It’s the kind of message that breathlessly grabs your attention in the theater but feels rather on-the-nose once you’re talking about it outside of that space, like the only response can be a sardonic Now tell me something I don’t know! Yet when I took a beat and thought about all the little girls and boys watching this movie, Gloria’s diatribe is a revelation. (And how interesting that I hesitated to use words like diatribe, or tirade, as they all have such negative, shrewish connotations, even if their objective definitions are of bitter criticism, which is nothing but accurate.)
While Gloria’s monologue could only do so much in the context of Barbie, what I loved best about it was how it felt like a continuation of the conversation that Greta Gerwig started in Little Women, her 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s formative novel. Before she was deconstructing Mattel’s IP, Gerwig was playing with dolls with this quartet of classic female characters.
Like Barbie, the March sisters have become their own archetypes for girls trying on different roles in adulthood: Meg, the wife and mother; Jo, the artist who “sells out” while resisting marriage; Beth, the tragic martyr; and Amy, the artist who seemingly gets everything she wants. Also like Stereotypical Barbie and her fellow citizens of Barbie Land, there’s the temptation to declare these roles mutually exclusive.
Reading Little Women, we girls had a tendency to pick one March sister and pin our entire identity upon her, as if once we picked up one doll we could never exchange her for another. (Yours truly has always most wanted to be Jo, even if I lack her pluck.) But what Gerwig accomplished with 2019’s Little Women was to reveal how much each of the sisters’ identities actually bleed into one another’s. Take Meg, who delights in acting in Jo’s plays, and she appreciates the culture of society parties, donning a nickname bestowed by another girl along with a borrowed dress. Her choice to prioritize the domestic life is at first more about taking on yet another role, imagining an idealized future; her emotional journey in the film is about accepting the realities of married life, which is less about new clothes and more about appreciating each year they continue to be alive.
Even more impressive is how Gerwig links Jo and Amy, the antagonistic sisters who seem to spend their lives competing over Aunt March’s attentions (and artistic support) as well as Laurie’s affections (and, let’s be real, financial support). While we were all waiting for Jo’s expected big moment later in the film, Amy’s (Florence Pugh) monologue comes first, and nearly blindsides us: Having studied in Rome and Paris and thus determined that she is of “middling talent” as a painter compared to Jo making a living as a writer in New York, she has decided that her only option is to marry rich. When Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) criticizes her for what he interprets as shallow social-climbing, she firmly puts him in his place:
“Well. I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman. And as a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children, they would belong to him, not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”