Anti Film-Bro: Can Greta Gerwig save Barbie?

A symmetrical drawing of Barbie in the black-and-white striped dress from the new “Barbie” movie. In the background there is a photo of two girls holding up Barbie dolls.
(Max Ranney • The Student Life)

Welcome to fourth wave feminism: gone are the days of inherently denouncing breast implants and blonde hair. Alix Earle, University of Miami party girl and TikTok’s newest star, has both; Tiktok has decided that there’s a place for her in feminism. Earle has been lauded as a modern day Barbie, a triumph over the misogynistic vitriol while also a disappointing setback to TikTokers of color making valid criticisms about the commercial, overnight success of white influencers. Tiktok has insisted Earle can be beautiful and kind, fashionable and relatable and sexual and witty. Now — after three waves of feminism and 64 years since Mattel first released its iconic doll — enter “Barbie”: written and directed by Greta Gerwig with a release date this July. 

With an 84 second teaser trailer, Gerwig’s “Barbie” has already aligned itself with this kind of “reclamatory” fourth-wave feminism adopted by Alix Earle supporters. Gerwig, who has solidified herself as a modern-day white feminist filmmaker with “Ladybird” (2017) and “Little Women” (2019), is smart to choose Margot Robbie — known from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Bombshell” and her role as Harley Quinn as an all-American beauty with some subversive substance.

Let’s not forget: this won’t be our first Barbie movie. Since 2001, Mattel has been producing and releasing animated Barbie movies from ballets like “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” to musicals based on surprisingly-chosen novels by Mark Twain like “Princess and the Pauper. Every variation of a fairy, princess, ballerina, popstar or mermaid plot has been made. In Barbie movies, there are pegasuses, evil stepmothers, dancing puppies, little fairy fluff balls named Bibble, magic rainbows and jewels, prince charmings and happy endings. 

The Barbie movies are also surprisingly feminist. Sure, the leading ladies have waists smaller than their heads, but Barbie movies are all about triumphing over some sort of restricting evil: the gendered expectation of a princess with an arranged marriage, the cruel debts imposed on a pauper or an evil stepmother getting in the way of true love. Barbie movies love to challenge class and what it means to be a “proper” lady, and they always root for the underdog. 

Yet feminism has had a long and complicated relationship with Barbie. From a Barbie doll sold with a book imploring “Don’t Eat!” Mattel has fumbled over the years: a Barbie with a tramp stamp, a pregnant teen Barbie, a Sports Illustrated Barbie and a Barbie released with a miniature plastic scale permanently locked at 110 pounds have all been called out as bizarre and regressive failures. 

The 2018 documentary “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” sought to reconcile some of feminism and Mattel’s disagreements. “Tiny Shoulders” thoughtfully tracks the company’s history and modern efforts to diversify and expand the brand: from waist sizes and skin color to the physical ability of each doll. Ultimately, the documentary is most successful when it humanizes Mattel’s female employees. After all, the inability to completely sever Barbie from feminism is due to the fact that Barbie is, at the end of the day, also a woman. Like “Tiny Shoulders” demonstrates, Mattel is hardly a male-only company. 

To Vogue, Robbie spoke of how the movie will renegotiate Barbie: “People generally hear ‘Barbie’ and think, ‘I know what this movie is going to be,’ and then they hear that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I don’t…’” 

Gerwig has also acknowledged the massive undertaking of tackling such a fraught figure. “It felt like vertigo, starting to write it,” she said during a podcast. “Usually that’s where the best stuff is, where you’re like, ‘I am terrified of that.’ Anything where you’re like, ‘This could be a career-ender’ — then you’re like, ‘I should probably do it.’”

Can Greta Gerwig, a privileged white woman, make Barbie feminist again? Sure, but only because the feminist opportunities of Barbie have never been that inaccessible to white third and fourth wave feminists to begin with. Both Robbie and Gerwig have always had access to Barbie: she belongs to white women to idolize, play with as girls, challenge as adult feminists and then reclaim during a fourth wave. It’s no coincidence that Barbie’s biggest critiques have been her unattainable body standards, then her hyper-sexual femininity, then her whiteness. After all, these traits descend in order of accessibility for white women. 

Does this mean I think Gerwig’s “Barbie” is a doomed feminist effort? Not at all. She’ll need to reconcile some big questions about Barbie’s limited accessibility, but Gerwig is a filmmaker up for the task, specifically demonstrated by her dazzling work modernizing “Little Women” for the contemporary feminist. But “Barbie” is still a movie building upon discourse predominantly populated by white feminists; Gerwig is simply adding to the discourse, not recreating it. 

In the teaser trailer for Gerwig’s “Barbie, a parodic voice-over of “2001: A Space Odyssey” confidently states: “Since the beginning of time, there have always been dolls.” And since the beginning of modern-day Western feminism, there has always been Barbie. Gerwig is simply the next voice attempting to define her. 

Eliza Powers PO ’25 is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She loves Gracie Abrams, “The Bachelor” and matching pajama sets.  

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