Op-Ed: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ is a Delightful Existential Crisis in Shades of Pink
Greta Gerwig immerses us into a candy-colored dream world with her third feature Barbie. Most notable in the past for being the queen of mumblecore, and now her directing work, a film like this seems like a massive tonal pivot from the likes of her previous films, Lady Bird and Little Women. However, after seeing Barbie, it’s evident that she was the perfect filmmaker to tell this story. Gerwig’s masterful touch takes a fish out of water and flips it on its head, highlighting the nuances of womanhood told through the story of the original dream girl, Barbie, when we needed it most.
Women are born with a burden woven into the fabric of their being. By the time we hit puberty, the world around us conditions us to endure and power through, even when it is weighing us down. Women’s stereotypical interests are made to be a joke. “Girly” is synonymous with being weak, dumb, or bimbo-esque. A film like Barbie lets us celebrate being women. It’s not juvenile if your favorite color is pink, and you can still be taken seriously even if you listen to pop music. Gloria (America Ferrera) is the most intelligent, compassionate person we meet in the real world, yet she’s a receptionist in an office of men far less equipped than she is. Girlhood doesn’t end once you become an adult; it evolves and sinks deep down in us in the pursuit of being taken seriously. Gerwig captures those moments of evolution in our lives–whether you’re an angsty teenager like Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a working mother like Gloria, or unsure where you belong like Barbie (Margot Robbie). Telling these stories with Gerwig’s gentle warmth allows us to see ourselves in this film.
Barbie represents everything we aspire to be. She is a strong career woman who always makes time for her friends, her hair is silky with no effort, and her waist is unrealistically tiny (no pilates classes needed). Barbie floats through the world like a feather–she walks on water and soars down from her bedroom straight into her pink convertible. She’s a flawless, untouchable being. Barbieland is perfect to her, although it only is that way because she is the flawless “stereotypical” Barbie. Once her world starts to fall apart, *gasp* she gets flat feet and CELLULITE; she is learning that not everything is as dreamy as it seems. Much like in the real world, in Barbieland, any perceived flaws are your biggest weakness as a woman.
Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie and Emerald Fennell’s Midge are feared or ignored by the other Barbies–they don’t want to share the same fate as them. It’s “pretty privilege” as some people see the world around them differently than others because the world looks back at them with more welcoming eyes. Once Barbie leaves Barbieland for a dose of the real world, much less colorful and male-dominated, she’s sexualized immediately and shocked to realize all of Mattel is run by a group of monotone, boring, carbon-copy men. Throughout the film, Gerwig and Baumbach emphasize the parallel between Barbieland and our world, one that Barbie doesn’t recognize herself at first. Although women are running things in Barbieland, it’s superficial. Issa Rae’s President Barbie addresses the realization of the treatment of their “lesser” women counterparts (along with the Kens) at the end of the film. They don’t want things to go back to the way they were. Taking away the pastel decals and sunny beach days wasn’t a perfect world, but they’re showing how far they’ve come and can still go.
The first pivotal moment in the film is when Barbie is in the real world, soul-searching to find who is playing with her. At this time, she shares a moment with an older woman (Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth) at a bus stop. Barbie turns to the woman, skin no longer taut and what society considers flawless, and states, “You are so beautiful.” It’s so simple, yet I know it’s a scene that will stay on my mind. She is seeing what most young people in our real world consider among their biggest fears (hello, viral TikTok filter that has users spiraling). To our knowledge, this is the first time Barbie is seeing an older woman. What our society perceives as flaws and Barbie is initially so afraid of, she is openly declaring as beautiful. This moment hit home. As I scroll on TikTok, 20% of the videos I see are skincare products to reduce the signs of aging and Botox testimonials. I even stumbled across a 14-year-old who started using retinol when she was 12, showing off products she uses to “reduce the aging process.” I felt a sense of dread seeing this, to think about how, in the age of the Instagram Face, these standards worry us so profoundly and so early that our youth is being taken from us. At 14, I was worried about getting Pierce The Veil concert tickets and what I would reblog that day on Tumblr; aging didn’t cross my mind then. The fear that our biggest commodity, “beauty,” is attached to a ticking time bomb that will strip our value when it runs out is bleak.
As Barbie tries to connect with the person playing with her doll, Gloria, she takes in her surroundings. She watches kids play, couples argue, and life unfold before her eyes. Her moments shared with the character of Ruth Handler (Rhea Pearlman), the creator of Barbie, show her that this world can be warm. Sasha and Gloria are the ones who spearhead the effort to restore Barbieland–without them, they wouldn’t have been able to change their world for the better. Their love and support encourages Barbie to have agency in her own life finally. Ultimately, Barbie chooses to live an imperfect life in our world. She welcomes the sadness, joy, and pain of the human condition. Although there will undoubtedly be challenges to come, she can live and feel on her own terms.
Gerwig injects so much of herself and the experience of being a woman into her screenplays. The dialogue just screams, “This was written by Greta Gerwig!” I consider Lady Bird, Little Women, and Barbie to be coming-of-age films. Lady Bird is a semi-autobiographical story of teenage boredom and dread. Lady Bird is crass and unlikable, but she has a warm heart. She is all of us (at least) at one point in our lives. At 17, when did you catch yourself saying something pretentious like Lady Bird’s “I want to go where culture is, like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods?” In Little Women, we have an adaptation of a beloved novel that Gerwig makes her own, with moments like Jo March’s “Women” monologue (another line that has always stood out to me was “You will be bored of him in two years, and we will be interesting forever.”). Although we don’t typically have to worry about marrying a man above us or having to write a novel under a pseudonym simply because we’re women anymore, the way the sisters and their mother experience life, both separate and in their home together, still reflect bits of our world today. Gerwig’s partner, Noah Baumbach, co-writes the Barbie screenplay with her, and Barbie is the most shockingly unique of the bunch. Gerwig is going through a new chapter in her own life, motherhood. I feel like we see her world reflected through Ferrera’s Gloria. The existentialism we’ve all experienced shines through our Barbie.
These themes Gerwig tackles in Barbie aren’t brand new to the screen, nor is it super deep. Its simplicity opens up conversations for people needing this reminder most, especially young girls and women. There’s a montage at one point of women just living and existing.Moments are flashing by before Barbie’s eyes; we watch along as everyday events happen so beautifully. All I could think about were the women in my life and how grateful I was able to be in this world with them.
With this film, Gerwig cemented herself as a filmmaker who challenges the ideals society has placed on women throughout history while also critiquing our biases and shortcomings in the process. Pointing out the glaring faults of corporations like Mattel, our world, and Barbie, she is also redefining what a questionably “feminist” symbol like Barbie can truly mean. We are the strong, powerful ones on our own. Barbie and ideas can inspire us, but it’s real women and girls like Gloria, Ruth, and Sasha that pick up the pieces when we’re falling apart. After seeing the film for a second time, I will frequently revisit it when I need an expression of feminine joy, a gentle reminder that it is okay not to always have your life together, or when I’m looking for comfort in the nuances of womanhood. Ideas are forever; humans are not. The ideas that Greta Gerwig has brought to life in her filmography will continue to be celebrated by women for generations to come.