March 5, 2024 Editor

A Catholic defense of ‘Barbie’ and Greta Gerwig’s feminism

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie star in a scene from the movie “Barbie.” The OSV News classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (OSV News photo/Warner Bros.)

Abigail Wilkinson Miller

March 05, 2024

image above: Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie star in a scene from the movie “Barbie” (OSV News photo/Warner Bros.).

WN: I love the gentle winsomeness of this piece! And while Pope John Paul II may have had lots of failings, as some of my Catholic friends point out, her approving of the former Pope’s Letter to Women is heartening. (Please though, only point out my many failings posthumously! 🙁 And no one hopefully says under one’s breath, “The sooner the better!” 😕 )

excerpts:

Greta Gerwig’s art reveals the truth that there is dignity in simply being a woman—an embodied, relational, imperfect woman. This vision is compelling amid the cacophony and divisiveness in our public square.

When Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” was released in theaters this summer, a wave of pink washed over our social media timelines. From the heartfelt gratitude of working moms to the pyrotechnic outrage of political commentator Ben Shapiro, it seemed as though everyone had something to say about Gerwig’s take on Mattel’s beloved doll. A casual scroller perusing the various headlines would be forgiven for wondering whether all of these commentators had even seen the same movie.

Many (though certainly not all) Catholic reviewers came away from the film disappointed—and much of this disappointment was caused by Gerwig’s treatment of feminism, women’s issues, and the relationship between the sexes. These reviews reminded me of responses to Gerwig’s previous film, a 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. After seeing it four years ago, I left the theater deeply moved…only to hear friends and acquaintances decry it as “progressive propaganda.” Catholic World Report ran a review of the movie shortly after its release, titled “A disappointing take on a beloved classic.” Faced with these and other negative responses, I was forced to consider my intense appreciation of the film—long before Gerwig’s directorial choices became a matter of widespread debate.

Many conservatives have been rankled by “Barbie”’s not-so-subtle implication that the Real World is not built for women. But there’s an army of facts to back up Gerwig’s point of view here. For example, women are 47 percent more likely to be injured in an automobile accident (and 17 percent more likely to die) because most cars’ safety systems are designed primarily with the male body and driving posture in mind.
This is how I propose approaching the filmography of Greta Gerwig, who was recently named one of TIME’s Women of the Year.

Those tempted to write off Gerwig as another progressive Hollywood darling should consider whether the term feminism might have more than one definition. After all, it is understood that there have been several “waves” of feminism. At every point along the way, feminism met with both adherents and critics—and experienced division within its ranks.

Whatever seeds of truth the “waves” of feminism might have to offer, all Catholics should at least be able to recognize the dignity of every female person, regardless of her relationship with or resemblance to any man. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is often recommended in the course of Catholic debates over feminism—and with good reason. “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman!” he writes. He acknowledges the discriminations and abuses to which women have been subject throughout history, as well as the policies that continue to jeopardize and constrain them in the world today.

This is what Greta Gerwig’s films are all about–finding fulfillment in a life shared with others.

Gerwig’s feminism has more in common with John Paul II’s vision than it does with the shallow, ideological feminism often seen in Hollywood today. Each of her three films phenomenologically reveals a different aspect of a humane, if imperfect, feminism.

She attempts to explain her conflicted heart to Marmee, her voice breaking in a monologue beautifully delivered by Saoirse Ronan:

Women. . . they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely.

Gerwig understands the tension between professional and educational expectations (and dreams) and social uncertainty that characterizes the lives of so many women in the modern world.

One of the film’s essential scenes might easily escape a viewer’s notice. Barbie, upset by the real world and dressed in hot pink cowgirl attire, sits down on a bench next to an elderly woman. Gazing at her, she says softly: “You’re beautiful.” The woman responds: “I know.” Maybe the pinnacle of female beauty isn’t a glowing, toned Margot Robbie but a woman who has lived a long and full life. Our culture is so often hostile toward aging—especially female aging—even though it is a physical reality that we all hope someday to face ourselves. “Barbie” offers another outlook.

Just as Lady Bird and Jo March [in “Lady Bird” (2017), Gerwig’s first solo directorial project] learn to embrace their families alongside their dreams, the women of “Barbie” find fulfillment in a life shared with others.

This is what Greta Gerwig’s films are all about. I don’t agree with every last line uttered by any of her characters, but that’s not really how one should approach art.

Please click on: A Catholic defense of ‘Barbie’ and Greta Gerwig’s feminism.

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Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.