Director Greta Gerwig, who attended many a Shabbat dinner as a kid, recently shared that she wanted her “Barbie” movie to feel like Shabbat, and for its audience to feel as though they’ve received the children’s blessing after watching it — taken care of, seen, valued.
That’s definitely how I felt, wiping away reddened eyes while leaving the theater on a weeknight in a bright pink vest (and pink corduroy jacket, in case it got cold, I am a Jewish mom, after all). As a mother, especially, I felt so seen by the tender moment between Barbie and her Jewish creator, Ruth Handler, in one of the last scenes of the summer blockbuster. (I also felt a little called out by Depression Barbie, but we can talk about that some other time.)
“Barbie” is genuinely a balm — colorful, smart, diverse, profoundly enjoyable and thoughtful. And yet there was one Jewish line amidst it all that left me just a tad confused.
In one scene in the movie, Barbie confronts the CEO of Mattel — Will Ferrell playing a reimagined, comical version of Ynon Kreiz, the American Israeli currently running the toy giant. When she admonishes him for not having any women in positions of leadership at the company, he rattles off a series of platitudes —the usual ones, in the vein of “I am a father of daughters” — and then ends his self-justifying tirade with, inexplicably, “Some of my best friends are Jewish!”
On the one hand, it’s a good joke about those who use their friendship and personal connections to minorities while arguing that they’re not racist, xenophobic or sexist, even as, outside the walls of their home (and maybe even in them) they uphold oppressive systems.
On the other hand, I winced a little. It might have been because as a Professional Jew, I knew that both Handler and Kreiz were Jewish, so the statement felt odd. It might have also been because, in my head, I imagined a scriptwriter out there thinking: What is the minority that’s least offensive to put in this line? They decided that Jewish was it, a worthy punch line, which, uh, isn’t a great feeling.
The line also felt jarring because it was the only time Jewishness was mentioned in the movie. Some have taken it to be a covert reference to Handler’s Jewishness, since the CEO knows her, but I can think of more than a few better ways to tout out the inventor’s Jewish heritage.
On the other hand (wait, is that three hands?), I do understand why Gerwig would choose not to mention either Handler or Kreiz’s Jewishness explicitly. Two Jewish CEOs of a corporate giant in one movie? One who even jokes on multiple occasions about not being great at paying taxes? (Handler was ousted out of Mattel after she was charged of fraud and false reporting to the SEC.) That’s some quality fodder for those who love antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews and money. And Handler herself was cautious about her Jewish identity. She experienced antisemitism growing up Jewish in Denver, Colorado — she even made her husband change his name from Izzy to Elliott for fear of anti-Jewish hatred.
The casting of “Barbie” is incredibly diverse in every way. Even the Jews in its cast represent the wonderful diversity of our people — from the excellent bubbe rep of Rhea Perlman, to Ana Cruz Kayne who plays a Supreme Court Justice Barbie and who wore a floral terno in the film to pay tribute to her Filipino heritage, to British Trinidadian actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, doctor Barbie Hari Nef, the first openly transgender model signed by IMG and our favorite rabbi in “And Just Like That,” and Ariana Greenblatt, who plays young Sasha and who is Jewish and Puerto Rican.
In the days since “Barbie” has come out, the responses to it have been overwhelmingly positive, grateful, exalted and enlightened — but there has also been criticism. Some say it’s too feminist, which is to be expected, but others have discussed the fact that its feminism doesn’t feel intersectional enough. Even as a woman of color, Gloria (America Ferrera), acts as one of the main voices in the film, and Issa Rae plays the Black female president of Barbieland, the movie doesn’t mention race, or the fact that women of color suffer even more under patriarchy, and it doesn’t talk about ethnicity or religion at all (though some have rightly pointed out that the story has a very Genesis feel).
Perhaps that’s why that one mention of Jewishness felt so discombobulating. While the film is full of minority rep, this is one of the few times that a minority is overtly mentioned by name. Now, I know some of Gerwig’s best friends really are Jewish — including her “Barbie” writing partner (and real life partner) Noah Baumbach, and I really don’t think there was any nefarious intent behind this line. It’s a fun, throwaway line in a pretty successful joke. Still, I’m sure I’m not the only Jewish viewer watching it that felt a tickle of discomfort.
No piece of art is perfect, and this movie, which manages to be great feminist art while also a product of corporate sponsorship and capitalism, isn’t either. In the movie, Gloria talks about the kind of contradictory place that living as a woman in the patriarchy requires, and I do think that that applies to being Jewish in America: a lot of us benefit from different types of privilege, but also have experienced and are scared of antisemitism. It’s why what should be a silly inconsequential movie line puts us in an awkward place — we want to be able to laugh at ourselves, but laughing about the idea of antisemitism, and a tendril of it sneaking into the movie of the summer, does feel uncomfortable.
Personally, I can live with that little sliver of discomfort, and I’m sure many other Jewish viewers can, too. At the end of the day, Gerwig wanted to impart a special feeling that she got as a welcomed, honored guest in Jewish spaces with this film, and it absolutely still feels like quite the blessing.