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

This essay contains spoilers for all three of the films discussed.

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.

Greta Gerwig’s art reveals the truth that there is dignity in simply being a woman—an embodied, relational, imperfect woman. 

Despite the advances that women have achieved in society across the decades, contemporary women still face a slew of messages about who they ought to be, whether a “girlboss” a “tradwife” or something in between. 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.

Discourse in a Fractured Society

The problem with the reception of Gerwig’s work among some Catholics stems from the impoverishment of public discourse, particularly among those with whom we disagree, and the increasing compartmentalization of our social milieu.

A 2021 survey revealed that both Republicans and Democrats are far more likely to befriend those who belong to the same political party as they do. The same survey indicated that Americans’ number of close friends has been declining over the past several decades. Perhaps in our desire to have friends who think just like we do, we are causing damage both to our communal lives and to our intellectual ones. In a secular age, perhaps our best option is to identify the common ground that we share with those who differ from us—to commend them for what they get right—and then to move forward from there, with both nuance and compassion.

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.

Gerwig’s feminism has more in common with John Paul II’s vision than it does with the shallow feminism often seen in Hollywood today.

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.

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.

‘Lady Bird’ and the Truth of Our Interdependence

Though “Lady Bird” (2017) was Gerwig’s first solo directorial project, I did not see the film when it first premiered, but watched it later, after I had already come to respect Gerwig for her complex depiction of women.

Like the heroine, Christine (who goes by the self-selected moniker Lady Bird), Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where she attended a Catholic high school. “Lady Bird”is a coming-of-age story that primarily focuses on the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is riddled with conflict. Her mother is not a particularly warm or gentle woman—she is consistently critical of her daughter—but viewers come to understand that her hard exterior masks a deeply caring heart.

In a culture dominated increasingly by therapy-speak, one might expect the film to depict Lady Bird’s coming-of-age story as one of throwing off the shackles of her mother’s harsh words and complicated expectations. Instead, Gerwig prompts viewers to consider that love takes many forms, some harder to recognize than others.

Throughout the film, Lady Bird can’t wait to get out of her hometown, Sacramento, applying to schools on the East Coast behind her mother’s back. But after reading her college application essay, Sarah Joan, who serves as headmistress of her school, comments, “You clearly love Sacramento.” The viewer is just as surprised as Lady Bird is to hear this.

In ‘Lady Bird,’ Gerwig prompts viewers to consider that love takes many forms, some harder to recognize than others.

“I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird ends up saying.

“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing—love and attention?” Sister Sarah Joan responds.

For anyone who has ever been a part of any kind of family, this line surely strikes home.

In the end, “Lady Bird”prompts us to consider that maybe coming of age is not so much about chasing independence as it is about embracing the givenness of the lives of each of us. After insisting on the name Lady Bird throughout the film, our heroine makes a call from college to her parents. Upon hearing the voice mail tone, she begins her message: “Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me, Christine.”

None of us forge our identities in a vacuum. We are born into families and communities and traditions—and any feminism that fails to recognize this is a feminism that ought to be rejected.

Bringing ‘Little Women’ Into the 21st Century

With “Little Women” (2019), Gerwig tackled the fraught task of adapting a work of literature that has been beloved for more than a century. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel (and its sequel, Good Wives) has shaped the imaginations of countless young girls in its depiction of the adolescence and young adulthood of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March.

Gerwig’s adaptation has provoked criticism from some for telling the story from her perspective as a 21st-century feminist. Indeed, Gerwig’s framing devices and monologues call attention to the connection between marriage and financial security during Alcott’s time, questioning with contemporary eyes an economy that made women so dependent on men.

And yet, I can’t help but think about a conversation between the sisters in one of the film’s final scenes:

“Well, who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance, does it?” asks Jo, the writer among them.

Her sister Amy responds: “Maybe it doesn’t seem important because people don’t write about them.”

Is this an expression of the contemporary critique of a male-dominated literary tradition? Undoubtedly. But some critics of Gerwig’s film forget that Louisa May Alcott was herself a feminist, albeit one from a different “wave” than Gerwig.

Alcott—and Gerwig, in her directorial depiction of Alcott’s work—does not try to give dignity to the work of women by making it more like the work of men. She strives to reveal the dignity and wonder inherent in the very ordinary lives of very ordinary women.

Gerwig shapes ‘Little Women’ into a morality tale for a post-morality world.

As she does in “Lady Bird,”Gerwig brings motherhood to the fore, directing viewers’ attention to Marmee, the mother of the four titular little women. Marmee is depicted not only through the eyes of her daughters, but in her own words, as she describes her struggles cultivating virtue and as she grieves the loss of a beloved child.

