Black and white photo of producer-actress Margot Robbie and director Greta Gerwig laughing together and clutching one another's hand during a red carpet publicity event for the "Barbie" movie

No way to feel sad: the snub-defying power of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie

“And the best thing you ever done for me

Is to help me take my life less seriously

It’s only life, after all” — Emily Saliers, “Closer to Fine”

Recently my eyebrows were among the many raised when the Academy failed to nominate Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the two people most responsible for the 2023 global blockbuster and cultural phenomenon, the “Barbie" movie, for best director and best actress at this year’s Oscars. 

In response, Robbie said, “There’s no way to feel sad,” both acknowledging what it was like, emotionally, for many of us to see such a dazzling, savagely funny work of art not get the full recognition it deserved, while also rejecting a grievance mindset about it. Gerwig "obviously" should have been nominated, she said, but they had done what they set out to do: shift the culture

Unsolicited tentpole pics

Some of the media coverage of the Academy's misstep was of the ‘just asking questions’ variety. At The New York Times, culture reporter Kyle Buchanan wondered whether “simple sexism” could really be blamed. After all, Justine Triet had been nominated for “Anatomy of a Fall.” 

At The Bulwark, Sonny Bunch took it a step further, arguing that zero snubs had occurred, it was just that big budget movies don’t tend to generate best director nominations. He went on to add, without a shred of irony, that notable exceptions include Todd Phillips’s best director nomination for “Joker,” and George Miller’s nod for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (Stares in Lisa Simpson.)

In reality, big budget movies regularly give rise to best director nominations. Most recently, Christopher Nolan was nominated for "Oppenheimer," which had twice the budget of "Joker," and Martin Scorsese for "Killers of the Flower Moon," which had twice the budget of "Oppenheimer." Other directors who have, in the past, received best director nods for big budget films include Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Ang Lee, David Fincher, and Denis Villenueve, among others. 

The Academy is fine with a tentpole, in other words, as long as it isn't just a tentpole. Ask Patty Jenkins

The real reason the Academy couldn't fully recognize Gerwig and Robbie for "Barbie" is that the film is heretical. It's willfully and gloriously out of step with everything the Academy thinks is good. 

Heresy #1: The Barbie movie is femme

In her indelible 2015 essay “On Pandering,” author Claire Vaye Watkins describes a growing awareness that she’d been writing in the style of the male authors she admired, mainly to impress them. It leads her to an epiphany:

"I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being 'unflinching.' I want to flinch. I want to be wide open."

With its bright, campy palette, diverse cast, and many queer culture references, the "Barbie" movie shows a relative yet still very refreshing infidelity to patriarchal norms. It was a bold move by Gerwig and Robbie because although movements like Me Too and #OscarsSoWhite have prompted some positive change in the industry, show biz is still, as TV critic Jen Chaney put it, "one big Mojo Dojo Casa House."

Nowhere is the enduring mojo dojoness of it all more evident than the Academy, where voters are still 67 percent male and 81 percent white. It's even worse in the best director category where 75 percent of voters are men.

gripping thriller like Triet’s excellent “Anatomy of a Fall” was probably always going to align with those directors' notions of gravitas better than a girly, fantasy satire. I'm sure that some Academy voters even felt hostile toward “Barbie” because in it, Gerwig and Robbie do the extra subversive, post-girlboss thing of never treating delicacy as weakness or sweetness as treacle. In their world, gravitas flows directly from the lilt. 

This allegiance to gentleness is beyond rare, particularly in live action movies with XL-budgets, even those with feminist themes. 

You may have noticed, for instance, that Margot Robbie never rips the face off a warlord like Charlize Theron does in “Mad Max: Fury Road" or electrocutes a god of war like Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman.” There are no fellow tributes for her to skewer like Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” or militaristic Kree to kill, like Brie Larson in “Captain Marvel." No one is threatened with genital mutilation, like Emma Stone in Poor Things, and there are no omnicidal supervillains to combat like Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” There aren’t even any prematurely dead husbands to explain, like Sandra Hüller in “Anatomy of a Fall.” No Bills were killed in the making of this film. 

