The Barbie Movie – Greta Gerwig

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Photo Illustration by Inez and Vinoodh

The moment Greta Gerwig knew for certain that she could make a movie about Barbie, the most famous and controversial doll in history, she was thinking about death. She had been reading about Ruth Handler, the brash Jewish businesswoman who created the doll — and who, decades later, had two mastectomies. Handler birthed this toy with its infamous breasts, the figurine who became an enduring avatar of plastic perfection, while being stuck, like all of us, in a fragile and failing human body. This thought sparked something for Gerwig. She envisioned a sunny-minded Barbie stumbling upon a dying woman in her barbecue area. Then Gerwig kept going. It was the beginning of the pandemic. Maybe no one would ever go to the movies again. Maybe no one would ever see what she was working on. Why not go for broke?

Why couldn’t the movie begin with a methodologically faithful riff on the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with little girls bashing in their insipid baby dolls’ heads after beholding the revelation that is Barbie? Why couldn’t Barbieland be full of Barbies and Kens but free of wind, except when it made the dolls’ hair look good? Why couldn’t Barbie be overcome by irrepressible thoughts of death in the middle of a choreographed dance number? Why couldn’t there be a dream ballet inspired by 1950s musicals and a recurring joke about the lyrics of a Matchbox 20 song? Why couldn’t Gerwig love Barbie and criticize Barbie and try to make people feel something new about an object that has been making people feel things for nearly 65 years? Why couldn’t she make a movie that would delight Barbie’s protective corporate guardians at Mattel, the people at Warner Brothers who bankrolled the roughly $145 million production, the people who hate Barbie, the people who adore Barbie and also herself?

“There’s a point in the movie where the Kens are riding invisible horses from their beach battle to the Mojo Dojo Casa Houses,” Gerwig told me — a Mojo Dojo Casa House is like a Barbie Dreamhouse, but for Kens — “and I think to myself, every time: Why did they let us do this?” It was late May, less than two months until the movie’s theatrical release, and Gerwig was putting in long hours on finishing touches, shuttling between postproduction facilities in Manhattan. Still, the very fact of the movie’s existence continued to puzzle and delight her. Why did they let her do this?

The answer seems so obvious now. Mattel, Warner Brothers and the producers let Greta Gerwig make “Barbie” so that exactly what is currently happening would happen. So that the fizzy marriage of filmmaker and material would break though the cacophony of contemporary life and return a retirement-age hunk of plastic to the zeitgeist. So that Mattel, in particular, could rocket-launch its grand ambitions to become a proto-Disney and announce the activation of its entire intellectual-property back catalog with a fuchsia splash. So that Barbie stans and Barbie agnostics alike would find themselves bombarded by paparazzi snaps of Margot Robbie, as Barbie, and Ryan Gosling, as Ken, dressed in matching, radioactively vivid Rollerblading outfits — plus “Barbie” trailers, #Barbiecore TikToks and wall-to-wall Barbie tie-ins. They wanted Gerwig, with her indie bona fides, feminist credentials and multiple Oscar nominations, to use her credibility to make this multibillion-dollar platinum-blond I.P. newly relevant, delivering a very, very, very pink summer blockbuster that acknowledges Barbie’s baggage, unpacks that baggage and, also, sells that baggage. (The designer-luggage company Béis now offers a Barbie collection.) They wanted Gerwig to burnish Barbie. But why, exactly, did Gerwig want to do that?

Inquiries like this fluster Gerwig. She has been thinking about Barbie, nonstop, for years. But at the time, it had been a while since she’d talked it over with anyone who wasn’t already immersed in the project. Suddenly, at the end of a long day, she was being asked to justify the fascination that possessed her the moment Margot Robbie, also one of the movie’s producers, asked her about writing the script, which she would do with her partner, Noah Baumbach. “I kept thinking: Humans are the people that make dolls and then get mad at the dolls,” Gerwig explained. “We create them and then they create us and we recreate them and they recreate us. We’re in constant conversation with inanimate objects.”

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