Barbie waving web
Barbie © Warner Bros. Pictures (2023)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 13 Sep 2023

The final word on Greta Gerwig's Barbie.

There comes a point in your life when you have to leave. You have to leave the place that has nurtured you, protected you, to not only discover more about the world, but more about yourself, too. It is a pilgrimage as old as time, one that Greta Gerwig often returns to in her work.

In her debut film as solo writer and director, Lady Bird (2017), the precocious – and eponymous – teenage girl has to leave her hometown of Sacramento, albeit a place she was always eager to get out of, to realise how much her upbringing in the Californian city has shaped who she is. In Little Women (2019), the eldest March sister Meg (Emma Watson) attends a debutante ball in a grand house very unlike her own; Jo (Saoirse Ronan) heads to New York to be a writer; while it is in Paris that the youngest, Amy (Florence Pugh), is able to establish herself as her own woman outside the shadows of her sisters. Indeed, the March sisters’ matriarch, Marmee (Laura Dern), declares “Girls have to go out into the world and make up their own minds on things.”

Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) is no different. In it, we see how our home supports and suffocates us, and makes us yearn for something new that is our own, while also always being a source of our beginning. Just as there is no place like home, there is no place like Barbieland. A heavenly Utopia filled with saturated pink, sunshine and complete female autonomy, in this world where all the world’s problems have been solved, every day is the Best Day Ever. For a Barbie, nothing can ever go wrong – you can heal instantly, Nobel Prizes are awarded to those who deserve it and you always have the perfect outfit to wear. In this world without pain or hardship, why would you ever want to leave?

Furthermore, such perfection and stability mean change does not come naturally in Barbieland. The centre cannot hold. Even Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. When Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) starts to notice changes and disruptions to her perfect life, including thoughts of death and changes to her body, this delayed puberty signifies a coming-of age of sorts. It is time for her to leave the nest, the place which has sheltered and nurtured her, and travel to the Real World.

In an interview about Barbie with Rolling Stone, Gerwig explains the sacredness of the leaving narrative: “This is an old story. It’s in a lot of religious literature. What happens to that person? They have to leave. And they have to confront all the things that were shielded from them in this place.”

As Gerwig alludes, The Real World, of course, is not like Barbie imagined at all. In spite of her idealistic perception of Barbies being figures of empowerment the world over, she is confronted with feelings of objectification and powerlessness. Upon finding Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), the girl whose doll was Stereotypical Barbie, instead of adulation she finds derision and criticism. And at Mattel, she learns not everyone is to be trusted, including – especially – authority figures. It is this discovery of real-world ugliness that defines any coming-of-age story. The world as you once knew it is no longer true, and to acknowledge that and live with this new reality is terrifying.

Although her time in the Real World is brief, it is enough for Barbie to be irrevocably changed. And in the leaving there is also the homecoming. But how can home ever be the same after such discoveries? In one sense, this is meant literally, as Barbieland is taken over by Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) own discovery in the Real World – that of horses and Patriarchy, used to transform Barbie’s home to Kendom and a gaudy “Mojo Dojo Casa House”, of brainwashed Barbies serving “brewski beers”. Yet Barbie is also now posed with the existential question, what is it to live and be a person in the world? In other words, what was she made for?

Margot Robbie in Barbie (2023)

Margot Robbie in Barbie (2023) © Warner Bros. Pictures

Barbie wrestles with feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy once her “perfection” and thus place in Barbieland is removed from her. When the things she thought defined her – her Sterotypical Barbie beauty, her house, her car, her clothes – are taken away, Barbie deduces she is not smart or interesting enough on her own. For someone who was everything, suddenly, she sobs “I’m not good enough for anything.

It is the women she meets in the Real World, Gloria and Ruth, who help Barbie come to terms with all the mixed-up feelings. They reassure her that she is enough. In the Real World, Barbie finds meaning in meeting Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), her creator; in a smile with a beautiful old woman on a park bench; in the way the wind whispers through the trees, the sunlight peeking through the leaves (a shot reminiscent of the golden-hour drive around Sacramento in Lady Bird); and most importantly of all, she finds Gloria (America Ferrera), whom she brings back to Barbieland.

Gloria helps to put things into perspective. Gerwig has always had a strong admiration and love for the complexities of being a woman. This recurring motif across her work becomes the backbone of Barbie and is most evident in a speech Gloria gives about the exhaustive contradictions that are placed on women in order to live. Women have to be extraordinary, but we are never doing it right. This is true even of Barbie, who is just representing a woman. But as much as she is a doll, her journey into the Real World sparks her education in what it means to exist.

Michael Cera, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie, Alexandra Shipp, and Ariana Greenblatt in Barbie (2023)

Margot Robbie, Alexandra Shipp, Michael Cera, Ariana Greenblatt and America Ferrera in Barbie (2023) © Warner Bros. Pictures

What and who she encounters teaches her about the pain and beauty of humanity, and how wonderful it can be. As Barbie wrestles with the ideas that have been placed on her, no longer feeling like Barbie, she decides that she wants to be the one to make meaning, “[to] do the imagining, not be the idea.” In the search to discover who she is, outside of the image she had been told she is to represent and was created for, she chooses to embrace humanity, a space which allows her endless opportunity for discovery.

In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone promoting Lady Bird, while discussing depictions of girlhood, Gerwig lamented on how many films are concerned with whether or not the girl will get the guy, as if it were the most important part about her life. Instead, she said, “the question should be: ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’ Because I think we are very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people.” It is clear across her three films Lady Bird, Little Women and Barbie, that Gerwig is continually interested in exploring this question, which in turn has become one of the strongest themes in her work.

Unfortunately, the journey to the self is never ending. Nothing is fixed, not even plastic Barbie, who continues to evolve just like we do. We are all still figuring it out. Across Gerwig’s films, across time periods and ages and lands, the search for personhood never ends, and that knowledge alone is comforting. Lady Bird stands on the streets of New York and sheds the moniker for her real name, Christine; the March sisters enter new chapters in their lives; and at the conclusion of one search, Barbie, like all of us, is merely just beginning her journey.

– Claire White

Celebrate the closing day of our Goddess exhibition with a screening of Barbie at ACMI

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