Many of the movies listed above are fierce and important, of course, but the common refrain of violence shows just how far out on a limb Robbie and Gerwig were when they said they could make a four quadrant fantasy-satire with feminist themes and a femme aesthetic for a 13-and-up audience. They were doing something that had never been done before.

That’s some big tentpole energy. 

Heresy #2: The Barbie movie is fun

Erica Jong said, “Humor is one of the most serious tools we have for dealing with impossible situations.” 

From the spot-on TV ad for Depression Barbie (“panic attacks sold separately!”) to Ken’s love of horses as a feature of, and, later, counterpoint to, his toxic masculinity, Greta Gerwig took a bunch of things that are challenging and scary about being a woman and made them hilariously funny on page and screen.

That's no mean feat and, frankly, I'd like to see Christopher Nolan try it. 

The Academy has a well known tendency to shortchange comedies, particularly in the most prestigious categories. “Bridesmaids,” for example, got best supporting actress and best original screenplay nominations, but not best director or best picture nods. 

In 2017, “Girls Trip” was on everyone’s lips, but it was completely ignored by the Academy. Last fall, “Bottoms” was one of the buzziest things going, but like “Girls Trip” and “Booksmart” and “Anchorman” and “School of Rock” before it, the Academy pretended it didn’t exist. 

When comedy shows up in the best director category, it’s usually as genre hybrid. Think dramedies like “Sideways” and “Juno.” It’s as if pure comedies are speaking in a higher register, so they’re considered inherently more trivial, no matter how acclaimed, successful, beloved, or influential. (I wonder how many directors have done the cinematic equivalent of lowering their voices in hopes of an Oscar nod.)

The Academy's contempt for laugh out loud comedies is wrongheaded because when the culture suggests you go on a holiday or an escapade, it’s for radical, not trivial reasons. The patriarchy would like you to come in to work on Saturday. Culture, meanwhile, wants you to just dance, just have some fun, let it go, come out, and break free. Wants you to shake it off, shake it up, feel love, feel fine, get happy, and get this party started especially if it’s a pool party

Fun is revolutionary. Comedy is the break we need from the dreary and oppressive parts of life, the ones that grind us down and steal our strength. Comedy puts a spring in our step and makes our coats shiny again. It heals us and gives us fresh energy for the fight. That’s every bit as noble as drama’s mission and messages.

Heresy #3: The Barbie movie is fantasy

As a work of speculative fiction, the “Barbie” movie carries on a long and noble tradition of using fantasy to subvert the dominant culture. 

In writing about an early example of speculative fiction, a feminist genderqueer novel called “The Blazing Word,” published in 1666, utopian literature expert Nicole Pohl describes the genre as a kind of “emancipatory poetic space.” 

When William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, with her Amazonian island home of Themyscira and unshakeable belief in the power of love, he created an emancipatory poetic space. 

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther, king of the pluralistic, technologically superior African nation of Wakanda, they created an emancipatory poetic space. Ryan Coogler’s interpretation of the Black Panther story is considered a seminal contribution to Afrofuturism

One of the reasons Gerwig and Robbie's “Barbie” movie resonated is that it conjured into being things that should be commonplace by now, but aren’t. In Barbie Land, a Black woman is president, for instance, and it was profound for a lot of women and girls to hear the words “Madame President” spoken throughout the film. (Issa Rae says people now call her “President Barbie” on the street.)

For many of us, a work of art like the "Barbie" movie can act as a remedy for hopelessness and a lens for analyzing lived experiences. It can provide a vision for the future and a means to more easily carry the past. Dystopian elements can bring society’s flaws into focus, for further scrutiny. There is no more serious purpose to which storytelling can aspire.  

In 2017, Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” had massive commercial and critical success as well as widespread cultural impact, but it didn’t get a single Oscar nomination. In 2018, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther," another global happening, was the first superhero film to get a best picture Oscar nomination, but was beat out by "Green Book," a film that's been widely criticized as advancing the white savior narrative. Coogler himself didn’t get nominated for best director and the film’s incredible cast was completely shut out of the actor categories.

