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What Is Greta Gerwig Trying to Tell Us?

From Barnard to Barbie, the director has always been interested in female ambition, including her own.

Photo: Agnès Ricart
Photo: Agnès Ricart

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Everyone at the Alamo Barbie Blowout Party advance screening I attended had come ready to Barbie party, decked out in head-to-toe pink, high heels, and blonde wigs. As the soundtrack blared, moviegoers yelled “Hi, Barbie!” to strangers, snapped pictures in their promotional pink berets and heart-shaped sunglasses, drank watermelon margaritas, and seat-danced to Dua Lipa. A male photographer roamed the room taking pictures of everyone vibing on the anticipation that was building to a near frenzy thanks to a relentlessly ecstatic monthslong marketing campaign. As he stopped to take a photo of the woman next to me, and the new Margot Robbie Barbie she’d purchased, he asked if the movie was supposed to be lighthearted or cerebral — he couldn’t tell from the trailer. Her advice: “It’s the Barbie movie. Just leave big words out of it and enjoy.” I don’t think my neighbor or anyone else there expected to weep over the state of womanhood.

But in every Greta Gerwig movie, there is that speech, the one that forces the emotion out of you no matter how unsentimental you might be. That big juicy monologue somewhere in the third act that states everything the female protagonist wants out of life — her dreams, her desires — and everything she fears. The emotionally pure, ultrarelatable moment when Gerwig tells us how a woman should be. The music swells; the actress’s face splits open with yearning and pathos. Inevitably, someone in the movie theater gives a reflexive “Yessss” under their breath, and thousands of theater kids suddenly know what their audition monologue will be for the fall production of Our Town.

In Frances Ha, it’s the “What I want” speech (“It’s that thing when you’re with someone and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it”). In Lady Bird, it’s Saoirse Ronan’s final voice-mail to her mother (“Hi, Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one”). In Little Women, it’s Jo March’s “Women have minds” number.

There are two big speeches in Barbie — a movie of such blockbuster proportions requires double the emotional wallop. The first, and the one that has been most lauded in the post-opening-weekend coverage, belongs to America Ferrera’s Gloria, a mother whose daughter no longer likes spending time with her. (It’s never really explained why. Since most of us have seen Lady Bird, I guess we’re meant to apply the Greta Gerwig Cinematic Universe shorthand here.) The setup: Barbie returns to Barbie Land a broken doll. She’s seen some shit, like everyday being-a-woman shit: The world is super-sexist. Barbie isn’t a feminist icon; she just upholds impossible standards and makes women feel bad about themselves. Now she’s back and Ken is being a dick, introducing the patriarchy into the matriarchal system, and she just wants to watch Pride & Prejudice in her sweatpants. (Depression Barbie is simultaneously the funniest and most pandering bit in the movie.)

Gloria has the antidote: the big Gerwig speech. “You have to be thin, but not too thin,” she begins (Barbie was not updated for the Ozempic moment), kicking off a list of all the things women have to do and be just to obtain a modicum of respect: “You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail,” and so on. Someone in my screening snapped emphatically after every line. As she reaches her crescendo, hitting the bars as if she were headlining Def Poetry Jam (“It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory! And nobody gives you a medal or says ‘Thank you’!”), I heard sniffles in the crowd.

In the post-opening-weekend chatter, this speech got a lot of attention — some of it an eye-rolling acknowledgment of how it’s feminism baby food but most of it admiring. The Los Angeles Times published the monologue in full. Headlines called it “epic” and “powerful” and “inspiring” and “resonant.” Ferrera has given interviews discussing how she prepared for it, revealing it took nearly 30 takes and that everyone on set, even the men, were crying.

But when the lights came up at my screening, I was left clutching my now-limp beret, the last line of Ferrera’s monologue echoing in my head: “I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.” I don’t even know? That’s the best we got? What was the movie trying to say?

There are many guesses. In the New York Times’ “Opinion” section, Susan Faludi suggested Barbie contains subtle references to the rollback of abortion protections; others see a retelling of the story of Eve and the apple. One friend insists it’s an allegory for the postpartum experience. I saw Barbie a total of three times over opening weekend, and each time it felt like I was entering a different dimension of feminist awakening. The first time, I was nostalgic for Barnard, the women’s college both Gerwig and I attended, where the dorms were like Barbie’s (dingier) Dreamhouse and where I too had to occasionally endure a man playing guitar at me for four hours. The second time, a Saturday night, I leaned into Bimbo Feminism by drinking bright-pink sugar-rimmed cocktails and giddily refusing to think about it more than I had to. The last time, I sat next to my niece and her mom and couldn’t help but feel the persistent tug of both my heartstrings and my uterus, even though the line “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come” is actually word salad and my niece only cared about Issa Rae as president.

