“Barbie” reveals the power of mother-daughter bonds and Greta Gerwig’s feminist narrative mastery

Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen
5 min readAug 11, 2023

Exploring mother-daughter relationships in Greta Gerwig’s films: From ‘Ladybird’ to ‘Barbie

Image by Anna Prosekova from Pixabay

(Some spoilers)

If you think about it, one of the most common themes in American cinema is father-son relationships. Many popular narratives delve into the complexities of father-son dynamics, exploring the intricate web of family ties. Occasionally, these films offer insights from the father’s perspective while the son takes the narrative helm in others. Notable examples include Disney’s “The Lion King,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Finding Nemo,” “Life Is Beautiful,” “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” among others. Our cultural palate has grown accustomed to narratives that place father-son relationships front and center. Naturally, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this; however, it raises the question: what about tales of mothers and daughters?

Until recently, mainstream culture and major studios have largely overlooked narratives spotlighting mothers and daughters. Could it be because they thought they attracted fewer viewers and generated less revenue for studios? Perhaps these stories were deemed uninteresting or irrelevant to the public’s tastes. “Barbie” and the rise of the SHEconomy prove the contrary. What remains certain is that stories centered on mothers and daughters have existed since the edge of time. It’s crucial and justifiable to weave these narratives into mainstream cultural narratives.

Let’s talk about “Barbie” and its accomplished director, Greta Gerwig

“Barbie” presents an engaging narrative framework that critiques (justifiably) patriarchal norms and also aims at the corporate giant Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the movie. What particularly resonated with me was the characters’ direct expression of criticism while simultaneously demonstrating how to break away from exploitative patterns and demand acknowledgment for their efforts.

Some critics argued that “Barbie” demonstrates how capitalism quickly integrates and dissolves feminist criticism through cultural products that generate profits but lack substantive change. I concur with this sentiment. However, I don’t view “Barbie” as a revolutionary cultural product but rather as an enjoyable film that effectively conveys feminist messages — a fact that brings me joy. It is possible to challenge patriarchy while simultaneously deriving enjoyment from popular content.

Mothers and daughters

“Barbie”'s narrative is driven by a joint journey of its three main characters — Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) is embarking on a journey for self-discovery and, ultimately, self-reconciliation. Barbie is joined by Gloria (played by America Ferrera) and her teenage daughter Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt). In their journey, the mother and daughter experience reconciliation and strengthen their bond.

The decision to place a mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the narrative holds significant importance and deserves praise. The connection between the rebellious daughter and her mother entering a midlife crisis deepens through their shared experiences. Gloria seizes an opportunity to solidify her identity and express modern women’s challenges, while Sasha gains a new perspective on her mother and a deeper appreciation. She also gets the satisfaction of checking off items from her list of anti-Barbie messages.

The second pseudo-maternal relationship in the film is between Barbie and Ruth Handler, the creator of the original Barbie doll, named after her daughter, Barbara. Ruth (portrayed by Rhea Perlman) embodies a nurturing mother figure who tells Barbie the sentence that many daughters (and sons) would want to hear from their mothers: “I think you are just right.” On the other hand, Ruth is not Barbie’s mother; she didn’t raise or educate her, took her to the doctor or to after-school activities, did her laundry, or missed work when she was sick. She is a fantasy of the perfect mother.

The SHEconomy

The two mother-daughter relationship frameworks in the film serve as compelling and vital examples of popular narratives prioritizing mothers and daughters. Unfortunately, until recently, a few blockbuster hits placed stories of mothers and daughters in the spotlight.

We’re witnessing a surge in demand for cultural content that resonates with women across various fields. Within the context of the SHEconomy, companies are addressing women (take Dove, for instance), women are ascending to leadership roles and narrowing wage gaps, concerts by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé contribute to the economy, and more. “Barbie” fits seamlessly into this trend, drawing audiences to cinemas and bolstering the economy.

Greta Gerwig’s feminist films

It’s especially intriguing to analyze Greta Gerwig’s latest films, which she both penned and directed, showcasing a diverse array of female relationships, particularly those between mothers and daughters: “Lady Bird” (2017), “Little Women” (2019), and “Barbie” (2023).

These three films vividly illustrate female relationship dynamics between daughters and mothers. “Ladybird,” an exceptional film, narrates Christine’s (played by Saoirse Ronan) coming-of-age journey as she adopts the moniker “Lady Bird” and navigates her relationship with her mother (Played by Laurie Metcalf) against the backdrop of familial, economic circumstances and her choice of college. It’s a powerful, captivating, and profoundly moving film that captures both motherhood’s subtle and significant aspects. “Little Women” is a timeless tale of femininity and relationships between sisters and their mother. Adapting a classic like “Little Women” and turning it into a relevant and meaningful movie is challenging, and the movie’s success is a badge of honor for Gerwig’s writing and directing skills.

The success of Gerwig’s three films attests to her exceptional talent in both writing and directing. Moreover, it underscores her talent to tell stories about women that transcend cultures, generations, and even gender distinctions. These aren’t films “about women” or “for women” that are relegated to a separate category within the mainstream culture (as sometimes happens to literature by women and about women, labeled under “women’s literature” as if literature by men is the default). Instead, these are films that tell universal stories about women’s lives. They succeeded because of their compelling stories. Their content prevailed.

The manner in which they place women’s lives at the forefront of popular cinema and unabashedly stand alongside male-centric narratives is worth acknowledging. Gerwig firmly establishes herself as a feminist filmmaker from the outset. I’m looking forward to her next story!

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Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen

Helping companies and executives tell their stories and focus their messages. Framing is everything