An English Instructor Asks: Did Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD Plagiarize REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES?

Dec 20, 2017
9:10 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: The author originally published this piece on her blog. We asked for permission to republish the piece here, and she agreed. Also, after this post was published on December 20, we asked the author for a follow-up piece, which we published on December 28.

The movie Lady Bird, which will win awards this season, is plagiarized.

It’s the white-lady Real Women Have Curves—a Latina themed movie that came out fifteen years ago in 2002.

As a busy mom, writer, and community college English instructor, I finally got a chance to see Lady Bird the other night, and I sat in a row with two other women who, like me, came to see it alone and late in the season. Even though I laughed in all the places writer/director Greta Gerwig would have me laugh, I also felt underwhelmed and I didn’t know why—until a near copy of a scene from Real Women Have Curves flashed up on the screen.

And it hit me.

I’ve seen this movie before and a better version of it.

To be fair, I will concede that I might like Real Women Have Curves better because it resonated with me both as woman and culturally. I am a Xicana. I was born in LA (where the movie is set) and I rebelled against my mom’s favorite activity sewing, opting to play drums in a punk band instead. However, none of that excuses plagiarism. I’ll still argue that Real Women Have Curves is a better movie, and that Greta Gerwig stole it, colonized it, and will get all the recognition for creating something new, something unique, “one of the best reviewed movies of all time.”

Once the movie was over —ending quite similarly than Curves with the protagonist, Lady Bird, having gotten into college in New York even after her mom said that she would only go as far as the local community college— I had time to kill since I was waiting for my son to finish up a gig he was playing at a nearby hotel. I sat down in the movie theater lobby to think more about how I was feeling: confused, guilty for not liking a movie that got a near perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, angry that it seemed no one else saw what I saw, or worse, they saw it and nobody was saying anything because whiteness still rules in Hollywood.

I pulled out my phone to do a search—surely the internet could tell me how to feel. Someone else out there must have seen the similarities, I thought. Someone else must have seen what I saw in that movie theater, a movie written and directed by a white woman who was clearly more than inspired by Real Women Have Curves, a white woman who copied the film written and directed by Latinas, a white woman who is now going to win awards for a movie that I’m sure has many autobiographical aspects, but is basically stolen from the plot of another movie—plagiarized.

“¡A la chingada!” as my grandmother used to say.

Of course, it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who saw it. Matthew Rodriguez points it out in his article for Into, and he expresses a thought that was simmering around inside me, “Curves doesn’t get quite the reputation it deserves. It doesn’t get cited like it should, though, at the time, it did something for Latinas—and women, in general…” Rodriguez doesn’t go as far as to use the P word, plagiarism, to describe Lady Bird, but he does urge readers to write about Curves and to tweet about it too to “allow it to live longer.”

Enter this critique—only, I won’t be spelling out the similarities because I wouldn’t want to appear to plagiarize Rodriguez (who wrote his piece already), and college English instructors don’t like plagiarism or lack of creativity. I will, however, quote my friend and fellow writer Anna Armstrong who helpfully watched Real Women Have Curves and assured me that I wasn’t being petty or just going mad with the community college English instructor privilege: “You’re not crazy,” Anna wrote on my Facebook page, “It’s the same skeleton of a story. And the characters are so similar —the loving but hardened mother, the spirited daughter who years for independence, the quiet understanding father who mediates— it’s all there. And Lady Bird completely plagiarized that last scene when Ana is leaving for college and Carmen refuses to come out of the room. The fact that Carmen makes an attempt but fails, makes the scene more poignant than the one in Lady Bird.”

This kind of plagiarism by Hollywood and the ripping-off of unique ideas by peoples who it continues to largely ignore or only feature in caricature has happened before. One example that comes to mind is Kimba the Lion, the Japanese anime cartoon that Disney seems to have ripped off in the form of The Lion King. And then there’s the caricature in the terrible depiction of Frida Kahlo as narcissistic and self-absorbed in the recently released Coco, a movie that boasted several Latino advisors, advisors who somehow allowed the depiction of the dead to be required to go through border patrol and “show their papers” on their trip back for Día de los Muertos to get a laugh. Ay, Hollywood, when will you ever get it right?

Had Gerwig only cited her source, I wouldn’t be, as my students like to say, “putting her on blast” nor would I be giving her an F. And in not citing her source she did plagiarize, as according to my college’s academic honesty, one generally recognized aspects of plagiarism “is defined as… overusing the ideas of a source, so that those ideas make up the majority of one’s work.” And by “overusing the ideas of a source” we’re talking about the movie Real Women Have Curvesdirected by Patricia Cardoso, and whose screenplay was written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, based on a play that Lopez wrote about her own high school experiences.

Now, if only the film industry were held to the same standards as college students all over the Americas. Until then, I’m happy to serve as the Latina


Michelle Cruz Gonzales, a Xicana writer,  writes memoir and fiction. Born in East LA in 1969, MCG grew up in Tuolumne, a tiny California Gold Rush town. She played drums and wrote lyrics for three bands during the 1980s and 1990s: Bitch Fight, Spitboy, and Instant Gir. Currently, MCG is at work on a satirical novel about forced intermarriage between whites and Mexicans for the purpose of creating a race of beautiful, hardworking people. She lives with her husband, son, and their three Mexican dogs in Oakland, California. She tweets from @XicanaBrava.