When Greta Gerwig’s film, Barbie, debuted last summer, it was a source of endless commentary, both positive and negative. Right-wing critics attached to it with that dreadfully boring cliché, “woke,” and left-wing boosters of the film saw it as a feminist call to action. Now, Gerwig’s blockbuster is getting more attention, or to be precise, the lack of attention given to Gerwig and the film’s star, Margot Robbie, are inspiring another round of this tiresome back-and-forth.
Gerwig’s film has Oscar nominations in various categories—including Best Picture, Ryan Gosling for Best Supporting Actor, and America Ferrera is up for Best Supporting Actress. But Gerwig herself did not get the nod for Best Director nor did Robbie for Best Actress.
Of course, it does not follow that if a film is nominated for Best Picture, it will automatically garner a nomination for its director. Nevertheless, some want to make it a scandal that these women were not recognized. On the Today show, Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush waxed unpoetically about how “disappointed” both of them are that Gerwig and Robbie are not nominated. “We’re upset!” shouted Kotb with fake sincerity.
Bush said she was so upset that she “had to explain” her feelings to her daughters, and then she stretched her vocabulary some more by noting that the whole situation was “a tricky one.” One can feel the palpable trauma in her words, and the daunting responsibilities of motherhood.
Fired up, Kotb continued, “So then I was imagining—not to say that this happened, but this is in my imagination—a bunch of men directors together in a room deciding if Greta Gerwig should get a nomination. Maybe they all decided that maybe she didn’t deserve the nomination.” Of course, for women on the left like Kotb, this is ironic because, after all, they’ve all decided that Barbie is about the demolition of patriarchy. In the end, they sputter, it is the very same patriarchy that dismissed Gerwig.
So many pundits and random people on social media have lined up to repeat the same plodding leftist talking points, that it feels like received opinion. Conservatives, as they typically do, have lined up to oblige the left, agreeing with their narrative and reveling in the supposed snub with juvenile celebrations of the ways in which men are, in fact, superior to women. The sound bites have created a meaningless noise, like the buzz of a fly you can neither see nor eliminate.
Barbie is a much more complex film than either its right-wing critics or its left-wing cheerleaders would have you believe. Reducing it to an orgiastic celebration of the demolition of patriarchy is unfair to both Gerwig and the cast. As much as the film pokes fun at supposed male power structures, it doesn’t really elevate matriarchy or feminism. This is most definitely not a film about feminist revenge, as superficial viewers of all varieties have contended. Even as the Barbies in Barbieland (which is, after all, inside the imaginations of little girls) team up at one point in the film to evict all the Kens from Barbieland, they learn their lesson and relent. Robbie’s “Barbie” matures, becoming a kinder and more self-aware person who, although lacking in romantic attachment to “Ken” (who, after all, will remain a doll while her character metamorphoses) does cease to do things designed to hurt him. Gosling is exceptional in his role as Ken, especially when he realizes that he is indeed “Kenough.” To be sure, there is a sense of playfulness in the proverbial battle of the sexes, but in the end, Barbie is about being more fully human and accountable for the choices one makes for oneself.
I, too, was surprised to see that Gerwig was not nominated for the Oscars’ Best Director category—not because she’s a woman, but because of her achievement as a director. The biggest insult you can give a woman is to reduce her excellence to her gender. Gerwig is, first and foremost, a talented human being and she makes that clear throughout her film.
And while we’re on the subject of patriarchy, the argument that this snub demonstrates the Oscars’ patriarchy falls flat. One of the biggest omissions in this year’s Oscar nominations is Bradley Cooper, who did not get the nod for Best Director for his film, Maestro (which I reviewed here). As is clear from that film, Cooper poured his soul and entire being into his work, and the achievement is glorious. Yet, the Academy also decided to overlook that.
And what about Matt Bomer? Bomer’s layered, intense, and superb performance as David Oppenheim in Maestro deserves every accolade in the film industry. Or is it that we just do not care about excellence anymore? Is Matt Bomer not gay enough to get the award? Was Bradley Cooper not ideological enough in omitting Leonard Bernstein’s political inclinations and activism? Maybe these brands of identity politics are not on the Academy’s agenda this year. Maybe, instead of bowing before the idols of homosexuality and feminism, the Oscars 2024 will be the year of the Native Americans?
Of course, we all have particularities, and this is what makes us unique. But when you reduce people to these qualities you objectify them and you lose any sense of humanity and excellence. Worse, from what ought to be the purpose of the Oscars, you miss the point of art and filmmaking in the process. But the Oscars have been a den of meaninglessness and identity politics du jour for so long now that it really shouldn’t matter who gets nominated and who gets overlooked. It might be that these kinds of “snubs” will help more people realize this.
In the case of Barbie, Gerwig has created an excellent film that started a lot of interesting conversations and made an unbelievable profit. In the case of Maestro, Cooper has created a film that is about more than just Leonard and Felicia Bernstein. He created an ode to imagination and art, and a deep exploration of the public and private self. Regardless of nominations, awards or even the jury’s subjectivity and identity politics, both films stand on their own merits. Both draw the audience into their respective worlds, dreams, and beautiful contradictions. And that, more than any award, is the true indication of a work of art.
(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled NBC News host Hoda Kotb’s name in the 5th paragraph.)