I could never understand the appeal of Lady Bird. Granted, it was undeniably quirky, somewhat charming and at times humorous, but overall I couldn’t help identifying it as anything but extremely average. Just another run-of-the-mill indie coming-of-age film. Why, then, was it being praised so highly? It received five stars from most Letterboxd reviewers. Critics hailed it as a revolutionary piece of feminist cinema. Audiences lauded its depiction of the “universal female experience”. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. All I saw was whiteness. White cast, audience and critic — all united, flocking to rejoice over a glorified work of Western feminism.

Whilst it would be unjust to overlook the successful cinematic aspects of Lady Bird, the film, like many other so-called feminist works of the 21st century, chronicles the hardships of white, bourgeoisie female adolescence without true concern for any other form of diversity. When minorities are included here (one gay character, two people of colour), they act solely as foils for the protagonist and her development. From an aesthetic perspective though, the appeal of Lady Bird is evident. Deftly capturing the zeitgeist of 2002 Sacramento, Gerwig employs softly-lit shots to convey the sense of rose-tinted nostalgia attached to the time period, and the film is suffused with a romantic tone of wistfulness and longing. Additionally, it must be mentioned that Gerwig’s directorial debut features several quality performances, most notably those of Laurie Metcalfe and Tracy Letts. Furthermore, the themes of female empowerment and solidarity are extremely prevalent within the film, with Gerwig placing Lady Bird’s relationships with her mother and best friend at the forefront of this work. However, all these trailblazing characters are white, with Gerwig ultimately supplying and prioritising one particular type of female perspective. It is undeniable that the sense of female solidarity is potent within Gerwig’s films, but the core implication is clear: this cinematic world of feminism is for white women & white women only.

This notion of a lack of intersectionality is severely intensified when regarding Gerwig’s succeeding film Little Women. Upon its release, the reception was exultant. Here was a film which, despite an extreme variance in time period, depicted the realities of being a woman during the 19th century, with problems which remain pertinent even now. Or so it was said. The reality is that the novel Little Women itself is a work of white feminist literature. Due to their white female privilege, the March sisters are sheltered from the raging Civil War during this period, and despite Jo’s extolled radicalness, she never mentions it, deciding instead to focus on her personal interests. If ever there were an illustration of white feminism, it would be Jo’s elation at besting her male publisher while African-American women her age were forced to endure the new ‘black codes’ introduced in the South. Louisa May Alcott’s book completely disregards the issues faced by people of colour during the Civil War, lacking a single mention of their suffering within all 759 pages, instead opting to focus on the romantic and professional struggles of four middle-class white girls.

“The core implication is clear: this cinematic world of feminism is for white women & white women only.”

Nonetheless, in her adaptation Gerwig is blatantly aware of the intersectional challenges presented by her source material, and tries to involve fragments of critical race theory into a few lines of dialogue, but it appears more as a disingenuous display of virtue signalling than a sincere attempt to include and to educate. In one scene, the director attempts to introduce the topic of diversity through a conversation between an African-American girl and a white girl, in which it is explained that the North benefited from and was therefore complicit in the original sin of slavery. Not only is this attempt shallow, but it preserves the antediluvian custom of utilising an ethnic minority as a tool to support or highlight the positive attributes of their white counterpart, hence dehumanising the black character for the sake of reinforcing white superiority.

Yet still, the praise of a “relatable” and “realistic” film was never-ending. When a white spectator comments something along the lines of “this movie says it all about women,” it completely eradicates the complexity of racial-gender relations, insinuating that the oppression faced by white women is comparable to that of ethnic minorities. In contradiction to the discourse posed by Gerwig’s films, the challenges faced by white women have never and will never be a relatable experience for women of colour.

However, this type of feminism is not limited to Gerwig’s fictional, cinematic world. Rather, it is an issue which permeates the actual film industry. During the 2018 awards season, in which Gerwig had been nominated for Best Director, both Emma Stone and Natalie Portman introduced the nominees at the Oscars and Golden Globes respectively as “four men and Greta Gerwig”. This introduction was commended by many, so preoccupied with their feminist diatribe that they overlooked the fact that two of the nominees, Guillermo del Toro and Jordan Peele, were people of colour. By opting to emphasise Gerwig’s status as a woman and ignoring the minority status of del Toro and Peele, Portman and Stone along with hordes of other white feminists insinuated that white women face more oppression than men of colour, and that men of colour are as privileged as their white male peers — an intimation which is simply untrue.

“When a new film is hailed as a radical feminist work, we can usually expect it to be white-centric, with people of colour either serving as foils, or being excluded from the narrative altogether.”

A feminist criterion which has gained popularity in recent years is the Bechdel test, which attempts to quantity how sexist a film is based on measuring the number of interactions between two or more women where they talk about something other than man. Where is the racial equivalent? Some have suggested the DuVernay test, termed after acclaimed director Ava DuVernay, but this has never attracted the same attention. Year after year we witness coming-of-age feminist films like Booksmart, Lady Bird, and Eighth Grade, and time after time the protagonist and the majority of their social circle is white. Throughout history, “feminist” films are dominated by white filmmakers, white characters and white narratives. From chick flicks (Mean Girls) to dramas (Suffragette) to LGBT films (Carol), any time a film is deemed progressive in terms of gender or even sexuality, the story is typically a racially exclusive one. This is why when a new film is hailed as a radical feminist work, we can usually expect it to be white-centric, with people of colour either serving as foils, or being excluded from the narrative altogether.

A solution to this would be to diversify the industry itself, i.e. more ethnic female filmmakers, as more representation within the industry would directly equate to more representation on-screen, as well as providing an alternative and authentic perspective. Ultimately, of course, female-centric films are necessary in order to confront the immense issue of sexism in film. Always welcomed and mostly well-intentioned, it is undeniable that there is a severe need for more feminist content in the industry — but this feminism must be intersectional.