Paromita Vohra: The compelling joys of casual feminism

Updated: Nov 26, 2017, 06:32 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

You write about Sacramento so affectionately, with such care," a nun tells a young woman, Christine, in the lovely new American indie film Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig. Christine responds with, "I guess I just pay attention to things."

You write about Sacramento so affectionately, with such care," a nun tells a young woman, Christine, in the lovely new American indie film Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig. Christine responds with, "I guess I just pay attention to things." The nun, her school principal, asks, "Don't you think they are the same? Love and attention?" Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film that is lovingly attentive to the world of its central characters, a mother and daughter. Christine, in perpetual revolt against her mother, has decided to call herself Lady Bird, ("It's given by me to me" she says when asked if Lady Bird is her given name). It reminded me of the way Urdu poets choose a takhallus, often translated as nom de plume, but really more like an evocation of the poet's spirit. And, indeed, Lady Bird is about a young woman's search for some poetry in life.

Christine/Lady Bird is not extraordinary or exceptional. She can be shallow, petulant and comically self-serious. But she is passionate and sincere and searching for a way to have more, be more, imagine more. Though the familiar elements of teen movies - mean girls and caddish boys - are present in the film, they do not play out as a morality tale. Rather, everyone is flawed, confused, comical, sweet, foolish, innocent, unkind, sometimes wise - in other words, young.

A still from the film Lady Bird
A still from the film Lady Bird

Lady Bird's parents have very little money. Her mother, anxious and nervy about Lady Bird's life being on track, cuts her emotional coat to her circumstantial cloth and gives Lady Bird constant, sardonic reality checks. Lady Bird constantly chafes against this and their familiar fights are about a need to fly, even if your wings aren't so great.
During one of these fights Lady Bird plaintively asks her mother, "Do you like me?" "I love you" her mother responds. "But sometimes I just want you to like me" says the girl.
This scene expands the idea of attention as love. Lady Bird is asking for attention not as a problem, something to be taken care of, (care being the operative word) - but as a source of pleasure, curiosity, fun. This is a truth about love - we do not always want to be rescued or resolved. Sometimes we just want to be enjoyed, to be found interesting.
And the film finds Lady Bird interesting, not feeling it has to justify its female protagonist via social problems or catastrophes. It is a film entirely made up her desires as she engages with youth's typifying conflict - the need to both fit in and stand out.

Through this artistic mode of attention to characters who happen to be women (not Woman), their engagements and relationships - friends, mothers and daughters, teachers/mentors and students, heterosexual couples - the film does more to make women's experiences a simple part of thinking about the world. Women are a context, within which we think about life, not a pretext for defining or examining masculinity - which is most worthy, politically correct films about women become. Women here are travellers on life's journey, not victims or heroes. This makes the film effortlessly feminist, bringing a compassionate, not judging eye, to human endeavor. I would describe it as casual feminism - and what more potent way to destabilise casual sexism?

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com

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