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Why Lady Bird is the Madonna and Child of our time

Greta Gerwig revives the image of Madonna and Child through her articulate and gentle portrayal of mother and daughter

By Katy Murphy

The Renaissance saw an explosion in popularity of one genre and subject in art; that of the Madonna and Child. Although this genre found its roots in Gothic works from previous centuries, some of the most recognisable paintings derive from this age. The growing awareness of artistic techniques, prompted by the release of artistic texts (such as that of Alberti), which specified realism as an essential component to painting, meant that there was a flood of work filled with a newfound sensuality and beauty.

Take, for example, the Lower Register of Masaccio’s multi-panelled 1426 Pisa Altarpiece. It’s centre piece is the stunning Madonna and Child with Angels, filled with expensive gold and rich, beautiful colours, entirely derived from Medieval standards of art. Here, Masaccio achieves the phenomenal; he captures sensuality and emotion – not through realistic facial expressions – but merely through his depiction of the baby Jesus.

This depiction does not show a child who is aware of his fate as the son of God. Instead, this is a child perching on the knee of his mother with his fist placed in his mouth and his hand clasped in Mary’s. It is this sobering yet surprisingly sweet image of a child that brings a sense of the ‘gentleness’ to the scene. There is not a focus on religion, the child’s future as Christ, or even the angels that surround the scene. Instead, the focus simply lies on the scene of a mother and her child, and the unspoken adoration between them.

Much of the same could be said for Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which was a standout film from 2017. It was revolutionary in many regards (especially the performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf) but the most astonishing aspect to me was the writing from Gerwig who, in a triumphant and almost poetic way, pours life into the mother character of Marion McPherson, just as she does for her daughter and protagonist Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson. As we navigate through Christine’s life, filled with love, breakups, friendship, deceit, and longing, all of it feels intrinsically and flawlessly woven into her relationship with her mother. This, alongside Christine’s personal issues, is a deeply turbulent yet loving story,as well as being a strong and entirely characteristic representation of their personalities as characters; Christine, who is determined and stubborn, and Marion, who is hard-working and strong-willed. These are traits that define them not as women and not as a mother and daughter, but as two individuals who are so strongly connected and interwoven that they inevitably clash.

“Lady Bird, like the Madonna and Child with Angels, is not a film about religion, the future of Christine’s life in college, or Lady Bird’s fluctuating rotary of friends and boyfriends – it is a film about a mother and a daughter.”

This is the conflict at the heart of Lady Bird. Her mother acts as bookends to each of the events in Christine’s life, such as when she helps her prepare before homecoming at her Catholic school, and chastises her for coming home late afterwards. Among other events, her mother frames her life, criticises her decisions, and propels Christine’s life in ways that don’t fully occur to her until the ending of the film. Lady Bird, like the Madonna and Child with Angels, is not a film about religion, the future of Christine’s life in college, or Lady Bird’s fluctuating rotary of friends and boyfriends – it is a film about a mother and a daughter.

The relationship depicted in Lady Bird isn’t as poised as that of Mary and Christ – but that’s a given; I’m sure nobody can state their relationship with their mother as being flawless, especially in their teenage years. Gerwig captures this rawness and straining relationship effortlessly. Christine throws things, yells, and hurls herself out of a moving car to win an argument about college. Marion is no different; saying biting remarks followed by cold silences that, perhaps unbeknownst to Christine, are filled with thoughtfulness and unsureness. The lack of clarity in their relationship is a factor that only serves to help the authenticity of Lady Bird and differentiate it from previous depictions of the same dynamic, both in cinema and through broader genres of art. In turn, it only brings it closer to becoming an updated version of a Madonna and Child.

The conflict between Christine and Marion in Lady Bird cannot be understated in its importance, both within the film and within a wider scope of cinema. At a time where women are expected to band together in the face of irresponsible tragedy and terror, partially speared by the MeToo movement, but also pushed by millennial perceptions of the female self, it becomes more significant than ever that Gerwig wrote these two characters as women who fight, who disagree, who bicker, but who love each other, all without losing any of their personality, and without framing them as political vehicles or mechanisms. But it’s also important in that Gerwig has, single-handedly, reincarnated the Madonna and Child and reignited the emotions, turmoil, and adoration associated with motherhood in this work.

Set in the years 2002 and 2003, Lady Bird, on the surface, very briefly touches on 9/11 – although the film revolves around young people who would come to be known as the Post-9/11 Generation – a generation of people who have never known a life without terrorism. But this is explored within Lady Bird to a greater extent than perhaps blatantly expressed. It’s in the relationship between Christine and Marion; filled with doubt and insecurity and, as seen in the airport scene, regret. As Marion turns the car around with the hopeless aim of seeing Christine to college properly, her teary face seems to emulate everything that divides the two generations; it encompasses the split between Marion’s generation of American dreamers and hard-workers and Christine’s generation of crushed hopes and stunted emotional ability.

“It is imperative that the relationship at the heart of Lady Bird is understood not only as that between two women, but between two generations.”

At the core of the film, the generational divide is fundamental to Lady Bird; the split between old and new, between tradition and the novel. Lady Bird has sex before the age her mother deems it appropriate and Marion expresses disdain when Christine is suspended for disputing a pro-life lecturer. This gap is the crux of their shared conflict, and yet it’s hardly different from the struggle implicit in the Madonna and Child – after all, the Virgin Mary had to mother a child who would become renowned for miraculous behaviour and head an entirely new (and later, illegal, as it is the one he would be persecuted and killed for) religion, radical in itself but undeniably so to the young mother. In this regard, it is imperative that the relationship at the heart of Lady Bird is understood not only as that between two women, but between two generations, reinforcing it as a near-perfect reincarnation of the Madonna and Child.

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