Life & Culture

I want Barbie movie to feel like 'Shabbat dinner' says director Greta Gerwig

The director has said she was inspired by her Jewish childhood friends


Director Greta Gerwig said she wants people watching Barbie in cinemas “to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner”.

In an interview with the New York Times, Gerwig explained how the rituals of Shabbat inspired her to create the hotly anticipated Barbie movie.

She told the New York Times that she felt “so safe and… so, like, enough” at dinners on Friday night. 

Gerwig isn’t Jewish, but growing up, her close family friends were observant Jews and in the interview, she recalled how she spent Shabbat dinners with them each Friday.

“Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that,” she was told by her friend's dad on Shabbat. Gerwig described being moved by the experience, saying: “You are a child of God. I put my hand over you, and I bless you as a child of God at this table. And that’s your value”.

She added: “I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner,” she said. “I want them to get blessed.”

The Barbie movie, premiering on 21 July, follows Gerwig’s Barbie as she leaves Barbieland to enter the real world. Religion, especially Judaism, was a source of inspiration for the director in telling Barbie’s story. 

“I really thought of it like a spiritual journey,” she said. Barbie’s life in Barbieland has the “comfort of fundamentalism,” and her journey of self-discovery is one of religious questioning. 

The God in Gerwig’s feminist interpretation of Barbie is, of course, a woman. “The idea of a loving God who’s a mother, a grandmother — who looks at you and says, ‘Honey, you’re doing OK’ — is something I feel like I need and I wanted to give to other people,” Gerwig said. 

In the movie, Barbie meets a God-like figure in a scene that Gerwig calls a “transaction of grace”. Realising her worth for the first time, this is the cornerstone of the surprisingly religious film.

Barbie is not only inspired by Shabbat, but was co-written by Noah Baumbach, a Jewish film director and screenwriter. He was signed onto the project by Gerwig, his wife and long-time collaborator.

The film itself may not boost a large Jewish cast, but the protagonist has a very Jewish background.

Barbie was designed by the founder of Mattel, Ruth Handler. Born Ruth Moskowicz, she belonged to a Jewish-Polish family in Colorado. She founded the company with her husband, Elliot Handler, who she met at a Jewish youth dance in 1929. 

Their children – Barbara and Ken – gave their names to the Barbie and Ken dolls the couple designed. 

The doll owes its success not just to the Handlers, but to the Jewish immigrant Ernest Ditcher. Born in Austria, the marketing expert applied Freudian psychoanalysis to consumer behaviours, and his work is credited with making Barbie the household name it is today. 

Thanks to the work of a long line of Jews – from Handler to Blumbach – Barbie has her name, her success, and now her film.

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