film fatales #176: atlantics (mati diop, 2019)
music friday: barbie

geezer cinema/film fatales #177: barbie (greta gerwig, 2023)

You probably know people like a friend of mine, of my generation (boomer), who refuses to see Barbie. She said she had "too much baggage" around Barbie, and mentioned that the trailer made her hyperventilate. I don't have her memories, and maybe that helps. I've been looking forward to Barbie since I first learned of its existence, because Greta Gerwig has directed two other movies, Lady Bird and Little Women, and both were quite good. I have no problem putting myself in Gerwig's hands.

There are a lot of people to thank for how good Barbie is. There's Gerwig's co-writer, Noah Baumbach, there's cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, there are all the people involved in the design of the film. You wouldn't call Barbie a blockbuster, although it is performing like one at the box office. But Gerwig and company manage to put a lot of stuff into two hours ... this isn't a "small" movie like, say, Lady Bird. (Gerwig's budgets have gone from $10 million for Lady Bird to more than $100 million for Barbie.) Gerwig has "adapted" well to her larger budgets, plus her films feel increasingly confident. I wouldn't argue that each is better than the last ... they are all equally good. But she certainly hasn't fallen.

Barbie is ripe for analysis, of course, and there is some difference of opinion about the final product. Gerwig does well to question the place of the Barbie tradition in the lives of the girls who have grown up in the time of that tradition, but she is also making a movie about a doll that is backed by the company that makes the doll. We're not talking revolution here, just a gentle nudge towards a female-centric perspective that offers a happy kind of feminism without ruffling too many feathers (right-wing pundits not withstanding). It's interesting to try and ascertain what Gerwig intended for her film ... she's certainly been available for interviews and promotions, it's not hard to find her hopes for the movie. I think Barbie is the movie Greta Gerwig wanted to make.

But not everyone is happy about Gerwig's vision here. Barbie is a pretty white movie (all of the pink colors don't hide this fact), even though we get America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt as a Latinx family, and Simu Liu as an Asian Ken, and Issa Rae as an African-American Barbie who is President of Barbieland. This may be unavoidable ... Barbie is white, after all ... but like everything else in the movie, Gerwig puts diversity out there without emphasizing it, so the audience might forget that there are other Barbies and Kens besides Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling.

Kathy Fennessy offers a dissenting view of the movie and Gerwig's career that I admit doesn't connect with me. In "On Greta Gerwig's Barbie: A Tale in Four Parts", Fennessy begins, "Greta Gerwig has been trying to sell out, as it were, for over a decade now." Her argument is that even when Gerwig was an indie-mumblecore icon, she was already looking ahead to the mainstream. She describes the progression of Gerwig's career from her indie roots to Barbie as inevitable and intended ... and as far as I know, Fennessy is not wrong. And she is on target when she writes, "subversion isn't the same as self-awareness. Barbie is one, but it isn't the other. Gerwig and co-writer Baumbach poke gentle fun at Mattel, but by her own admission, they had to run everything by the studio brass.... I appreciate the way the couple pokes the bear, but I wouldn't say they drew blood, and nor would I have expected them to get away with it if they tried."

But in an odd way, Fennessy seems critical of Gerwig's career, even as she also seems to praise it. "With Gerwig, there was always the sense that independent cinema meant a great deal to her, and so fans have felt disappointed by what seems like an about-face, even if it really isn't. Gerwig worked hard, she paid her dues, she repeatedly tried to sell out, and she kept trying until she succeeded." Fennessy isn't saying Barbie represents a sell-out for Gerwig, she's saying Gerwig was always a sell-out, she just had to wade through a career before she got the chance to finally do what she always wanted.

Honestly, I find Fennessy's essay astute, even as I contest what I see as a major point: that it matters one way or the other if Barbie/Gerwig is a "sell-out". It's not a revolutionary movie, but I don't think that was ever the intention.



Excellent review! I feel thoughtful.


Thanks for this, Steven. Any time a so-called indie artist takes a crack at the mainstream it's usually an interesting, ambitious, even risky move. "Sell-out" is too often a way of saying, stay small. I'm no doubt one of millions of people who have heard of Greta Gerwig, have not seen any of her previous films, and somehow found myself in a movie theatre (extremely rare thing) watching a movie by Greta Gerwig. And my daughter who's 14 also saw it and I think it's safe to say knew nothing about GG. Selling Out is a way of getting your work out--what artist doesn't want to reach people? (Well, some artists probably don't but I certainly don't begrudge those who DO.)

I liked the movie, some of it quite a bit (the acting, mostly), though do agree that Fennesy nailed something with, "subversion isn't the same as self-awareness." Stuff like the jabs at Mattel and the non-stop pop culture referencing too often felt like winks and nods to the audience, though sometimes it was playfully done too.


The Godfather riff was a scream, though. And too accurate.

Steven Rubio

I understand the affection people have for "Mumblecore Greta". Her work as an actress captivated me more than once (I could watch her dancing down the street to "Modern Love" in Frances Ha on a loop). I've liked all of her directorial efforts ... they are nothing alike, but while I like Gerwig and waited a long time for Barbie to come out, Sarah Polley is the person I promote if I only have time to mention one 40-ish woman director.

But, as I guess I made semi-clear above, it's not that I disagree with Fennessy's take on the actual movie, it's that I don't care about the notion of "sell-out".

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