Of course it’s a stretch to search for a radical or subversive feminist manifesto in the Barbie movie — something lovingly approved by Mattel and Warner Bros. (and Chevy and Birkenstock and Chanel and Duolingo). It’s also not the first time in recent history that a bunch of people wore pink en masse and gathered for a joint activity hoping it would provide some meaning regarding the state of women’s empowerment. (At least Barbie isn’t as empty as the pink pussy hat in the back of my closet.) But now that girlboss feminism has gasped its last gasp, now that the closest thing that era had to Barbie Land (The Wing) has crumbled, now that feminism is a sales pitch, it can sometimes seem that all we have is snapping at the zingers in a Barbie movie. (I worry about our emotional states by the time the Polly Pocket film adaptation drops.) That it provokes tears, that it resonates at all and doesn’t feel like a relic of a different time, probably says more about us than about the movie.

And it says a lot about its director. Gerwig is the real feminist icon of the film: the plucky mumblecore ingénue who broke into a boys’ club and now commands big budgets and total freedom over huge IP. The clearest message of the movie to me is one coded in all of Gerwig’s work, and it’s a message that seems drawn from her own experiences.

At our shared alma mater, every night is girls’ night and feminism is a place where boys aren’t allowed. In an interview with the alumnae magazine, Gerwig said, “When I went to Barnard, I wanted to be all the women I met there. I was instantly drawn to the place and the women. They all seemed like superheroes to me.” In addition to a diploma, a sense (real or not) is bestowed upon Barnard grads that they get to choose the way they enter a real world that’s also populated by men (maybe by marrying one, maybe by working in finance, maybe by choosing to ignore men forever). Gerwig’s trajectory from Barnard, where she was an English major who did improv, began in the mumblecore indie film scene via a series of movies in which men’s wants and neuroses are central to the plot. Hannah Takes the Stairs is a perfect encapsulation of her early role, both onscreen and off: a blonde 20-something trying to figure out a career while finding herself in a series of romantic relationships with the sort of zhlubby guys who don’t take her seriously. She was funny and a little awkward. Her characters were sexual (maybe sexualized) but in the raw, played in the ugly, gross, real way that would soon become mainstream in Girls. As she wrote and acted in films with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, Gerwig became the only girl among the film boys, finding her voice within a (extremely white) scene that seemed to be oriented around the whims of dudes in shitty T-shirts.

“Are you gonna let me in?” is the first line Gerwig speaks in Greenberg, the 2010 film by Noah Baumbach. It was her first mainstream film (one she had to gain 15 pounds for, she lamented in a New York Times profile that followed. Bless that early-aughts body positivity). Her character, Florence, is the patient, willing love interest of an abhorrently self-involved Ben Stiller. “Are you gonna let me in?” seemed like a throwaway line or at least one that speaks to Florence’s later preoccupation with trying to date Stiller’s character, but it could also have served as Gerwig’s mantra.

Baumbach and Gerwig’s relationship moved from professional to romantic around 2011 while they were writing Frances Ha together, and during the press tour for Mistress America, the second movie they co-wrote, reporters asked Gerwig how her career had benefited from their relationship — to which she answered, “I don’t mean to sound annoying, but I would have done it anyway. I will find that one door and then push it wide open. I’m lucky to find collaborators and kindred spirits. But I don’t need a man, and I would have done it anyway.” Her characters in both Frances Ha and Mistress America — especially the latter — feel like responses to Gerwig’s frustration that she was always considered a muse, not a creator.

Both characters are women who cling to an impractical, unsustainable (financially and emotionally) existence they are slowly forced to leave behind. Frances is a recent grad bouncing from apartment to apartment, always on the verge of going broke, who swaps her dream of being a modern dancer for a desk job and a track to becoming a choreographer. In Mistress America, Gerwig’s Brooke takes her soon-to-be stepsister, a Barnard first-year named Tracy (Lola Kirke), under her wing. At 30, Brooke is on the edge of being too old (by Hollywood standards) for the whimsicality of her life. She’s basically a Barbie. She can be anything and actually has to be to make ends meet: She sings in a band; she’s a SoulCycle instructor; she puts on glasses to tutor middle-schoolers; she has a rich boyfriend in Greece; she’s a would-be restaurateur seeking a backer. Tracy secretly writes stories about her, lifting details from her life for her own creative advancement.

