Dreams of Frances: A love letter to Greta Gerwig and her portrayal of the female identity

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Camila Grimaldi, Editorial Staff Writer

The world is starved for complex female characters. We have been treated to countless supporting roles: love interests, sex icons, and sidekicks. Rarely do we see a female protagonist who is strong-willed and proactive, or someone who channels our insecurities and flaws onto the big screen. I believed there was little hope for female representation in film, until I met Frances.

I first watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha in high school and burned with anxiety throughout its short run time. This black-and-white film was an unconventional presentation of a, for lack of a better word, quirky protagonist with a knack for failure and disappointment.

At the time, Frances was a physical manifestation of my worst nightmare. I had just been accepted into university, a fact that had officially set me down an unconventional career path and forced me to accept my sink-or-swim destiny. Frances was, at 27, still trying to swim and barely keeping her head above the surface. I was mortified.

Only a senior in high school, 27 seemed centuries away, but I knew that by that age I wanted everything Frances could not seem to get her hands on: a successful career, a relationship, and a living space. And I found her insufferable; she was too self-assured in her enjoyment of a world that seemed to have no room for her.

Two years into college, I was forced to watch Frances Ha again for a writing class. However, this time, I felt like I was watching a different film. Every negative sentiment I had about Frances dissolved until only quiet reflection remained.

Watching it a second time, the film became a meditative experience for me. My new perception of the film anchored itself in everything Greta Gerwig. Her nuanced writing and poignant interpretation of a protagonist could have so easily teetered towards annoying, as it had done when I first watched it as a narcissistic adolescent. Now, she was nothing if not endearing.

Here was a female character I had to work to understand, who was challenging me by dragging me along for a ride I would have never imagined going along, and whose emotions became tied to my own. I cared, I cringed, and then I cared more. Her victories were mine, her disillusionments bitter, familiar, and a little comforting.

It took seeing Frances Ha again for me to realize the true strength of Lady Bird, a film that has earned Greta Gerwig two Oscar nominations for screenwriting and directing. Lady Bird is Frances Ha’s more ambitious prequel, a story of a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) navigating the turbulence of senior year.

Lady Bird radiates Gerwig, even though she states that “nothing in the movie literally happened in my life… it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know” (Indiewire, 2017). It is that desire to achieve truth that makes Gerwig’s writing so intimate. Her screenplays sprout from the most abstract of human experiences. She draws from emotions, memories, and dreams before delving into meticulously curated scenes and conversations. It is in the transition from abstraction to specificity that Gerwig manages to achieve a level of heightened universality. By the end of the film, we have all become part of the story we are watching, because each character is rooted in something more profound than their immediate environment.

At least, that was my experience. I have heard complaints that Lady Bird and Frances are unrelatable. But with these people, I am patient. The film industry has not provided audiences with many female characters, let alone any as flawed, ambitious and feisty as Lady Bird. It may take time before people are willing to forgive female characters’ flaws in the way they may dismiss those of male protagonists. I argue that part of Lady Bird’s relatability is her temperament; Gerwig allows us to see how Lady Bird grapples to control the parts of herself that she does not like. Giving us insight into her struggle for identity is essential: What was adolescence if not a constant battle between insecurity and unwavering egoism?

The lower moments of Lady Bird’s narrative makes the smaller moments even more powerful. The created contrast, when Lady Bird blows out her birthday candle or names stars with her first love, makes us root for her. As the audience, we become more willing to forgive her for the mistakes we have seen so many people make in their adolescence. Looking back, we are propelled forward by the mistakes we make and the failures that shape us. We, at some time or another, will undergo the change that Lady Bird and Frances go through on screen.

Greta Gerwig has created two of the most interesting female characters seen in the last decade, and I can not wait to see who she will write next. I know we have miles to go in terms of diversity and representation when it comes to female characters. At the very least, Gerwig is opening a small window into the complexity of the female experience. Her success with Frances Ha and now Lady Bird are sparking interest in the film industry and proving time and time again that female-driven narratives work. The world cares.