Self-Discovery Is Not a Misnomer

Illustration by Simone Eligon

Last year, I stumbled upon Lady Bird, a 2017 coming-of-age film that follows high school senior Christine—who insists on being called Lady Bird—as she navigates the throes of a strained mother-daughter relationship, college applications, and self-discovery in the face of the usual 2000s American high school tropes. 

Lady Bird’s family lives in Sacramento, where she feels trapped by the monotony of a mundane Central Californian lifestyle that seems to rotate incessantly between school and work. As college application time comes around, Lady Bird applies to out of state colleges in a knock-down-drag-out struggle against her parents’ will to catapult herself somewhere—no, anywhere—“where culture is,” as she puts it. 

Lady Bird vehemently opposes attending Catholic school, much to the chagrin of her mother, who makes every effort to avoid the public school where someone was “knifed.” Lady Bird rejects the church’s structure and conformity through varying degrees of behavioral outbursts, from decorating one of the Sisters’ cars with a “Just married to Jesus” banner, to throwing away her teacher’s gradebook, to accosting the speaker at a pro-life assembly, resulting in suspension. 

It’s easy to label Lady Bird as yet another rebellious teen given her anti-establishment performance in the majority of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, the shoe fits. Yet her hallmark defiance—of Catholic school, her mother, her hometown, even her name—ultimately serve as a reminder that it’s sometimes necessary to follow one’s own path despite overwhelming opposition from authority figures. 

The character really struck a chord with me, although I was not exactly what you’d call a teenage rebel. I was laser-focused on school, my schedule only tainted by above-average levels of procrastination. My parents always trusted me, and I never had a curfew. I followed rules in high school, but man, did I. Want. Out. Out of my school where I had friends, but where I was constantly struggling to navigate feeling superfluous in the social circles within which I traveled. Out of my house, where I could find independence and wild adventures. Out of my town, the stifling homogeneity of stepford wives serving as a suffocating reminder of what could befall me if I got stuck here. Golf carts, limited worldviews, rhinoplasty, blinding materialism… God forbid.

Though it wasn’t really a conflict in our house at the time, my family and I now laugh at the circumstances surrounding my college applications. When my mom asked that I apply close by in San Diego in case financial aid packages at other schools fell through, I promptly sent an application to the University of Vermont. Honestly, I couldn’t really have picked anywhere farther in the contiguous United States. I wanted there to be no uncertainty that should all else fail, at the very least I would be taking a plane from the most southwest to (nearly) the farthest northeast corner of the country come August. 

I saw parallels between my resistance to following the crowd and Lady Bird’s unwillingness to comply with standards set for her in that both of us unwittingly let others shape our experience. I used to not wear pink because I thought too many girls wore pink. I rarely spent time with other girls and liked that I was one of the only female surfers on my team because it set me apart from other people in my grade. I refused to attend my high school’s homecoming dance three years in a row, because something about being on the outside looking in was so much more attractive to me than doing exactly what every other person was doing that day.

Through looking back at a seemingly trivial moment, I realized that I had been associating any act of conformity with certain death, an outlook I’ve since come to appreciate for what it is: a defense mechanism. I thought that not being like other people was in and of itself a personality trait when, in fact, it’s little more than a glaring signal of immaturity and being uncomfortable with personal identity — as if a brush with conformity might shatter my independence of thought.  

Spending a lifetime outrunning the status quo—cliches, stereotypes, popular styles, you name it—is just as exhausting and futile as attempting to keep up with the status quo. Intentionally avoiding things that have widespread approval by society can actually prove to be counterproductive and strip people of pursuits that are both enjoyable and reflective of who they are as an individual. By some twist of fate, I wound up at my school’s homecoming dance my senior year, and found that I actually liked high school dances. The observations that the color pink makes me happy, and that having a support system of friends who are girls is good for me, were not far behind.  

Lady Bird’s palpable rejection of institutions only extends so far, as she sacrifices her genuine connection with her best friend in favor of finding an in with the “cool kids.” Her brief stint as an it-girl at her high school is short-lived, partly due to her socioeconomic class and off-beat personality. Lady Bird is not intentionally on the outside—rather, she seems to challenge the conventional spaces that she could not fit into despite her most sincere attempts. 

For most of the movie, Lady Bird had single-minded goals for the future and had blinders on when it came to the other aspects of her life, which she deemed irrelevant to her aspirations. Lady Bird writes her college essay about Sacramento in a manner that unwittingly betrays her affection for the place, despite her claims that she despises California. She was certain that as long as she could escape her stifling town, household, and school, she would find herself, yet the key to her running away is rooted in her nostalgic attentiveness to the little things that connect her with her hometown. 

What took her a while to realize was that tunnel vision of this kind clouds the periphery. It took moving across the country for Lady Bird to realize that “culture” is everywhere. She expended massive amounts of energy trying to get out, as did I, only to find that crucial aspects of her identity were already cemented within her—if only she had bothered to look. Lady Bird eventually comes to appreciate her hometown, faith, and given name, realizing that self-discovery is less about eschewing expectations of others than about introspection. She comes to finally value the aspects of herself that were a part of her the whole time.

Lady Bird’s arrival at college in New York for ushers in a series of pivotal changes in her actions and identity, nearly diametrically opposed to what she has stood for up to this point. She introduces herself to strangers using her given name, Christine, and comments about the ridiculousness of people not believing in God when they are willing to be called by arbitrary names their parents chose for them. Strolling through the city streets, she calls her mom to deliver a nostalgic voicemail, detailing the emotion of driving through the Sacramento neighborhood she had grown up in for the first time when she got her license. 

Uncertainty about identity is an undeniable part of life as a young adult. In a whirlwind couple of years rife with external pressures to make important decisions that “shape your future,” people get caught up in the misconception that understanding oneself requires a hero’s journey or insane escapades. Self-discovery is reliant on the self. The hard part—the only one that matters—is distinguishing who you really are from the version of yourself that you’ve allowed to be defined by others. 

 

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