Greta Gerwig and Necessary Femininity

With an unpretentious and unselfconscious portrayal of girlhood, Gerwig has created timeless Hollywood pieces that are both crowd and critic pleasers

Despite only having three movies under her belt as a solo director, Greta Gerwig has already made a name for herself as one of the most prolific and successful filmmakers of her generation. Her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was a simple but devastating depiction of the relationship between a mother and daughter based on her own adolescence growing up in Sacramento, California. The film described the eponymous lead character’s desire to leave her simple life behind and study in New York all while getting through her final year of high school with all that entails; boy trouble, girl trouble and mom trouble. Considered by many to be one of the best movies of recent times, its charm is in its simplicity and honesty, and the feeling that it leaves viewers with.

Her next venture, a retelling of a well-worn book that has been adapted for film and television over five times, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, was also acclaimed and considered to be one of the most memorable films of 2019. Though the book has been adapted to the screen many times before Gerwig brought something fresh to an old tale, imbuing it with new life and a new perspective that made it impossible to deny its charm and merits. Her use of nonlinear storytelling abilities and use of color and landscape to denote the passage of time and her treatment of certain characters like Amy March who had been represented as a jealous little sister in previous adaptations, as a shrewd but selfless young woman who longs for greatness but knows she can never achieve it as a woman were considered revolutionary and unprecedented. The film jumpstarted and revitalized the careers of actors like Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan, some of the most well-known young actors working in Hollywood today. With her uniquely unselfconscious and unpretentious way of looking at the world and lived experiences and her honest portrayals of girlhood and small-town life, she has created timeless pieces that are crowd-pleasers as well as critically acclaimed all over the world. 

For the last few months, little has captured the fancy and interest of pop culture and moviegoers all over the world as thoroughly as Gerwig’s newest venture Barbie has. Lauded already by critics and audiences alike, Barbie seems, like Gerwig’s other movies, to have a deceptively simple premise but explores important and resonant themes. It seems to hold the same magnetic endearment as Gerwig’s other movies, marketed explicitly towards younger girls but having captivated people of all ages and genders, which is what makes it one of the most important movies of the year.

Becoming a woman is a road of trials that is forced upon young girls the moment they hit puberty; one day you’re playing in the pool with all the neighbourhood kids and feeling no different from any of them, and then suddenly you’re told to cover up, told not to play with the boys, told you’re different from them somehow but you don’t know why. Your body changes and you’re told it’s a good thing, but then you’re told that you aren’t to show even one extra inch of skin because then boys will stare. You’re told to gain the attention of men, but not too much. You’re offhandedly told about starting your first period or maybe you’re not told at all, and when it happens it’s awful and painful and you hate it, you hate everything about this—you hate pink and nail polish and shopping with your friends at the mall, you hate Barbie dolls and pretty dresses and you hate being a girl. Nobody likes being a girl; why would they?

For years as a child I wondered why it was normal for girls to wear “boys’ clothes” like shorts or overalls but wrong for a boy to wear a skirt or a dress, and why girls who liked more “boyish” things like sports or cars were seen as cool while boys who liked to paint their nails or wear pink were called names and ridiculed. Girly girls are seen as silly, weak, frivolous, while tomboyish girls were cool and worthy of attention and respect. The distinction speaks for itself, as does the sudden way the script flips as girls get older. Suddenly the girls who dress up and look pretty are more desired, while more “boyish” girls are told to change. When you’re younger, the boys like to hang out with someone who acts like them, but later when romantic inclinations take precedence over platonic ones, they want a beautiful girlfriend and not a cool, relatable friend. What boys think matters to girls more than what they actually want, because what boys want is what the world runs on. Women who wear makeup and look pretty are more likely to get jobs or be given raises, and these desires and expectations have defined the narrative for women everywhere for as long as we can remember.

Gender expression for women in film has always been tied to these societal expectations, and while this is true for men as well, the way women are and the way they act is always directly indicative of what men have defined that to be. For the longest time and even now, traits and things that are traditionally and obviously feminine  are demeaned and seen as silly, frivolous and unserious, and those that are seen as more masculine are deemed worthy of attention, mimicry and emulation. Women in movies have always been caring and maternal, or volatile and emotional, or dependent and vulnerable, requiring the protection of a man. There were also several movies that put a positive spin on stereotypical femininity like Legally Blonde and Pride and Prejudice, with overt femininity not used as something demeaning but rather as something that can coexist with intellect and shrewdness. Movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Bend it Like Beckham fall on the other end of this spectrum, portraying girls who were more tomboyish or doing more “masculine” things as still being sensitive and vulnerable when they wanted to be. 

However for the most part in popular culture, women have been treated either as accessories or as something to be saved and protected, or the motivation for a man’s story to progress after being assaulted or killed (Memento, 2000; John Wick, 2014). Movies made more explicitly for women revolved around topics like motherhood and marriage while movies that were marketed towards men were thought-provoking dramas, action films or thriller films, with characters shown to be brave and ambitious, prone to anger and recklessness. Softer, more “feminine” traits have always been perceived as being detrimental to success, with this stereotype even bleeding into real life with the argument that women should not rise to positions of power due to their “hormonal and emotional” tendencies. “Masculine” traits, however, are ideal for power and making one’s way through the world and coming out on top.

