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Caged Bird Metaphor

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If I cannot fly, let me sing …

The bird, even a caged bird, remains a symbol of freedom and a stimulus for thinking about the relationship between freedom and human society.
Frederick Jones, The Boundaries of Art and Social Space in Rome
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Many, many years ago, some artistic young woman destined for marriage looked at a pet bird in a cage and thought, "Look at this beautiful creature of the sky, confined to a cell that we may be entertained by its song... I know how that feels!" And thus this trope was born.

The Caged Bird Metaphor is a common Animal Metaphor whereby a character—often a woman or girl in an oppressive environment—is associated with a caged bird, symbolizing their sense of confinement and longing for freedom.

This trope is effective because birds in the wild tend to represent freedom due to their enviable aviary capabilities, making it all the more tragic when one is deprived of that birthright. (Note the term "jailbird" for "prisoner", and that "flying", "flying away", and "flying the coop" are all synonyms for escape.) The trade-off, of course, is that many metaphorical cages also offer protection and some degree of luxury; examples will often explore this choice between freedom and safety.

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Most of the cages you will see used for this trope are tiny, old-timey birdcages with only one or two bare perches. The metaphor is less applicable in a modern context, as most bird keepers know to house their pets in larger, more interactive cages and not keep them confined all the time.

Often a Stock Visual Metaphor. Subtrope of Animal Metaphor and close sister-trope to Call of the Wild Blue Yonder. The character is not quite Always Female, though there is a long-standing literary tradition of applying this to the Ingenue, Damsel in Distress, or Rebellious Princess, where it often overlaps with Rich Boredom. Sister-trope to Girl in a Box. Will often be a Wide-Eyed Idealist or Stepford Smiler. Contrast Bluebird of Happiness. May overlap with Birdcaged, where it's no longer a metaphor. Compare Canary in a Coal Mine.

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Note that a character just being compared to a bird or just being implied to be in a cage is not this trope.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Mawaru-Penguindrum, scenes about Tabuki frequently feature a visual motif of a birdcage. This is a metaphor for his troubled, high-pressure childhood—his mother abused him and forced him to play piano. Tabuki harmed himself in order to escape from from this, but it didn't work.
  • In Naruto, Neji compares his Curse Mark as being similarly to caging a bird. His mark allows the superior branch of his family to keep him in line with pain. He's confined by his birth, not by his skill (or at least he was at first). Neji committing a Heroic Sacrifice and chosing his own death is signified with a bird flying free.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: Anthy's rose garden is inside a birdcage-shaped greenhouse, emblemizing her mysterious imprisonment as the "Rose Bride". The fact that she can technically leave this "cage"—but chooses to stay—also hints that she's imprisoned by more than physical or magical means.
  • In the Warrior Cats: Graystripe's Adventure graphic novel, when Millie's trying to decide whether to leave her owner and live in the wild, she looks at her owner's pet bird in its cage and wonders aloud, "Would you fly away from here, if you could?"

    Arts 

    Fan Works 
  • In Heart of Fire, the first part of The Heart Trilogy, Smaug first captures Kathryn because of her beautiful singing and keeps her locked in a giant birdcage.
  • In Kiryuuin Chronicles, this comes subtly with Rei's bird motif. In Chapter 8, it's mentioned that she is fond of birds, and Satsuki points out that, as a child, birds and their flight would remind Rei of her, her sisters', and Ragyo's own captivity in their abusive home. In the same chapter, we find out that Rei had a pet dove named "Budgie" which, while crying, she let her go, giving the bird the freedom she and her loved ones didn't have.

