Pop Culture

Radhika Jones on Greta Gerwig and the Year of ‘Barbie’

When we put our Holiday issue to bed, Hollywood’s actors were still on strike. The Writers Guild had just ratified its new contract, having won some economic and employment protections after its nearly five-month-long walkout exposed vulnerabilities in a studio system that was far from perfect to begin with, and then got disrupted (Silicon Valley’s word!) by streaming services that brought tech’s “break shit” mantra down the coast. Now the actors have won their own concessions, but the industry will likely emerge from this fight with the bruises to show for it and, one fears, correspondingly fewer opportunities.

And yet, despite the odds, it was a terrific year at the movies, largely thanks to our cover subject, Greta Gerwig. I went to a Barbie screening a couple of days before the film came out with my friend Stefanie from graduate school. Mattel was the host, and the invitation called for Barbie chic, which we resisted right up until we didn’t—a pink Celine top and Chanel bag fit the bill perfectly for me; my friend retrieved a retro pair of pink-checked pants. The cast was on strike—though Margot Robbie had racked up around a dozen killer red-carpet looks beforehand—but Greta attended and spoke about the freedom she had been given to complicate the already complicated legacy of an 11 1/2-inch-tall doll that occupies a singular silhouette in the American imagination. We watched the movie and were excessively diverted, as Jane Austen might say. Afterward, Stef remarked that she did not expect to spend the post-Barbie cab ride home talking about the state of toxic masculinity and the roots of incel rage, but here we were.

The movie didn’t have to be a conversation starter and wouldn’t have been without Greta, whose oeuvre simultaneously defies logic and creates its own: the through line from Lady Bird to Little Women to Barbie being kind of genius, if you think about it. Without her vision as director and cowriter, Barbie might have been a mere confection, not a phenomenon of viral marketing, a box office smash (it has earned more than $1.4 billion globally to date), a film that launched a thousand think pieces (was there too much Ken? discuss), and (my favorite moment) a vehicle to revive the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” for anyone who needed reminding (not me). In her sharp, funny interview with Sloane Crosley, Greta talks about wanting to just keep doing what she’s been doing—making smart films that are entertaining, thought-provoking, and unexpected. Her work is exactly what Hollywood should be set up to support and cultivate. For all our sakes, I hope it will be.

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