When the news broke that Greta Gerwig’s next directorial endeavor would be 2023’s Barbie, people didn’t know what to think. Will it be a movie for kids, with camp classic potential? Or will it be a biting takedown of eurocentric beauty standards, compulsory heterosexuality, and everything Barbie is shorthand for?
Well, probably neither.
Few know what to expect from the script Gerwig co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. But that shouldn’t be surprising. A brief examination of Gerwig’s career illuminates the reasons Barbie is a logical next step for the mumblecore darling turned Oscar nominee.
Lady Bird (2017) follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through her final year of high school, as she clashes with a mother (Laurie Metcalf) who begs her to be “the best version of herself.” It’s a potent bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story distilled to the final year of Lady Bird’s childhood. We see Sacramento, Gerwig’s hometown, through Lady Bird’s reticent lens. Lady Bird, absent a real creative outlet, chooses to invent and reinvent herself instead. Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut after years co-starring, co-writing, and co-directing, reinvents herself, too.
In Little Women, Gerwig puts Saoirse Ronan in a different context but with a similar framework. Now, she’s Jo March, living through a künstlerroman (or “artist’s novel”). Gerwig emphasizes Jo’s journey of creative maturity by introducing her as a struggling author and easing into the romantic storyline via flashback – a tactic she felt necessary but difficult to explain when she pitched the idea to studios. Throughout, Jo struggles with what kind of writer she wants to be. Does she write schlocky shock stories she’s too ashamed to publish under her real name? Or does she write “jolly tales” like Louisa May Alcott herself, stories of mailboxes in the forest and plays in the living room, stories from her own life?
Alcott’s original novel is ultimately more preoccupied with the romantic prospects of its little women than with Jo’s publishing career. Only minutes into Gerwig’s movie, Jo’s publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), makes an explicit acknowledgment that any female characters need to wind up “married by the end, or dead, either way.” Even in Gerwig’s adaptation, all four of the March sisters are resigned to this fate (RIP Beth). But Gerwig’s use of dual timelines allows her to create a clean split at the end. She gives Jo a husband and a book, in a metatextual move that shows Jo cradling Little Women in the final frame. It’s a concrete step into adult life, and creative life, that echoes what Gerwig has accomplished in the film. Gerwig bet on her unlikely artistic ambitions and won, releasing a box office hit and reaping critical accolades.
Now that Gerwig’s interrogated the idea of adolescence, and of creative adolescence, she’s ready for womanhood, and that’s Barbie. The Barbie trailer embraces this. Amid the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” needle drop, it’s easy to miss the voiceover. “But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls,” the narration booms, “until…”
Then she appears. Barbie (Margot Robbie). Unlike Lady Bird and Jo March, Barbie emerges as a woman fully formed. Barbie might be a child’s toy, but Gerwig is explicitly rewriting Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man” sequence as the dawn of woman. And unlike Lady Bird, who barely left Sacramento before going to college, or Jo, who fought tooth and nail for her career as a writer, Barbie has options, which opens up the directions for her storyline.
Mattel boasts their golden girl has held over 200 careers, including a surgeon, aerobics instructor, matador, beekeeper, cowgirl, dolphin trainer, president, Avon lady, and several different jobs that fall under the heading “cashier.” Based on the trailer and early information about the film, we can expect lots of Barbies and lots of Kens working lots of jobs. It’s not clear how this “gig economy” shows up in the movie. But if rumors are correct, Robbie’s character is forced to leave Barbieland because of her “imperfections.” That hints there’s a major economic question at stake here. What does a woman do when she’s incapable of the one thing she was created for: being perfect?
Gerwig’s films have explicitly centered around the economic aspects of feminism, so it’s logical to expect Barbie will, too. Lady Bird is in constant friction with her mother about the cost of college, and the cost of living. Jo March writes what will sell. Her sister Amy, a would-be artist, resents the economic necessity of her marriage, while her eldest sister Meg doesn’t even attempt a creative life. She marries young and ends up poor anyway (again, RIP Beth, who didn’t have to deal with this). If Barbie provides any capitalist critique, it will likely lie where it does in all Gerwig’s films: at the intersection of income and identity.
The most interesting element of Barbie could be the way Gerwig uses it to examine herself. There’s precedent here, too. When Lady Bird writes a college essay, one of her teachers, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) comments on how much Lady Bird clearly loves Sacramento. When she balks, Sister Sarah Joan asks her if “love and attention” are the same thing, casting Gerwig’s tracking shots of her hometown in a new light. Viewers feel the dual presence of Gerwig and Alcott throughout Little Women. We have Alcott’s Jo, who ends her story kissing a man, and we have Gerwig’s Jo, who ends her story as the auteur.
The question now is how Gerwig will manifest herself in Barbie. Will we see Gerwig, through Barbie, exploring her multifaceted creativity – actress, writer, producer, director? Or is Barbie a gentle rebuke to the fandom machine that has elevated Gerwig to iconic, mononymic status? We’ll know soon enough.