Gong: “Lady Bird” and the Teenage Condition


Helen Peng

It was the recent coming-of-age film, “Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig, that got me thinking about the “teenage condition.”

Victoria Gong, Copy Editor

Our teenage years are filled with doubt—uncertainty that is either self-instituted or arises from our interactions with our teachers, older siblings or, most importantly, our parents. Often we’re told by our moms and dads that we have potential, but we lack initiative or that we’re just plain lazy, an attitude that won’t get us through high school or into college, leading us to the dreaded Nowhere. We’re conditioned to fear that Nowhere, not only because we fear disappointing our parents, but also because it will mean that we failed in our claim for independence.

The teenage condition is a strange one. Our brains aren’t fully developed, or so we’re told by erudite scientists peering down at scans of teenage prefrontal cortexes. We don’t think the right way; we don’t take into consideration the consequences of the risks we take, which is especially easy at MSMS, where we’re shielded from the prying eyes of our parents, where if we’re just secretive enough we can get away with things that would get us flambéed if we were caught doing them at home.

Some may even consider the teenage mind to be infected by a crippling disease, which compels us to cuss, party, drink, sneak out, break curfew, talk back, slam doors in our parents’ faces and make more enemies than friends. Society dreads the moment another teenager enters his/her “rebellious phase,” during which he/she morphs from a cute and cuddly doll to an acne-smattered, hormone-charged monster. In this awkward stage in our lives, we learn from the news and media, we have to be straightjacketed until we’re 18, at which point we’re suddenly released into the world and expected to morph into full-fledged adults overnight.

It was the recent coming-of-age film, “Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig, that got me thinking about the “teenage condition.” Within the first five minutes, the eponymous character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, jumps out of the car her mother is driving while they’re arguing about college. Lady Bird’s dream is to attend an East Coast school, where, she says, “the culture is,” but her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, tells her she’d be better off going in-state — “to City College and then to jail and then back to City College” — where the tuition is cheaper. This widens the schism between Lady Bird and her mother. Lady Bird rebels: She smokes and has sex, and she applies to universities in New York behind her mother’s back. In the end, she gets accepted to one and leaves the nest behind, but after getting drunk at a party, she calls her mother and leaves a message, apologizing.

These days, there’s certainly a stigma against teenagers—and it’s not that we don’t contribute to that impression ourselves, but our actions are also influenced by societal expectations formed by exaggerations from the news and media. We’re told that drinking and doing drugs is common among people our age, and so some of us follow those expectations—because what is there to lose if everyone thinks you’re doing it anyway? We’re told that the typical teen goes through a rebellious phase, so all of us are expected to do so, too. It’s a vicious, never-ending circle.

The truth is, there’s fault on both ends of the fiery altercation. The teenage condition is just as much formed by the teens who exhibit it as the adults who try to extinguish it. The willful teenager is not as terrifying as some people make him/her out to be. We’re simply seeking independence, and our autonomy is inevitable — and will eventually even be strongly welcomed by those trying to instill it — so why teach us that we should be confined, that our imaginations should be stifled, until our brains are developed enough to efficiently process risks and consequences? Independence is something learned; it can only come with practice, so you should trust in our ability to master self-sufficiency, because you’ll have to sooner or later. When we’re young, we’re told by our parents what to fear, as a melancholy priest in “Lady Bird” puts it: “We’re afraid that we will never escape our past. We’re afraid of what the future will bring. We’re afraid we won’t be loved, we won’t be liked. And we won’t succeed.” But as we prepare to make the decade-long, puberty-haunted leap into adulthood, we don’t want to be told what to fear. We, for the most part, are getting to know ourselves. That means fearing what we need to learn to want to fear, doubting by our own merits and not what we’re told we should doubt. We’re learning that we must take responsibility for making those stupid decisions. We only try so hard to get away because we want the choice of returning. We need guidance and understanding, not oppression and condemnation.

On the other hand, we teenagers should, in our present-day lingo, “chill.” Because of these growing stipulations of the teenage condition, we’re paranoid, perhaps, that someone is constantly trying to take over our lives. We turn to what has become socially acceptable to defend our declaration of self-reliance: We shout, stomp, slam doors and tell our parents we wish they weren’t our moms and dads. But sometimes we don’t realize the extent of the sacrifices the adults in our lives make to build the foundation for our futures. It’s true that sometimes, our parents’ visions contradict our own; however, sometimes, we just need to step back and see ourselves through another pair of eyes. Not everyone is an enemy. Sometimes, it’s better to listen than to impose yourself upon others.

The bottom line, however, is that today’s adults and teenagers are turning the teenage condition, this stage of generous rebellion, into an epidemic — and that is precisely what it is not. In our media-reliant society, the teenage condition has turned into a drama. But actually, the teenage phase is a beautiful thing. We’re like saplings pushing ourselves out of the ground, marred by the occasional thunderstorm. We aren’t things that need to be controlled or straightjacketed or fixed. We are things that thrive.