Portraying women in film and TV has always been an apparently difficult thing. A very male-dominated field where there are very few writers and directors who are women and the task of portraying an accurate representation of a woman or a girl falls on their shoulders, women have historically been given as they have with all things, the shorter end of the stick. Hypersexualized and reduced only to the sum of their parts, used to further a man’s story and character and sidelined as love interests with no real character of their own, made to undress and be coy and beautiful and nothing else, there were few movies where women were given their fair share of screen time and character development. Very few films were female-led, and the ones that were about women relied on the actors’ sex appeal and beauty, focusing on little else (Charlie’s Angels, 2000; Catwoman, 2004). 

Femininity in film has always come and goes in waves as trends in film often do, each short-lived and vastly different from the last. Each brings something new to the concept, be it more accurate to reality or less so. Some stereotypical aspects of femininity in film have been constant no matter what time period we observe, tying into stereotypes that we see in real life; the color pink, glitter, gem-encrusted dresses, swept-off-the-feet romances with dashing men. From the “dumb blonde” depictions of women as gold-digging and frivolous socialites in old Hollywood (Niagra, 1953; Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968-73) to damsel in distress roles (The Searchers, 1956; Spiderman, 2002) to repeating stereotypes like “ice queens” (Jurassic World, 2015; The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), “femme fatales” (Basic Instinct, 1992; Original Sin, 2001) and “manic pixie dream girls” (Elizabethtown, 2005; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2010) among many others that gained popularity as the years went by, women have always been put into boxes with no room for development outside of them, most of them being in relation to men.

Sometimes movies and their real message can get lost in marketing translation because of these stereotypes; 2009’s Jennifer’s Body directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Juno’s Diablo Cody was a savvy and satirical horror comedy that revolved around high-schooler Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and her relationship with her best friend “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried). After Jennifer is sacrificed, incorrectly assumed to be a virgin, she gains the supernatural powers of a succubus and uses them to eat boys and stay immortal. The film prioritizes the girls’ friendship and uses Jennifer’s maneating tendencies as a metaphor for themes of sexual assault and bodily autonomy. It also played on Fox’s much-discussed sex appeal to subvert moviegoers’ expectations, with the title being a wink to common and demeaning tropes women fall prey to in classic horror films. However upon its release the movie was marketed towards men as a promise of seeing a sexy high school girl use her body to prey on the boys who showed interest in her, and upon clashing with that false image, the actual film underperformed at the box office. Though it later garnered a widely female cult following and is now beloved by most, the failure of the film’s marketing and the assumption that a movie like this could be more than what it seems ultimately shows that prevailing perceptions of women in media precede any and all substance it has.

Perceptions like these and increasing trends of sidelining female characters even led to the creation of the “Bechdel test”, originally created as a joke by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel to measure the representation of women in media. The test requires for a work to feature at least two women, both named, to talk about something other than a man. Most movies and TV shows fail this test, and though it isn’t a measure of how feminist a work is, it draws attention to the unequal divide between men and women that grows incredibly clear when applying the test to just about anything. 

While feminist movies and more films directed and written by women gained traction before Gerwig’s first film in 2017, what made her stand out was how unapologetically feminine her movies were and how widely they were watched and adored. There’s no shame or learned distaste for pink and glitter, for giggling with your friends about the boys you like, for not wanting to do sports and preferring other things. There’s no judgment, no attempt to make being a girl seem lesser. Though Little Women’s main character Jo is more tomboyish than her sisters and does not want to marry, her sisters accept it and she accepts them, and none of them are shown as being any lesser for it. Seeing this magnified tenfold in Barbie, in its aesthetic and the way the film has been marketed only makes this clearer, as has the trends with the film’s reception upon its release especially in countries like India. 

Famously released alongside Christopher Nolan’s World War II biopic Oppenheimer, Gerwig’s Barbie despite being as widely discussed and awaited as Nolan’s, has enjoyed only moderate success from male moviegoers. This is a common phenomenon and reflects trends mentioned earlier wherein men will simply refuse to consume media that is not explicitly targeted at them while women enjoy media made for just about anyone. Their refusal to watch a “girly” movie and the rejection of its merits simply due to its aesthetic is something that is still observed but has come down significantly, in no small part because of female directors like Greta Gerwig who have made movies like this more mainstream. In 2020 this was seen with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a movie whose dark and harrowing themes are wrapped in a pretty pastel aesthetic, with candy-colored nails and long blonde extensions, fuzzy pink sweaters and a bubblegum pop soundtrack employed to portray a bleak view of rape culture and the ultimate price women pay to be heard.

Gerwig’s infectious enthusiasm about her craft and the sheer passion she puts into her work bleeds through to audiences, and the earnest whimsy with which she tells her stories is something that appeals to everyone, but it is undeniable that Gerwig makes movies for girls about girls. Her style of direction—lingering on hands and eyes, capturing Timothée Chalamet in slow motion as he walks, curls bouncing and cheeks scarlet in the cold, warm firelight on a girl’s round cheek as she laughs—along with her stories and her movies overall are all testaments to the fact that Greta Gerwig is a girls’ girl, and her success as a mainstream filmmaker is as unprecedented as it is wonderful and necessary in today’s Hollywood.


Image (Bottom Left): Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in “Barbie”, 2023 via Jaap Buitendijk, Warner Bros
Image (Right): Greta Gerwig on the set of “Lady Bird”, 2017 via Vimeo/A24
Image (Top Left): Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in “Little Women”, 2019 via Wilson Webb, Columbia Pictures

Pritha Deshpande
Pritha Deshpande
Pritha Deshpande is a Literature and Cultural Studies student at FLAME University and an aspiring writer and policy journalist. Her idea of a good time is getting cozy at her desk writing with socks on and a scented candle lit. Pritha is an editorial intern at ALMA Magazine.