It’s the emancipatory nature of speculative fiction that causes a dominant culture to try to hold even the most exquisitely crafted instances at arm’s length. Fantasy and the up-and-coming genre of romantasy often face the most contempt because they depict one of the most subversive things of all: the pleasure, joy, and power of traditionally marginalized people. 

Heresy #4: The Barbie movie is vulnerable  

When New Yorker Editor David Remnick interviewed Greta Gerwig in 2019, he asked her how she learned to direct movies. Gerwig replied that she’s always been a director:  

"To be honest, I think that’s who I always have been…writing was always a way to get to that moment, for me."

It’s an under-discussed aspect of “Barbie” that it mirrors Gerwig’s path to directing. As Stereotypical Barbie is realizing she wants to be human, she says to Ruth Handler, her creator: 

"I want... I want to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made. I want to be the one imagining, not the idea itself. Does that make sense?"

A strange alchemy permeates this scene. It takes place in a liminal “origin space,” suffused with warm, pink light. As Stereotypical Barbie speaks herself into personhood, Billie Eilish’s sublime voice slips between lines of dialogue, like a pillow into a pillowcase. 

Stereotypical Barbie takes Ruth’s hand and a stream of home movies appears, a tender array of moments, big and small, from the everyday lives of girls and women. Greta Gerwig sourced that material from her cast and crew. The fourth wall breaks.

Make-believe time is over now, Greta and Margot seem to be saying to us. We’re moving away from the perfectionism of the past, toward something richer and more complex. We’re in it together. 

With this scene, Gerwig and Robbie have given us a map and a philosopher’s stone, a visual representation of a path to power and a means of achieving it. To move forward, go back to the beginning. To tenderness. Turn toward each other. See and celebrate one another. Let go of illusions. At this point in the screenplay, ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ becomes ‘Barbie Margot.’ It’s as if we’re all clicking the heels of our ruby slippers together, but this time, we aren’t going home.

We’re lighting out for the territories. 

Much has been said about Ryan Gosling’s stellar comedic performance in the “Barbie” movie, but not enough about Margot Robbie’s gentle, vulnerable, quietly comedic take on her character. It’s the beating heart of this film and it culminates in this magical scene. 

Closer we are to fine

Some say the Academy's exclusion of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie from the best director and best actress categories may boost votes for the “Barbie” movie for best picture. I hope that’s true. Last year was their year and these women deserve their flowers. 

Whatever happens, I hope the Academy's gap in understanding doesn't make Robbie and Gerwig feel like they can’t take more big artistic risks in the future. I hope they'll be unphased. They’ve come too far. 

It’s not that the snubs don’t matter. They do. They hurt and they matter and we, as the fans, will keep those receipts. (After all, Margot Robbie didn't say 'no way to feel mad.') As Taylor Swift put it, though, something different is blooming. Shifting. It’s starting to feel like such affronts diminish the gatekeepers more than anyone else…like whether they can ever catch up to culture matters less and less. 

So, here’s to the zeitgeist. Here’s to Sydney making a potato chip omelette for Sugar when she was pregnant and famished on “The Bear.” To the line around the block at the romance-only bookstore in Brooklyn. To Bonnie Stoll jumping in the water with Diana Nyad for the last leg. 

Here’s to Sofia Coppola and the way her camera stayed fixed on Cailee Spaeny’s face while a Great Man spoke just out of frame. To Sam Fox’s fantasy of bringing her daughters to the beach. To Sophia Burset’s duct tape sandals and the way they show off her pretty pedicure. To cranes in the sky and snow on the beach. To Janelle Monae in general

It’s true what Emily Saliers said about the call of lightness being hard to hear, but I think it’s getting a little easier lately, thanks in no small part to Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie and the beautiful film they made together. 

Here’s to girl culture rising and everything it brings. Get in, loser, we’re going on a hero’s journey.

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Photo by: Gareth Cattermole, licensed from Getty Images