How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
**This article contains spoilers for Lady Bird.**
In a year of polarizing cinema, Lady Bird shared something special with everybody. The film earned acclaim from three oft-opposed segments: audiences, critics, and awards-voters (it scored two trophies at the Golden Globes, winning for “Best Musical or Comedy Movie” and “Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy”). The assured direction by Greta Gerwig (making her solo debut behind the camera), roster of strong performances, and exquisite balance of hilarious and heartfelt moments have helped position Lady Bird as a serious Oscar contender.Lady Bird invites us to consider the nature of our love and our roots in a time when the concepts are as nebulous and mishandled as ever.
The film is even more of an anomaly when you consider it is has earned such buzz despite not overtly tasting “of the moment.” Unlike several other films dominating awards-season conversation—such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Post; and Get Out—Lady Bird does not inspire Trump-era think pieces nor impart lessons about What Life Is Like in 2017. But it would be a mistake to think Lady Bird does not offer particularly valuable wisdom for contemporary audiences. Quite the opposite. It invites us to consider the nature of our love and our roots in a time when the concepts are as nebulous and mishandled as ever.
Lady Bird tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (she gave the name to herself), an angst-ridden high school senior eagerly awaiting her escape from stuffy Sacramento (the “Midwest of California,” she brands it). Lady Bird longs to venture to an East Coast liberal arts school, but she must first navigate a maelstrom of coming-of-age complexities (which takes place in 2002 and 2003, a time when teens were less likely to have cell phones on them than puka shell necklaces).
At home, Lady Bird is constantly at odds with her bighearted but sharply critical mother, a psychiatric nurse with whom she shares in equal measure both genuinely sweet moments of intimacy and quarrels full of verbal barbs—mostly centered around Lady Bird’s disdain for their barely middle-class circumstances. Then there’s Lady Bird’s puttering, softhearted father who helps her fill out financial aid forms for East Coast colleges in secret. Their home is modest, located on “the wrong side of the tracks,” an embarrassment Lady Bird endeavors to conceal from the Cool Kids at school.
At her Catholic high school, Lady Bird enjoys an outsider’s bond with her goofy and lovable best friend; she meets her first boyfriend, whose personal situation takes her by surprise; she later tries to jockey for approval from the school’s popular crowd, taking up with the rich girl and falling hard for the pretentious bad boy—moves that spin Lady Bird into an exhausting season of trying to impress the “right people” and project the “right image.”
A pivotal scene occurs at the peak of Lady Bird’s rebellion, in which she is lovingly called out for her behavior by the school’s headmaster, a warm and wily nun. Instead of punishing Lady Bird for an approval-seeking prank, the nun shifts the focus of the conversation to her student’s strengths. She finds Lady Bird’s college admissions essay impressive, remarking how Lady Bird’s love for Sacramento comes through so clearly in her writing, how her descriptions of the place are so intricate. Lady Bird is confused. Her “love for Sacramento”? She hates the town, she is ashamed of her origins, she is hiding her identity. Sure, she admits she pays attention; she notices the peculiarities about it and can complain about it in great detail, but she doesn’t love it. The nun invites Lady Bird to consider the possibility: “Aren’t they the same thing: love and attention?” This is a novel proposal for Lady Bird.
Is it for us?
The phrase “attention economy” has made its way into several publications’ headlines this past year, often attached to reported pieces about the relationship between consumers and technology and design. We now live in an attention economy, an age where our gaze, our click, our social media share is the asset most coveted by corporate entities. It is also an age where we in effect declare our allegiance to whatever force we let interrupt us, whatever we let pull us away. The competition for share of our vision and presence has never been stiffer. We live in an attention economy because attention is the most powerful coinage; our noticing is a precious commodity. If where our treasure is, is where our heart will also be, then attention is the currency of love. In this regard, maybe Lady Bird’s headmaster is right: love and attention are the same.
This is a slippery notion to get our hands around. We typically associate more dynamic language with love, like adoration or attraction or fulfillment. But attention is sneakily thicker than these; it confers some sort of honor to the object of our noticing. Put another way, love is a noticing that creates loyalty, and a loyalty that compels noticing.
In Lady Bird’s final stretch, we find the titular protagonist settling into the promised land. She is finally on her own at an East Coast university, thousands of miles from her town, her school, her mom, her obscurity. A blank canvas before her.
Lady Bird celebrates her newfound freedom by spending an eventful night out, one that leaves her hungover and wandering the streets of New York the following morning. On her way back to campus, Lady Bird happens upon a Catholic church moments before Mass begins. She instinctively grabs a program from the greeter and shuffles in. The service gives her a rush of the familiar, a potent orientation after a strange night out.
Lady Bird is compelled to call her mother. She leaves a voicemail and recounts a recent memory: driving through Sacramento alone for the first time, Lady Bird admits she was, to her surprise, struck by how much she noticed: the bends in the road, the low-rise shops dotting the town. “Do you remember the first time you drove alone through Sacramento?” she asks her mother. When Lady Bird hangs up, she looks grateful.
Amid our cultural homesickness, our rootless age, where we love nostalgia but often feel the itch to jettison the customs and communities from which we sprang, maybe that is an antidote: leaning into the fact that our hearts bear craters shaped like our hometowns, that our relationships to the people and places that formed us are, by design, not so easily uprooted. Lady Bird does not advocate for the uncritical embrace of our forebears, or the automatic approval of harmful upbringings that may haunt us still. It makes an earnest appeal to the hope that though we may run into the intoxicating newness of the night, our old loves will meet us in our morning hangover, ready to point us home.
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