Catherine Called Birdy Parent Guide
Ostensibly a comedy, this film is a primal scream for female autonomy.
Parent Movie Review
Catherine, known to everyone as Birdy (Bella Ramsey), is a spunky fourteen-year-old who describes her “truest passions” as “avoiding my chores, critiquing my father’s horrible swordplay, disrupting cottage raisings, causing mischief in the village, and listening through doors I should not listen through.”
In our day, being a self-willed teenager is unremarkable, but this is Lincolnshire in 1290 and young ladies are supposed to be skilled in housewifely arts and completely obedient to their fathers – even when their spendthrift dads are on the verge of ruin and plan to marry off their daughters for gold.
In our day, selling your underage daughter in marriage would be considered child trafficking but it’s just another part of life in medieval England. Marriage for the aristocracy has nothing to do with love; it’s all about money, land, and alliances. Birdy is the greatest asset her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), has left and he desperately needs to broker a suitable marriage – but his stubborn, devious daughter is determined to thwart him by any means necessary.
Director Lena Dunham has never been known for nuance or subtlety and there’s none on display in this film. Catherine, Called Birdy is a primal scream for female autonomy; a demand for women to be respected as human beings with the right to control their own lives. (Birdy rages against her biological fate when she cries, “I shall never get to have anything like fun just because my birthright is to bleed.”) The story is an indictment of patriarchy, misogyny, and ignorance as scene after scene hammer home the horrors of a society in which females are nothing but chattel. It’s almost impossible not to watch this movie without feeling incensed on Birdy’s behalf – and female viewers will almost certainly feel themselves shivering with detestation as the elderly, flatulent, and lecherous Lord John Murgaw VIII threatens the 14-year-old girl with her marital destiny.
The appalling premise of forced child marriage rather overshadows the film’s negative content. There’s plenty of crude material (Lena Dunham’s directing after all), comprising fart jokes, double entendres, and innocent but misguided speculation about sex on the part of Birdy and her peers. Menstruation is a key plot element and Birdy’s bloody rags are seen more than once. There’s also brief mention of homosexuality and some randy comments by a drunk older man.
Catherine, Called Birdy is a difficult film to assess for family audiences thanks to its crude content and overpowering albeit sympathetic agenda. That said, the cast sparkles and delivers comic lines with impeccable timing. The jokes are often funny and the painful moments will tug at your heartstrings. If you know anything about medieval history, though, this film will drive you insane. The anachronisms keep piling up – don’t get me started on the books which are from the wrong era – and the contemporary soundtrack is sometimes funny but usually disconcerting. Too often, supposedly medieval characters spout opinions with a clearly modern provenance and that doesn’t work either. This is a movie designed to offer laughter and outrage in equal quantities, but the side order of frustration might deter audiences who like their history served with a higher level of accuracy.Directed by Lena Dunham. Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper. Running time: 108 minutes. Theatrical release October 6, 2022. Updated October 16, 2022
Watch the trailer for Catherine Called Birdy
Catherine Called Birdy
Rating & Content Info
Why is Catherine Called Birdy rated PG-13? Catherine Called Birdy is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some suggestive material and thematic elements.
Violence: A child mentions a “hanging”. A baby is stillborn and there is mention of other stillbirths. There is mention of the martyrdom of saints. A man repeatedly strikes his daughter’s hand with a rod as a form of corporal punishment. A father locks his daughter in a room as punishment. There’s brief mention of wounds in battle. A girl hits herself in the face. A character deliberately sets a building on fire. Men duel with swords and one is injured; a little blood is seen.
Sexual Content: A girl outlines outlandish theories on how babies are made. A girl sees blood on her underclothes and there’s a discussion of menstruation. Women make cloth pads for periods and this is a recurrent theme. It is implied that a girl interrupts sexual activity between her parents but nothing is seen. A man and woman kiss. A woman is seen in labor. There is mention of virginity. A young woman is forced to marry a nine year old boy. A man talks about “fornicating”. Girls have a slang discussion of sexual intercourse. There’s allusion to homosexuality.
Profanity: There are about a dozen swear words, including three scatological curses, a few crude anatomical expressions, and some terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: An adult drinks alcohol and is sometimes drunk. Adults and teenagers drink alcohol at social functions.
Page last updated October 16, 2022
Catherine Called Birdy Parents' Guide
Sadly, Birdy’s experience was not as rare as we would like to believe. Amongst the nobility, marriages were often arranged for profit at an early age.
History Extra: Love and marriage in medieval England
Australian Women’s History Network:
Did you know that child marriage (forced or voluntary) is still legal or practiced in the shadows in much of the world? What is the status of this practice in your country? What can be done to give young women and girls greater autonomy over their own lives and the ability to direct their own futures?
Girls Not Brides: About child marriage
Unchained at last: About Child Marriage in the US
The Washington Post: For the sake of a visa, I was forced into marriage in Arizona – at age 15
Open Access Government: Child marriage: The legal loophole which violates statutory rape laws
Loved this movie? Try these books…
This film is adapted from the Newbery Honor Book, Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. Ms. Cushman revisits the medieval period with The Midwife’s Apprentice, the story of a homeless orphan who meets a midwife and begins to help her deliver babies, also finding a place for herself in society.
The weirdness of the medieval period comes fully to life in The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. Written by Adam Gidwitz and illustrated by Hatem Aly, this novel follows the children on a trip across France, ending in Mont St. Michel.
Readers can get a broad look at medieval life in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. This novel by Laura Amy Schlitz features the lives of 22 village dwellers and lets readers really get a feel for the period.
Forced child marriage is a key plot element in The Hermit of Eyton Forest, one of the murder mysteries in Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael series.
Related home video titles:
Forced child marriage has been tackled in other films. In Skater Girl, Prerna learns to skateboard and develops the confidence to stand up for herself and her own dreams. The lushly animated Bombay Rose features a protagonist who was forced to marry at a young age and now does everything she can to protect her younger sister from the same fate.
As for fans of medieval history, there’s plenty to choose from. Firmly set in the medieval period, Ladyhawke is a fictional, fantastical tale of a couple who must break a curse to be together again.
Based on a true story, The Last Duel sees a knight forced to duel in defense of his wife’s honor.
Leaning hard into the strangeness of the medieval period, The Green Knight spectacularly adapts a classic piece of Middle English literature for the big screen.
Playing fast and loose with historical detail, Robin Hood brings medieval adventure to the screen in this version of the famous outlaw’s escapades.
A young girl in Ireland finds herself facing a strange fate and fighting to control her destiny in Wolfwalkers. Technically, this animated film is set in the 1600s so it isn’t a medieval tale, but it’s set in an intriguing historical period that just might get tween viewers interested in the past.