    Films — Animation 
  • Aladdin: As the Sultan is talking to Jasmine about rejecting her suitors, she goes over to a bird cage in the garden and picks up one of the birds, petting it as she talks about wanting to marry for love. The Sultan then puts the bird back in the cage as he tells her that she has to follow the laws and fulfill her duties, along with expressing his worries about wanting someone to take care of and provide for Jasmine once he's gone. The subtext is that, like the caged birds, Jasmine feels trapped by her role as princess and yearns to escape the rigors of palace life. At the end of the scene, she opens the cage and sets all the birds free.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The central symbol of Bird Box are the titular parakeets, who are kept in a box far too small for them, mirroring the human characters who are unable to leave their houses.
  • Inverted in La Cage aux folles and its American adaptation, The Birdcage, where the eponymous Birdcage is a gay nightclub where individuals are free to celebrate their true selves and passions.
  • Birds of Prey: As the title suggests, bird imagery recurs throughout this film in relation to Harley and her gang. Places where specifically caged birds show up include when Harley and Cassandra turn on the TV to see Tweety Bird in his cage, and the caged canary Doc keeps in his restaurant. There's a close-up of it when he's packing up to leave after betraying Harley.
  • Black Swan: While Nina's mother is revealing that she gave up her career as a dancer to be a mother, she is framed with a decorative birdcage behind her head, implying that she confined herself.
  • Early in Contagion, the camera focuses on a small cage of colorful songbirds right before an infected man boards an elevator crammed with people wearing similarly bright-colored clothes.
  • A variation in Forrest Gump, where Jenny is associated with birds because she desires their freedom.
    • The prayer she asks Forrest to recite with her:
      Jenny: Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far. Far, far away from here.
    • This is recalled in a conversation after he sees Jenny performing on stage:
      Jenny: Do you think I could fly off this bridge?
      Forrest: (worried) What do you mean?
      Jenny: [Beat] Nothing. Forget it.
    • Later, we see her contemplating suicide again, ready to jump off a high-riser, with Free Bird's solo wailing in the background.
    • After Forrest finishes talking to Jenny's gravestone, a flock of birds flies out of their tree as he walks away.
    • The film opens and closes with a shot of a floating feather.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: During Draco Malfoy's arc when he is agonizing over having been ordered to kill Dumbledore, he uses a pair of songbirds to test a teleportation device, and in one scene he appears framed through the bars of their spherical cage, perhaps suggesting that he, too, is not the master of his own fate. The bird he is most often shown handling matches his unusual hair color.
  • The Prestige: Played with. An elderly magician keeps a room full of caged songbirds used for magic tricks, which foreshadow the use and disposal of the deuteragonist's clones.
  • In The Poor Little Rich Girl, 11-year old Gwen is compared to a caged bird she owns. She's a Lonely Rich Kid forced to live in a Gilded Cage.
  • Radioactive: When the film flashes forward to the bombing of Hiroshima, the first shot on ground level begins with focus on a cage of songbirds—doomed, just like the people trapped in the city.
  • Shirley: Shortly after Rose moves in, she notices a stuffed yellow songbird on display upstairs, and then immediately looks toward Shirley's room, where Shirley is asleep in her depression nest with her yellow hair spread out. This association subtly conveys Shirley's status as a shut-in and struggling artist.
  • A subtle example occurs in the revenge & liberation action flick A Vigilante when the heroine rescues two young boys from an abusive household: One has been locked in his room for weeks along with his pet budgie, of which he has drawn pictures all over the walls of his own metaphorical cage.