Brooke’s big moment, her climactic lay-it-all-out-there scene, is a plea for money; she lost the funding for her restaurant (the only thing that tethered her to a future), and she shows up at an ex-boyfriend’s house with Tracy and two of her classmates and winds up having to pitch her restaurant idea to him. The scenario starts out madcap but veers hard into an earnest plea as Brooke describes a restaurant where you can also get your hair cut and the waiters come out and share a meal with you. “This could all be something you guys share in,” she explains. “Part of the life and food … And everyone would be so warm and happy inside knowing they had participated in something that was only good.” (In the end, she’s offered money but not to make the restaurant; the ex wants to help free her from her debts and then sleep with her whenever he’s in the city.)

With Lady Bird, her solo directorial debut, Gerwig moved out of “muse” territory into “nominated for five Oscars including Best Director” territory. She used that newfound Hollywood power to direct Little Women, which came out in 2019 at the height of the Trump years and the most powerful moment of Hollywood’s Me Too reckoning, when any movie directed by a woman was imbued with symbolic cultural significance. (That era’s optimism about collective feminism feels so unrealistic now it’s uncomfortable even to type out that context.) But Gerwig wasn’t making just any movie; she was telling the archetypal story about women’s personal ambitions, taking their lives seriously even when their dramas are small and their everyday challenges are grounded in the mundane and the interior. When she wasn’t nominated for Best Director, it was considered a feminist travesty. Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the snub in an interview with Variety, and Natalie Portman wore a cape embroidered with her name and those of other female directors who weren’t nominated.

I took two separate people to Little Women. I saw it with a friend right after she announced she was engaged and pregnant. I was so taken with Jo’s struggle that afterward at the bar, I drunkenly told her women could either be in love or be great at work, not both. I slurred at her about the ways I was Jo and she was Meg. “You chose a baby, and I chose a book,” I declared. “I don’t think these are mutually exclusive,” I remember her responding, stiffly. I went back to see it with my mother so I could jab her arm when the “Women are fit for more than love” riff really popped off, hoping the speech would explain to her why she needed to stop sending me texts about “finding the one.”

Rewatching Little Women now, I found myself more drawn to Amy’s speech in the movie, in which she lays out both how marriage is an economic proposition and the truth of being a woman and having no financial independence. It is wholly unsentimental, yet it felt like a more honest point about womanhood — that the compromises we make are pragmatic and necessary for advancement and safety. “Why should I be ashamed of that? I’ve always known I’d marry rich,” Amy says matter-of-factly.

Look past the muddled feminism and the pro forma blockbuster car-chase scene and Barbie still feels laden with Gerwig’s main considerations. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she pointed not to Gloria’s big moment but to the second monologue, delivered by Robbie’s Barbie at the end of the movie, as the key to understanding it all. By now, Barbie Land has been restored. Barbies maintain control of everything, and Kens cannot live in the Dreamhouse, though Barbie does offer Ken an equality bone; not every night has to be girls’ night. But even though Barbie Land is still a matriarchal utopia and the real world is still horrible to women, Barbie chooses to leave. She doesn’t want to be an idea; she wants to be the one doing the imagining, she says tearily over a home-video montage of women at various life stages being happy. Better to be the director than the muse.

The thing about those big Gerwig monologues, though, is that they always end in that same self-actualized happy place, without the complications of what comes after you get to be seen as a person, which is maybe why they feel good to watch. Her movies enact a fantasy in which the biggest hurdle is deciding you want to become something. The rest, they seem to imply, will work itself out. Frances has her desk job and a future as a choreographer. Brooke moves to L.A., a kinder climate for her freewheeling nature (“In L.A., I qualify as well read,” she quips). Lady Bird puts on a blazer and calls her mother. Jo writes a book, and Amy secures a financially stable future by taming the fuckboy she always had a crush on. And Greta, she’s remaking The Chronicles of Narnia.

As for Barbie, she puts on her talismanic Lady Bird–esque blazer and pink Birks and exchanges her perfect existence for death, taxes, and gyno appointments of womanhood. It’s a perfect Gerwig ending. Although I can’t help but think that if the home-video montage of This Woman’s Life had included scenes of death or illness or worse, the eternal plucking and replucking of the five-to-seven chin hairs that will never not grow back, Barbie would have opted to stay in Barbie Land.

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What Is Greta Gerwig Trying to Tell Us?