Lady Bird's a Cheater

Lady Bird has been a tremendous box office success since its theatrical release in November of 2017. Though Alice A. Frye, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, remains unimpressed.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Frye questions the film’s treatment of academic dishonesty. She points out that “Many characters — including Christine [AKA Lady Bird], the willful, complex, and lovable protagonist — commit numerous transgressions, all of which are judged and/or forgiven over the course of the movie, with one notable exception”  — academic cheating.

Frye resents what she sees as the normalization of academic cheating in the film, as Lady Bird knowingly and willfully cheats on a few different occasions in order to improve her academic standing. And it’s on the basis of this falsified academic record that she wins entrance to an elite out-of-state college.

Frye is offended by the film’s depiction of cheating as trivial, a normal means to an end. And she points to academia’s real cheating problem, with rampant paper mills and collusion hidden in private Facebook groups, exclaiming: “Cheating seems so common and accepted, it is hard to argue that it matters. Perhaps I should just tell my students that it doesn’t matter. Go ahead, cheat. May the most skilled cheater win.”

Here Frye misses a real opportunity to explore something beyond the wrongness of Lady Bird’s cheating: the role of the institution itself in fostering and even encouraging her behaviour. There’s more to this story...


I don’t mean to suggest that any of Lady’ Bird’s teachers condone her misconduct. I do believe, in fact, that there are more than a few stearn and disapproving looks of suspicion. What I mean to ask is the degree to which the film alludes to a growing critique of today’s system of education as a job-training service. In this system, education is a commodity and grades are products, teachers are storekeepers, students are customers and their misbehaviour is shoplifting.

The ideals of a liberal arts education describe a system that’s more akin to a coffee shop than a retail store. In coffee shops, consumers purchase coffee and the privileges of a seat at a table. They linger. They read, work, talk, observe, drink. And they allow themselves to be changed by this experience. It’s this change that they value. And it’s something that’s impossible to steal.

It’s possible that the prevalence of academic misconduct begs the question: what sort of shop have educators established? Lady Bird and so many other shoplifters suggest that the education shop is a retail store. ....

Stephanie Bell

Dr. Bell is the Associate Director of York University's Writing Centre and an Assistant Professor in the Writing Department's Professional Writing degree program. She spends her time devising ways of using critical pedagogy to support students' understanding of and commitment to academic and professional integrity. The podcast course is a result (and continuation) of one such experiment.