The Barbie director’s recent films carry rich subtext about our identity

Written by Adam Kline

As the seasons change, leaves begin to fall, and awards season approaches, we can be sure Barbie will garner a lot of Oscar nominations. But in many ways, writer-director Greta Gerwig is the real story here; this will be her third directorial feature in a row to be included in the Academy Awards—an impressive achievement.

Lady Bird was released in theatres in 2017. This was Gerwig’s first solo directorial effort. She had previously written several screenplays and had become a successful actress in her own right, but now she was setting out as a storyteller.

The film was a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman who prefers “Lady Bird” over her given name as she prepares to go off to college, eager to be free of her mother’s meddling. It’s a truly touching and hilariously honest portrayal of adolescence and the tensions of a mother-daughter relationship.

Then in 2019, Gerwig adapted Louisa May Alcott’s literary classic, Little Women. In this film, Gerwig subtly modernized her favourite childhood novel and highlighted nuances in Alcott’s story that earlier adaptations had overlooked. The result brought new energy and life to the familiar tale.

And now in 2023, Gerwig has stepped into the corporate I.P. mechanism that currently consumes most of Hollywood and somehow came out the other side with a sharp, stunning, side-splitting satire about finding one’s place in the world (all the while breaking box-office records left and right).

And what is she going to do next? Adapt the Chronicles of Narnia!

It’s a pretty stunning trajectory and legacy after only three directorial features. But what I find most fascinating is that through all of these films, Greta has repeatedly produced stories with rich theological subtext, while planting religion visibly in the background.

In Lady Bird, the title character attends a Catholic high school, goes to mass, and consults religious leaders. In Little Women, members of the March family regularly help others and serve the poor, even while hurriedly walking by a church service in progress. And in Barbie, the theme of being created by a purposeful Creator is thoughtfully presented (something Christian film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote at length about for Vox).

With these religious signifiers present, the primary focus in all of these films is the story and experience of young women, as they step into independence, struggling to reconcile their own identities and upbringings. As Lady Bird prepares to go off to college, she wrestles with her own identity apart from her mother, but also as her mother’s daughter.

In Little Women, Jo March is in passionate pursuit of her artistic vocation but struggles to embrace her identity apart from her family. And now in Barbie, our plastic protagonist finds herself for the first time apart from her world, while also embracing the knowledge and revelation that she is a beloved creation.

This is what brought me to tears at the end of Barbie and the conclusion of all of Gerwig’s films.

Through all of these coming-of-age stories, there is an undeniable undertone of belovedness.

Of knowing who we are, not in the image of others, or under the weight of expectations, but in the image of the divine. Throughout all three of these films, I see splashes of Psalm 139:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16).

These rich and worshipful words may not be front and center in Greta Gerwig’s films, but I can’t help but see them as influential, whether intentional or not. Even when viewers are unaware of such theological subtext, as a follower of Jesus, I am assured that these are themes and stories we can share and dive deep into – because we are all His beloved.

My faith compels me to profess that every individual has been created in the image of the Creator, and therefore, such stories of self-discovery and identity are worth celebrating, because they point us to the source of our belovedness. They suggest, even subtly and satirically, that we can come as we are to God.

Adam Kline is an intercultural engagement team lead and storyteller living in Belleville, Ont. Read more columns from “Behind the screens.”