Alcott’s writing tends to read in a somewhat moralizing manner, and Gerwig does not remove this tone from her interpretation of the text. Instead, she shapes “Little Women”into a morality tale for a post-morality world.

Perhaps the strongest tension throughout the film is the one between familial ties and personal dreams. This is most evident in the character of Jo, who moves to New York to teach as a governess and continues to hone her writing skills on the side. On her sister Meg’s wedding day, Jo earnestly implores her to run away with her, telling her that it’s not yet too late to escape the impending bonds and duties of matrimony. Meg looks at her young sister lovingly before replying: “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”

Jo’s inability to sympathize with her sister’s vocational choices, however, turns into a kind of longing as the years pass by. She stands alone at her sister Beth’s grave, while the other women of the family each have a husband’s arm to which to cling. This all leads up to what is one of the most powerful scenes of the film.

Jo, increasingly unmoored by her sister’s death, is considering whether maybe she ought to have accepted the proposal of her best friend, Theodore Laurence. This reconsideration never occurs in the book but Gerwig’s interpretation is consistent with Jo’s emotional state at this point in the narrative. 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.

She’s Everything: Barbie and Feminine Fulfillment

When considering Gerwig’s Barbie, I often think about this interview that she did on NPR. She was speaking about “Lady Bird,”but the same impulse extends across her filmography:

I didn’t want the character of the mother to fall neatly into a category of either an angel ora monster, which is generally what I think happens with mother characters in movies. And that’s not…how I see most mothers in the world…. I see most mothers doing their level best, making mistakes and trying to pick up and keep going.

I think that this quotation touches the heart of the film. You might wonder: How on earth is “Barbie”a movie about motherhood? After all, it follows the high jinks that ensue after (childless) Barbie and Ken travel from Barbieland to the Real World. But in doing so, it brings to our attention the realities of the female embodiment—an embodiment experienced uniquely by women who are mothers.

At the beginning of the film, as the camera pans through Barbieland, we see Midge, Barbie’s visibly pregnant friend (and a very real part of Barbie’s history!). The narrator comically remarks that Midge is just “too weird,” drawing attention to the incongruity between Barbie’s appearance and the bodily changes experienced by real women.

Of course, this incongruity takes center stage as Barbie herself begins to experience strange and startling symptoms: flattening feet, thoughts about her mortality, and even—gasp!—bad breath. This is the result, she discovers, of a rift that has opened up between Barbieland and the Real World. And so she sets off for the Real World to set things right.

Here she finds herself lost, confused and objectified in a world that—unlike Barbieland—is not built for women. Ken falls in love with the patriarchy, developing his own vision of a world run by men (and, apparently, horses). Though the film showcases catcalling passersby and condescending male C.E.O.s, it is most convincingly pro-woman when subtly drawing viewers’ attention to female embodiment and relationality. To make a better world, maybe we need to focus on embracing feminine dignity in all of its forms—pregnant, infertile, elderly, chronically ill—even more than we have focused, historically, on shattering the glass ceiling.

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.

Yes, women’s bodies are worth celebrating, even (maybe especially) their reproductive systems, where they are most different from men.

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. The British writer and feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez collected many similar pieces of data in her eye-opening 2019 book, Invisible Women. Leah Libresco Sargeant also addresses this reality in her Substack community, Other Feminisms.

It is a reality felt perhaps all the more acutely with regard to the female reproductive system. Drug tests, for example, rarely take into account the fact that women’s bodies often respond differently to stimuli during different points of their menstrual cycles. Contemporary conceptions of professional—and perhaps especially academic—success rarely take into account the narrow window during which a woman is able healthily to bear children.

These realities come to mind as I watch the closing scene of “Barbie,” in which Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, after deciding to leave Barbieland permanently and become a real woman, proudly presents herself for her first appointment with a gynecologist. I imagine Gerwig affirming that yes, women’s bodies are worth celebrating, even (maybe especially) their reproductive systems, where they are most different from men.

It is women’s bodies that open them up to relationality.

Once again, Gerwig has made a film that features a mother-daughter relationship at its heart, as America Ferrara’s Gloria and her daughter Sasha help Barbie in saving Barbieland from the patriarchy. Ferrara’s monologue about the tensions of being a woman in the modern world has been much-discussed; personally, I find it a little heavy-handed. Instead, I think “Barbie” is strongest when viewed through the lens of one of its final scenes, in which Barbie considers becoming part of the Real World.

Barbie sees a montage of scenes from the lives of real women. These are not scenes of women scaling mountains or presenting in boardrooms or preparing sandwiches, but of women with their children and their parents and their siblings and all of those they love. Just as Lady Bird and Jo March 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. Every time the screen fades to black, I am filled with gratitude for the existence of a successful female filmmaker who understands—in however limited a fashion—that woman was not made to be alone.

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