Barbie: Greta Gerwig on why the movie is 'universal'

​Greta Gerwig remembers a moment on set, after a particularly poignant scene in her latest film, where she started uncontrollably weeping. She turned and looked around, only to find that everyone else on set was also crying, “including the men”.
Margot Robbie as Barbie.Margot Robbie as Barbie.
Margot Robbie as Barbie.

“And I thought, this film is universal. It means something universally to people,” she remembers.

That might take some by surprise. This is, after all, a film about a (predominantly female) children’s toy. It’s about Barbie.

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But that is exactly why the acclaimed US writer and director wanted to take it on. In the subject matter’s controversy and preconceptions, she saw an opportunity to confront and challenge. To question perspectives, subvert expectations and, ultimately, flip what ‘Barbie’ means to people on its head.

Ryan Gosling as Ken.Ryan Gosling as Ken.
Ryan Gosling as Ken.

From the moment it was announced that the feminist auteur would direct the Barbie film, questions were raised over Gerwig’s impetus for taking on the project and how it sits with her other ventures – among them an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and the coming-of-age story Lady Bird.

For Gerwig, it is, in some ways, a continuation of her preoccupation with stories that centre on women and the female experience in its kaleidoscope of colour and shade.

“It’s what I’m interested in,” she says.

“I like women. I like men, too. But I’m very interested in women and how they construct their lives, intergenerationally, and what they think is important.

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“You inevitably end up making movies about things you like. And I like ladies.”

That being said, she stresses that “there’s a lot in it for the men and the Kens. And I think that if they go, they’ll find themselves pleasantly surprised and seen”.

Barbie has long courted controversy. Dreamt up by Ruth Handler in 1959, who also co-founded the doll’s manufacturer, Mattel, over a billion Barbies have been sold in the decades since.

Most criticisms revolve around Barbie’s unattainable body shape and the materialistic lifestyle she promotes.

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In the 70s, feminists at Berkeley burnt the doll as a symbol of male oppression. Various iterations – including a Talking Barbie that said “maths class is tough” – have been pulled from shelves following a public backlash.

On the flipside, 1992 ushered in President Barbie while the real-life version has yet to take the podium in the US. In recent years, Mattel have created Barbies with different skin tones, body shapes and disabilities.

Both Gerwig and Margot Robbie, who plays the titular character, have been forthright about the baggage that comes with making or starring in a film about the doll.

On how the film might shift perceptions of Barbie and what she represents, Robbie, 33, says: “That’s been changing and shifting over the years multiple times.

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"I think sometimes Barbie’s been ahead of the times, sometimes Barbie’s been behind the times, majorly. Right now, this movie is kind of its own thing.”

With the preface that he wouldn’t want to “Kensplain” the film, Ryan Gosling, who plays the Ken to Robbie’s Barbie, says the film is “very layered and complex”.

“It’s so unexpected and there’s so much in there,” the 42-year-old Notebook star continues.

“There’s so many interesting conversations going on in it. There’s also a lot of dancing. It’s really a choose-your-own-adventure… but it’s loaded and I think it’s so special.”

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Set in the glittering world of Barbie Land – featuring a dizzying number of other Barbie and Kens – the film sees the doll, begrudgingly accompanied by Ken, unwittingly embark on a journey of self-discovery. It’s Barbie with a side order of existential crisis; colourful, comedic chaos.

Robbie must leave the pink utopia that is Barbie Land due to her seeming ‘imperfections’ (things like her feet going flat or her shower running cold) and sets off to the Real World in a bid to reclaim her ‘perfection’.

The massive, star-studded production features other greats like Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO; Issa Rae as President Barbie; Emerald Fennell as Barbie’s best friend Midge; Kate McKinnon as Weird Barbie; Emma Mackey as Barbie with a Nobel Prize in Physics; and Ncuti Gatwa as another Ken.

Co-written by Gerwig and her long-time partner, Marriage Story’s Noah Baumbach, Robbie and her husband Tom Ackerley produced the film through their production company LuckyChap Entertainment.

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On having Robbie as a producer on set, Gerwig, 39, says: “She’s incredibly supportive. She’s clear. She’s smart. And she really would just stand up and say, ‘This is how we’re doing it’.”

The respect is mutual. Barbie is a chance to “celebrate the real-life Barbie that is Greta Gerwig”, Robbie, 33, enthuses. “She is everything and can do anything.

"She’s the only director that I’d shave my legs for, put it that way,” says Gosling. “She’s so special… so brilliant, so funny, so much kindness and love.”

Simu Liu who plays Ken’s arch-rival, Ken, says Gerwig is “so fun to be around”.

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“Hollywood is filled with these images of these geniuses that are kind of withdrawn or very unrelenting,” the Shang-Chi and The Legend Of The Ten Rings star, 34, continues. “[Greta’s] so open to collaboration and every day is like ‘kids go to school, play in the sandbox’ and there’s such a freedom that she’s able to curate to such a degree. The actors feel free to be their goofiest selves.”

“She’s so good, she’s like ridiculously good,” says Fennell, 37, who won an Oscar for her film Promising Young Woman. “She runs the set with the most remarkable warmth… She’s a model for what a good director should be.”

“It has honestly brought me the greatest experience with a cast and crew that I’ve ever had,” shares Gerwig. “In terms of just the collective energy that went into this and how much everyone was so committed… It was just a really communal feeling.”

Sex Education star, and new Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa, says joining the Barbie cast, also as a Ken, was a “no brainer”. “From the moment I got that email… I just knew it was Barbie and Greta Gerwig and I knew that I needed to be in it.”

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Reconnecting with fellow Sex Education star Emma Mackey was also “so much fun”, says Gatwa, 30.

“Me and Emma were each other’s Barbie and Kens. What a dream come true, she’s one of my best mates, to work with her again was just great… It just felt really heartwarming that we’re all kind of going off on our journeys and starting our careers post-school. It [Sex Education] was filmed in a school, it felt like school, and we’ve now graduated.”

Meanwhile, ‘Barbenheimer’, the social media-fuelled fusion of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer brought moviegoers back to US cinemas in record numbers last weekend.

It vastly outperformed projections and gave a glimmer of hope amid the backdrop of strikes.

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Warner Bros’s Barbie claimed the top spot with 155 million dollars (£120 million) in ticket sales from North American cinemas from 4,243 locations, surpassing The Super Mario Bros Movie as well as every Marvel movie this year as the biggest opening of the year and breaking the first weekend record for a film directed by a woman.

Universal’s Oppenheimer also soared past expectations, taking in 80.5 million dollars (£62.6 million) from 3,610 cinemas in the US and Canada, marking Nolan’s biggest non-Batman debut and one of the best starts for an R-rated biographical drama. The Barbenheimer phenomenon may have started out as good-natured competition between two aesthetic opposites, but, as many hoped, both movies benefitted in the end.

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