    Literature 
  • The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: What with the litany of bird metaphors employed throughout the book, this pops up a few times.
    • When Coriolanus is trying to get out of the arena, he compares himself to a caged bird:
      Only a few weak layers of moonlight penetrated the layers of the barricade, and Coriolanus found himself crashing into wood and fencing like a wild bird in a cage[.]
    • Later, Coriolanus spearheads an effort to exterminate an escaped race of songbirds which has come to symbolize unruly people of the districts, particularly Lucy Gray's people the Covey. Many of them are captured in cages, facilitating this trope.
      Lucy Gray: I hate to think of them caged up, when they've had a taste of freedom. [...] Sounds like torture, having someone controlling your voice like that. [Reaches up to touch her throat]
      Coriolanus: I don't think there's a human equivalent.
      Lucy Gray: Really? Do you always feel free to speak your mind, Coriolanus Snow?
  • The Bell Jar: Birds are one of many Animal Motifs employed to communicate Esther's building sense of confinement and of the artificiality of the cooped-up women around her.
    • Of her friend Doreen and the man they are out with:
      He kept staring at her the way people stare at the great white macaw in the zoo, waiting for it to say something human.
    • Later, of the tenants in a high-end asylum:
      The women were all sitting up and knitting or riffling through magazines or putting their hair in pin curls and chattering like parrots in a parrot house.
  • The Cathy Cassidy novel Marshmallow Skye has this theme: Clara empathises with her caged Linnet and also wishes to be free.
  • Maya Angelou was seemingly fascinated by this trope.
    • It is the central image of her Roman à Clef I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where the caged bird represents Angelou's confinement resulting from racism and misogyny.
    • The title of the novel is actually a Shout-Out to the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, "Sympathy", where he empathizes with caged birds.
      But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
      I know why the caged bird sings!
    • Angelou published her own poem, titled "Caged Bird", in a later collection:
      The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
      of things unknown but longed for still
      and his tune is heard on the distant hill
      for the caged bird sings of freedom.
  • An inverted example in the American Girls Collection story Changes for Kirsten: After a long, difficult winter during which the Larson cabin burned down, Kirsten's family has managed to save up enough money to purchase the Stewarts' old house. Kirsten is sad that her friends Mary and John Stewart are leaving to follow the Oregon Trail, but she's comforted by a good-bye letter and a bird-in-a-cage optical illusion toy they left for her.
    Kirsten looked carefully at the little toy. On one side was a picture of a bird cage. On the other side, a bluebird. When Kirsten spun the toy, the bird seemed to fly into the cage. There it was, safe an happy, like Kirsten in her new home. The secret good-bye from Mary and John made her heart even lighter, like a bird fluttering under her ribs.
    Changes for Kirsten: A Winter Story, Chapter 5
  • Komarr: After her husband dies and (apparently) leaves her a crushing debt, Ekaterin imagines herself as a bird released from ten years in a cage and told she can fly free—as soon as these lead weights are untied from her feet.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, Sansa Stark is frequently compared to a bird during her captivity in King's Landing.
  • Pufftail in Stray compares his life as an inside cat to the caged pet parakeet his owners own. He hates being confined to living amongst humans and not being able to go where he pleases. Later on, he ends up becoming a stray.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Carnival Row: The upper-class heiress Imogen has various caged birds scattered around her mansion, the last stronghold of her dwindling fortune. In one scene she is shown looking at one of the birds, framed through the bars of the cage, before looking out her own window, whose crossbars are almost suggestive of a cage. In a later scene, she is significantly dressed in yellow to match the bird.
  • In the HBO series Gentleman Jack, one of the ingenue love interest Ann Walker's introductory scenes begins with a shot of her yellow songbird chirping in its cage, just as the doctor is advising Ann's caretaker to get her out of the house more and give her some freedom.
  • The Great: In the scene where Catherine first meets the vapid, illiterate, hopelessly sheltered ladies of court, a cage of cramped songbirds can be seen prominently displayed behind her and heard chirping.
  • In Last of the Summer Wine, Wally Batty is well-known for his pigeon-keeping hobby, and a fairly frequent plot is the trio coming up with some scheme to break him out from under his wife Nora's thumb long enough to go get a drink down at the pub.
  • The first episode of Locked Up begins with the soon-to-be-incarcerated protagonist examining her caged canary. Before leaving, she releases it from the balcony of her apartment.
  • Medici: Masters of Florence uses this imagery with Simonetta Vespucci who is very beautiful but trapped by her husband in a loveless marriage. She also keeps a cage of birds in her front room and is said to like pretty birds.

    Music 
  • The possible Trope Codifier is the popular 1900 parlour song, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage", by Arthur J. Lamb and Harry Von Tilzer, about a beautiful young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a rich older man.
  • The 1903 song "Little Yellow Bird" (sung by Angela Lansbury in the 1945 film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray) tells of a wild sparrow in winter who sees a canary in a cage. The male canary invites her to stay where it's warm and she will be well-fed, but she sees his life as an example of this:
    Good-bye, little yellow bird.
    I'd gladly mate with you—
    I love you, little yellow bird,
    But I love my freedom, too.
    So good-bye, little yellow bird.
    I'd rather brave the cold
    On a leafless tree
    Than a prisoner be
    In a cage of gold.
  • Avril Lavigne's album Head Above Water contains a song called "Birdie", where the singer compares herself in her current relationship to a bird in a cage.
    Like a bird locked up in a cage called love
    He clipped her wings when she was born to fly
    He said, "pretty bird, you can't sing
    But I'll buy you diamonds and ruby rings"
    Like a bird locked up in a cage
  • "Able to Sing" by the Indigo Girls compares a new bride to a songbird being caged.
  • In the music video to Janelle Monáe's "Dance Apocalyptic," several members of the "studio audience" seem to be wearing birdcages on their heads. In the art for the single, Janelle herself appears in such a headpiece, complete with birds. Lyrically, the song deals with frivolity and exuberance as a shelter from apocalyptic circumstances: the birdcages may be a visual representation of this false, confining security.
  • In "Rattle My Cage," by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy, the singer asks a bird flying by to pay her a visit in her own "cage."
    You're the only one seems could ever free me
    You're the only one that seems to understand
  • Martina Mcbride's "Broken Wing" plays with this, comparing a woman held down by her husband to a bird with a broken wing.
    And with a broken wing
    She still sings
    She keeps an eye on the sky
  • Miley Cyrus: The music video to "Can't Be Tamed" shows her and her cohorts all feathered up and on display in a massive birdcage. The song's lyrics deal with themes of surveillance and scrutiny.
  • A line from Miranda Lambert's "Well-Rested":
    I'm not ready
    Like a caged bird barely set free
    Forgive me, I'm finding my wings
  • "Mother", from Pink Floyd's The Wall:
    Mama's gonna keep baby right here under her wing
    She won't let you fly, but she might let you singnote 
  • Played with in the Poppy video "This Birdcage", where the petite, high-voiced Poppy wears half of an old-fashioned birdcage on her head (with the door opened in front of her mouth) in an intentionally ambiguous statement on freedom versus safety.
    Charlotte: Why are you wearing a birdcage on your head?
    Poppy: You can't be mean to me now that I have my birdcage.
    Charlotte: That birdcage will not protect you.
    Poppy: This birdcage protects me.
  • Sugarland's "Bird in a Cage": The singer urges the object of the song to spread their wings.
    You wouldn't have these wings
    If you weren't meant to fly
  • Taylor Swift:
    • One scene of the music video for "Look What You Made Me Do" shows Taylor swinging on a perch in a massive bird cage, singing. This image is echoed in Swift's poem, "If You're Anything Like Me", which accompanied the album:
      Each new enemy turns to steel
      They become the bars that confine you,
      In your own little golden prison cell ...
      But darling, there is where you meet yourself.
    • In the photo accompanying "I Knew You Were Trouble" in the Red lyric booklet, a birdcage can be seen hanging behind Swift, where she stands at a window, looking over her shoulder as though afraid of whatever (or whoever) she's caged in with.

