Why the most important character in Lady Bird wasn’t Lady Bird.

Some of us are born Julies.

The story isn’t often about us – and when it is, or at least when we get a chunk of the story, it’s usually not a Julie telling it and then they get it all wrong.

(Contains spoilers if you haven’t yet seen Lady Bird. Though you should get on with it now.)

Julies are so often about what they lack. They’re so often about a lack of popularity, attention or time in the sun. They’re about not fitting in the dress or not being asked or being cast aside. They’re about being the odd one out the bad way – not as a charming loudmouth but as a charmless lump.

And, yes… Julie is cast aside in Lady Bird. But the delicate, nuanced way in which it is written makes it quite clear that the dumping is not, actually, about her. She’s not embarrassing. She’s hasn’t committed some awful faux pas or simply committed the crime of existing in a less fashionable figure. In fact it’s not really about her at all; Lady Bird just has some stuff to figure out, and she sees an opportunity to try being popular, and Julie – briefly – pays the price. But it is Lady Bird who learns the lesson (and, delightfully, it’s not at the cost of the humanity of the popular girl, either, who  is- as it turns out – both straightforward and, in her own way, quite sweet. And on another day maybe we’ll tackle the faceless popular girls, who usually only get to be the objects of the story, and not the story themselves. But for now, Julie’s getting her due).

Julies usually have a crying scene. But far too often it’s about male rejection or body hatred or bitterness. This Julie rightly cries because of something that actually matters: ill treatment at the hands of her friend. And this Julie rightly has her happy, interesting ending – she is the first of the two to have an opportunity to spread her wings offered to her. She might not be the one the camera follows out of town, but Julie has her own rich and complex family dynamic, and she’s off to try to make sense of it.

When I was a teenager, I’d have given anything for a Julie in a popular film, or on TV. Girls like me – a little bigger, louder, weirder than the others – were punchline or a cautionary tale. Julie’s only moment of being a joke, when she’s allowed a little dash of quiet devastation at her handsome teacher’s stunning, pregnant wife, is universal enough that anyone could have had it – crushing on a teacher (and realising they have a real, non-school life) is hardly a niche fat girl phenomenon.

Julie isn’t a frump or a fool; she is perhaps one of nature’s supporting players, but the support is genuine and loving and powerful. Maybe the films will always be about the Lady Birds but they won’t be good films without the Julies. In a film with so many ways of looking at the complexity of female relationships, Julie comes second only to Lady Bird’s mother in her importance – and that will remain true even if, as implied, they eventually go their separate ways and grow apart.

There have been times when, if I’m honest, I resented being a Julie. But it was always times when other people pushed me into the tired odd-bod narratives. Like that English teacher who gave us permanent roles for the whole term in As You Like It and made sure that our Jenna was Phoebe, our Lady Bird was Rosalind and our Danny, Jacques … while our Julie (me) got both Dukes (as if one wasn’t dull enough).  A small thing, but small-minded – and those are the things that grow petty burrs and stick in the brain until you look up and realise 20 years have passed. But I have been fortunate to know and love both other Julies and many Lady Birds (sadly, I’ve also definitely known at least one Kyle). When we cast each other in roles we do it with generosity and admiration. Which is exactly why a female creator was the only one who could really shape a Julie that spoke to me (even if I suspect she was never much of a Julie herself).

When my daughter – very possibly a future Julie – reaches a certain age, I will sit her in front of Lady Bird. It will be too soon for her to understand the mother-daughter story, even though she’ll think she understands it, but I can wait for that to make sense some time in the future. I’ll give her the gift of Julie, and the chance to see if not someone like her (who knows? She might yet be Jenna) then someone like me, fully realised and fully acceptable.

For what a gift it has been – even belatedly – to me.

3 Comments

  1. Alex, I saw Lady Bird with my aunt. I actually had a hard time engaging with the film. I mean it was good and beautifully done and Laurie Metcalf was amazing and I “knew” all the people. But I walked out feeling emptily confused. I think my aunt was disappointed that I didn’t have any stunning conversation to have about it but, to be fair, she had a head injury and we were trying to get me to the airport right after. Still…

    Despite that, I seem to have absorbed everything about Julie(s) that you wrote. Not in a defined way and certainly not with your eloquence but I really KNEW Julie. I was Julie. Well, sort of. I rarely was someone’s Julie for more than a year so even that dynamic is one I understand only marginally.

    Sometimes I have let years go by before I revisit a film. I think this may be one of them but if and when I get back to it, I think I’ll “get it” more!

    Reply

    1. I honestly think she was the most deeply well-realised character in the whole thing. Quite a few of my female friends were quietly underwhelmed by it, but even they loved Julie. She’s the heart, I think. Most of us won’t be Lady Bird. Some of us will experience being her mother (to some extent). But almost of all us have had Julie feelings at some time or other. Thanks so much for reading! xx

      Reply

      1. Maybe that was it. Lady Bird was the main character but seemed like she was missing a lot more dimension than one typically feels from a main character, even one that is ‘mysterious’ or ‘adolescent.’ But maybe that was part of it, too. She wasn’t even sure how to fit in with herself?

        But I loved her dad. So. Much. Yes – the dad I never had. *sigh* Makes ya wonder… 🙂

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