards it, Gerwig actually marks the film’s subject of growing up as something sacred

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Lady Bird and Jenna (Odeya Walton) pulling a prank on the sisters.

To understand this, you need to know about another loveable weirdo in the great canon of adolescent womanhood: the French philosopher, activist, mystic, and writer Simone Weil. Weil died in 1943 after a short life of earnest and tragic attempts at solidarity with the poor and marginalized that were constantly foiled by a lack of physical aptitude to match her spirit (once, her parents had to come get her from the Spanish Civil War when her short-sightedness led her to accidentally fire her rifle at a container of hot oil and she suffered burns as a result—there are many more examples). Her writing wrestled with big questions: God, love, prayer. One luminous scene in Lady Bird suggests that Gerwig is no stranger to Weil. Lady Bird is in the office of her theology teacher, Sister Sarah Joan, as they discuss Lady Bird’s future with a touching warmth and mutual respect. The scene unfolds:

Sister Sarah Joan: “I read your college essay. You clearly love Sacramento.”

Lady Bird: “I do?”

SSJ: “You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.”

LB: “Well, I was just describing it.”

SSJ: “Well, it comes across as love.”

LB: “Sure. I guess I pay attention.”

SSJ: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

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Lady Bird and her mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Sister Sarah Joan suggests that Lady Bird sees what others do not see in Sacramento because she pays attention to it in a way others do not, and this means that she loves it. For Simone Weil, love was the very act of noticing, of looking, of paying attention. She thought love and attention are “maybe the same thing,” just as Sister Sarah Joan suggests. Weil also believed that loving is inherently creative because it creates meaning where others do not see it; it is generative, it produces. “Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius,” she wrote. “Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist. Love sees what is invisible.” 

I would take this concept further: not only does love see what’s invisible, but loving something (i.e., directing fixed attention to it) actually gives it significance. Weil believed that because love of one another is tied to love of God, loving someone is a prayerful, sacred act. To love something is to make it holy. She wrote, “Religion is nothing else but a looking.” This can be flipped, too, I think: looking—loving, paying attention—is a sort of religion. Looking at something and assigning it meaning makes it sacred, because that which captures our fixed love and attention is that in which we put our faith, whether literal or proverbial. By writing the story of a normal teenage girl like Lady Bird—by deciding that her story of growing up matters—Gerwig puts her faith in that story. She makes it sacred.

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Lady Bird receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday.

I cannot help but think it so simple: something is holy if we decide it is. And I suppose it matters to me that we continue to do so. It matters to me that we continue to mark things that matter to us as sacred and holy, especially when so much of our maladapted, institutional religion focuses on sacredness only in the context of the cathedrals, rituals, and pages of the Bible from which so many young people—rightfully, righteously, understandably—have removed themselves. By marking something as sacred, we confer spiritual significance: to our relationships, to the bends and turns of our lives, to the movies we love.

In Lady Bird, Gerwig sees what others render invisible: the sanctity of one normal teenage girl in early 2000s Sacramento coming to know herself through the pain and ecstasy of growing up. In the twenty-first century hagiography on screen that is this film, we watch a teenage saint growing into sainthood—one that, in its fullest form, “means to be myself.”

Anna Burnham is a writer, researcher, and organizer who loves talking and thinking about community, religion, public life, social movements, gender, and pop culture. she currently lives in Naleigh, North Carolina, but if you spend more than five minutes with her, you will quickly learn that she grew up amidst the farmlands of central Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @ac_burnham.