    Podcasts 

    Theatre 
  • The Duchess of Malfi: When Bosola is trying to inure the Duchess to the prospect of her death:
    Bosola: Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body.
  • In Elisabeth, Lucheni uses this to describe the title character after her wedding.
  • Invoked by Cunegonde in the opera of Voltaire's Candide (though she goes on to admit that she does appreciate some aspects of her sheltered life):
    Harsh necessity
    Brought me to this gilded cage.
    Born to higher things,
    Here I droop my wings,
    Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.
  • Hadestown: Orpheus, Euridice, and Persephone are all compared to birds at various points, and when they find themselves stuck in The Underworld, someone (usually Hades) will mention that they are now caged.
    Hades: If you don't even want my love
    I'll give it to someone who does
    Someone grateful for their fate
    Someone who appreciates
    The comforts of a gilded cage
    And doesn't try to fly away
    • In a darker take on this trope, Hades eventually compares his own heart as well as Orpheus's to "a bird on a spit."
  • King Lear uses this simile before he and Cordelia are to be jailed:
    Come, let's away to prison.
    We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
  • The Little Foxes makes no explicit nods to the metaphor beyond Birdie's Meaningful Name, but it fits her characterization as a Broken Bird and unhappy wife to a man who freely admits to having married her to take possession of her family's estate. When not drowning her sorrows, she plays the piano a little; the operatic adaptation Regina has two numbers where she vocalizes sweetly while reminiscing about her happier past.
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Johanna.
    • She sings a whole song wondering why her caged birds are inspired to sing even in captivity, eventually making it clear that she is not just talking about them—she has spent nearly her entire life as a prisoner in Judge Turpin's mansion:
      My cage has many rooms, damask and dark
      Nothing there sings, not even my lark
    • The bird seller answers the question of how they make the birds sing: "We blinds 'em. That's what we always does. We blinds 'em and, not knowing night from day, they sing and they sing without stopping. Pretty creatures." This is later echoed by Fogg, talking about Johanna. "She needs so much correction! She sings day and night and leaves the other inmates sleepless!"
    • The Judge makes reference himself to the trope in his incredibly creepy Villain Song "Johanna", noting that she wants to "fly away."
  • In Trifles this trope is used to represent women's roles in late 19th-early 20th century US society. A similarity is implied between Minnie, who is trapped and isolated in an abusive marriage, and her pet canary, which is killed by her husband.
  • In John Webster's 1612 play, The White Devil, Flamineo compares women themselves to birdcages and the men courting them to birds:
    'Tis just like a summer birdcage in a garden: the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.

    Video Games 
  • Elizabeth of BioShock Infinite has been locked away in a tower for most of her life, guarded by a large, avian mechanical creature called "Songbird". The Luteces also refer to her as a caged bird, and there comes a point in the game when the player must decide whether she ought to wear a pendant with an image of an ornate cage or a bird flying free.
  • Persona 4: Yukiko Amagi's Shadow is shown as a caged bird, symbolizing her personal frustration in being forced to inherit her family's inn instead of freely deciding her future.

    Western Animation 
  • In the second part of the Demon World duology in Jackie Chan Adventures, Viper is first introduced while being locked up in a birdcage and having to sing for Hsi Wu the Sky Demon.
    Hsi Wu: Sing for me my little caged songbird.
    Viper: Twit, twit.
  • In one episode of Sky Dancers, Queen Skyla, in her shrunken Sky Dancer form, is imprisoned in a cage and taunted by the imps comparing her to a bird.

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