Oscars 2024: The real reason Barbie’s Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie were snubbed by the Oscars

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Being based on a doll really hurt Barbie at the Oscars. Although the film was nominated for best picture, Greta Gerwig was snubbed as director and Margot Robbie left out of the best actress category, omissions that caused a flood of outrage on the internet and from their colleagues. The Associated Press called Gerwig’s snub”one of the biggest shocks in recent memory”. Some fans took it out on Ken. As USA Today pointed out, quoting a user on X, Ryan Gosling being nominated for supporting actor while Gerwig and Robbie were left out “kind of proves the point of the movie”, that the patriarchy is still with us. Gosling, Ken himself, said in a statement: “There is no Barbie movie without Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, the two people most responsible for this history-making, globally-celebrated film”.

The film industry’s lingering sexism may have been a factor, but that only contributed to the fundamental problem. Despite that best picture nod, Oscar voters refused to take the toy-based film seriously, ignoring how inventive it is, dismissing it as a billion-dollar popcorn movie when it is also a funny, subversive cultural statement. It undermines stereotypes about women ­– with meta-wit, Robbie’s character is named Stereotypical Barbie – but wraps that in a buoyant, candy-coloured cloud. Oscar voters couldn’t or wouldn’t look past that surface to see how imaginative and substantial the film is, and how meticulously Gerwig orchestrated it.

With 10 films nominated for best picture and only five slots for directors, some films have to land in the “must have directed themselves” category. But it is conspicuous that Gerwig seems to have been displaced by nominees who made smaller, sober films: Justine Triet, who deserves her surprise nomination for the suspenseful Anatomy of a Fall (and rescued the category from being all-male), and Jonathan Glazer, who was anything but a sure thing for the Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest.  Apparently Gerwig’s light-handed comedy couldn’t compete.

And even before the nominations were announced, there were hints that Barbie’s originality would be underestimated. The first came when the Academy ruled that Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s inspired screenplay belonged in the adapted category (where it received a nomination) and not original. Whether it was tone-deaf to the script’s inventiveness or just foolishly rigid, the executive committee of the Academy’s Writers Branch said that the movie was based on a previously existing character, that is, a doll.

Another clue came at the Golden Globes. Barbie failed to win best comedy or musical but walked away with the cheesy, newly-invented award for cinematic box office achievement, a consolation prize for being popular and making money.

The film’s relationship to money and corporate culture was problematic from the start. The story criticizes Mattel, the company selling all those Barbies, as obtuse and patriarchal, but the movie itself is a major studio production licensed by the toy company. When the movie was released, the New York Times pointed out critics’ divided opinions about whether it is “slickly subversive or inescapably corporate”. Oscar voters apparently chose to see it as one more studio blockbuster. That echoes the recent pattern of big commercial movies getting into the best picture race and their directors being ignored, including Dune, Top Gun: Maverick and  Avatar: The Way of Water.  But none of those had the cultural resonance or freshness of Barbie.

The film’s most overt social message comes from America Ferrera’s character, Gloria, the main human in Barbieland. In a welcome but surprising turn, Ferrera was nominated as supporting actress, largely, it can be assumed, on the strength of her passionate monologue about the expectations put on women, such as: Be thin, but pretend it’s because you want to be healthy. “It’s exhausting,” Gloria says. “You have to have money but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass.” Did Gerwig simply make too much money? Maybe. Be a woman director, but don’t show up the men by making more than they do. That could easily have been part of Gloria’s speech.

Robbie was underestimated too. Ferrera’s angry, honest monologue has the kind of directness the Oscars often go for. What Robbie had to do was more subtle, less easily appreciated. When Gloria’s outburst awakens another Barbie’s sense of her own worth, Robbie’s Barbie wakes up too. “By giving voice to the contradictory dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you robbed it of its power,” Robbie tells her, delivering those lines in a light tone that says the idea is true but also kind of pompous. As Ferrera told Variety about Robbie’s snub: “Perhaps people got fooled into thinking that the work seems easy”. Gerwig and Robbie, both nominated as producers of the film, deftly gave full voice to that dissonance, which may be why they missed nominations that should have been theirs.