We’re not in Barbieland anymore: as Greta Gerwig’s latest feature continues to steal hearts around the world, Vika Mujumdar looks back on how far the filmmaker has come – how Barbie, and Lady Bird and Little Women before it, understand what it means to leave home better than we could ourselves try.
Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird documents the turbulent and generous mother-daughter relationship of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mother Marion – the film is suspended in time in many ways, articulating the one long moment right before Lady Bird becomes a person who leaves home. Lady Bird briefly chronicles the after of departure at the end of the film, but primarily remains concerned with the turbulent emotional landscapes of being a person who desires escape. And then, once she escapes, Lady Bird says her name is Christine when asked, in direct contradiction to the many times she insists that her name is Lady Bird. Returning again to home, reminding us that to leave home, really, is impossible. In leaving once, she is always leaving home. There is no escape from the geography of Sacramento.
Lady Bird’s desire to leave is always central to how Gerwig frames the film – it opens with Lady Bird and Marion in transit, and ends with Lady Bird having left temporally, but flashing back to Lady Bird driving, going nowhere, in Sacramento. Bookended by transit, Lady Bird’s desires are parallel and intertwined – to leave home by leaving both Sacramento and her mother. But Lady Bird still lingers in the landscapes of Sacramento; even in New York, she looks back. She leaves her mother a voicemail: “Did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?” To learn how to drive at home is also to learn how to leave home.
Little Women, Gerwig’s second directorial feature opens with Jo having just left: the familiar landscapes of her home with Marmee, Meg, Beth, and Amy; Laurie; what she knows. The first section sees Jo having left, the second section goes back to Jo pre-departure. Home echoes, and it becomes impossible to know what is the echo, past or present, and everything converges: Jo’s dress is scorched in both scenes, Jo dances with delight in both scenes, yet they are so different.
From Lady Bird’s articulation of the moment before departure, Little Women articulates equally the before and after of leaving home and the convergence of these timelines. Jo’s homecoming is wrapped up in desire, longing, jealousy and love, inextricable from the fact that she chose to leave – unlike Meg and Beth who stayed, unlike even Amy who escaped a geography but did not escape its people. Beth asks Jo if she missed Laurie, and Jo says she misses everything. Jo then expresses her perhaps-regret at turning down Laurie, exclaiming, “I’m so lonely.” These moments are about Laurie, but they also convey that in leaving once, Jo is always leaving – she is always missing everything, she is always lonely. There is no turning back, a fact made even more concrete by Laurie’s marriage to Amy. Jo eventually ends up with Friedrich Bhaer, who, of all the people in this story, understands what it means to leave. Jo returns, but what is central always to Gerwig’s Little Women is the fact that Jo is always missing that first selfhood in equal parts shaped by love and sometimes cruelty, that home and landscape that she has run away from.
In Gerwig’s work, everything is traceable to home – always haunting, always echoing. The way we understand geographies as home and not-home and how that shapes our selves remains central across all three of Gerwig’s films so far. In Barbie, Gerwig examines what it means to have left, focusing here on the aftermath of leaving, what it means to reckon with a new, unfamiliar landscape, and the new sense of self it necessitates. Chronologically documenting Barbie’s departure from Barbieland to the real world, Gerwig crafts, ultimately, a narrative of what it means to have a fondness and love for home, but to ultimately need to leave, still. The coming-of-age of Barbie is, like Lady Bird and Jo March, deeply linked to leaving – without departure, Barbie cannot discover herself, but again, once she leaves, she can never fully go back.
Barbie opens in Barbieland, a landscape Barbie has never felt a desire to escape. She walks on water and floats down from her dreamhouse every day – it is, of course, an impossible, idealized home (as all homes are, in retrospect) insulated in a bubble. The artifice then falls apart, and Barbie – faced with cold water and flat feet – must make the impossible yet inevitable choice to leave, to find herself in the real world. In leaving, there is ease, in many ways. After meeting the Mattel employees and CEO, Barbie ends up in a room with Ruth Handler, the woman who created her, and says that “the real world isn’t what [she] thought it was.” Here, Barbie articulates what it means to leave home. In Barbieland, Barbie has always thought of the real world as equal to her world. But in the real world, Barbie must reckon with the fact that the mirror between worlds is impossible. Nothing will be like she knew it again.
When Barbie returns, this time accompanied by her humans Gloria and Sasha, they linger in the landscapes of transit. To return is always more difficult than to leave. Ken’s takeover of Barbieland (enter the mojo dojo casa house) is also, inevitably, central to everything. Kendom, a result of Ken discovering the patriarchy – and horses – in the real world, is about gender, but equally about the impossibility of returning once one leaves. Barbie longs for what once was, wallowing after realizing that the previous version of home and of herself no longer exists.
In the end, Barbie is faced with an impossible choice: she can continue to live abstracted from everything amidst abundance and artifice, or she can become human – Barbieland no more than a memory. “I’m not sure where I belong,” she says, and then chooses to leave. In Barbie leaving Barbieland twice in the film—both at the start and the end—Gerwig reminds us that leaving, once begun, is cyclical. Leaving home once means that leaving home is always inevitable.
Barbie concludes the arc of what it means to leave home that Gerwig’s three most recent films so far speak to. In Barbie, Gerwig’s intentionally artificial Barbieland makes the themes that haunt her work most explicit. Lady Bird, Little Women, and Barbie understand that you cannot leave home and become a person who has left; instead, you leave home and become a person who is always leaving home.