Greta Gerwig has carved out her place as one of the most important and beloved auteurs working today. While she started out as an indie queen, with the mega success of Barbie she’s proven that there’s nothing she can’t do. Her relatable portraits of woman- and girlhood have fostered a legion of fans who connect to her characters on a deep level. Here’s our take on what makes a Greta Gerwig movie a Greta Gerwig movie and just how important those fans have been to helping skyrocket her career!
While Gerwig has only solo-directed three films so far, she already has a number of standout trademarks. You know you’re watching a Greta Gerwig film if…
1. The protagonist is a strong-willed and independent female working to find herself and where she fits into her world. We watch Gerwig’s characters on the journey of discovering their true selves in environments that are trying to hold them back and tell them what they should be. They aren’t afraid to break out of the box and go their own way, even if that means they’re going to falter along their journey – they’re willing to overcome any obstacle necessary to become who they’re meant to be. Her characters are also usually girls’ girls – their relationships with other women are central to who they are and where they’re going. They may prickle at the ways society pins women against each other, but they ultimately join forces in the end with their fellow females.
2. The story understands the character on a deep level. Gerwig doesn’t just direct her films but writes them as well, which allows her to dig deep into her own life to help breathe truth into each screenplay. Her characters end up being so relatable because they come from real experiences. This was clear in Gerwig’s work even before she began directing, with films she co-wrote like Frances Ha and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Gerwig injects a level of specificity that’s derived from her real life feelings and experiences, which makes each character feel like a real, complex person.
3. You learn about the character’s emotional states through the visuals and surprisingly direct dialogue. The fact that Gerwig is firmly planted in both the writing and directing worlds clearly comes across in each of her films. And being that she started as an actor, she has a unique lens. She isn’t afraid to stop everything to give her characters a moment to really lay out what they’re thinking in the types of monologues that we often don’t see anymore in modern movies. But Gerwig is also adept at using the camera to connect us deeply with what the characters are feeling. She loves to get right up in their faces during their most emotional moments, showcasing the full depth of the emotion they’re going through.
4. It ends with a feeling of hope. From Lady Bird’s call to her mother to Jo getting her book published to Barbie becoming a real woman, Gerwig’s stories leave the audience with the feeling that fighting for what you really want, and making the hard decisions necessary to become who you truly want to be, will lead to important self-actualization. After we watch them stumble and fall on their journey of self-discovery, Gerwig’s protagonists always end their stories on a hopeful note – one that makes us feel like this is just the beginning of a new, positive journey.
It’s these qualities that have made audiences fall in love with Gerwig’s films and the characters within them, and it’s this attachment that has led to huge online fandoms surrounding those films and even Gerwig herself. So what really creates a big-name director today and how does social media really contribute?
The Power of Fandom
From people flooding theaters decked out in all-pink outfits to the film becoming Warner Brothers Studios biggest hit of the year (and one of its biggest of all time,) it’s safe to say Barbie was a huge success for Gerwig. Though its success can be partially attributed to the Barbenheimer hype (and to the simple fact that Gerwig and Barbie fans alike are loyal), much of the film’s lasting impact seems tied to the trends it has inadvertently created online.
The social media trends started before the movie even came out, with people planning their outfits and fantasizing about “me and the girls on the way to the Barbie movie.” Once Barbie was released, fans latched onto Billie Eilish’s song for the film, “What Was I Made For” – creating both edits of the film itself and general girl and womanhood edits.
This is not the first time one of Gerwig’s films has found success in the editing community (more on that later), but it is the first time that the content of one of her films has sparked an entire editing trend of its own. And in a kismet moment, the song’s appearance in the actual film is also over a montage of women and girls.
Reclaiming girlhood and femininity at large has been a huge conversation in online spaces in recent years, and so Barbie has appeared at the perfect time. Those who have struggled with not being taken seriously because of their feminine fashion have felt seen by the movie. But even more generally, regardless of how they like to dress, women and girls across the board have related to parts of Barbie’s story and have been sharing their own stories of connection across social media. It has been these types of conversations and deep bonds that have kept the movie chugging along at the box office.
The Girlhood of Fandom
Though Barbie marks the first time that one of Gerwig’s films has been its own mega-trend, the director is no stranger to a loud online fanbase. Perhaps her first markings of success within fandom were the viral videos of her joyful directing style on the set of Lady Bird. Lady Bird was a success on its own, but as the Internet got to know Gerwig, her earnest and palpable love for what she does only heightened the respect fans had for her films.
Alongside this, Lady Bird gave us perhaps the most popular pairing of actors since Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet. Their popularity as a package deal with Gerwig has only grown with time, especially after they reunited again to play Laurie and Jo in her incredibly popular adaptation of Little Women. They’re like a little film family, and not just in the eyes of fans. Gerwig has stated that the two actors are like her kids, and their absence in Barbie “felt like doing something without my children. I mean, I’m not their mom, but I sort of feel like their mom.”
This ability to craft such poignant emotion within her films – so much so that it bleeds into her relationships with her actors and carries itself into the hearts of viewers – is a big part of what makes her films so successful. Fans flock to her films because we know it will make us feel something. Lady Bird held up a mirror to many of our high school experiences, and Little Women created new connections to a classic that’s been touching hearts for well over a century. The consistent, loving quality of these films, combined with her relatable scripts and characters from before she began directing, has led fans to feel they can always trust Gerwig to deliver.
That sense of trust is why fandom spaces have kept Gerwig’s films afloat for so long. In the years between her first two films and Barbie, the social media editing community has not let Little Women rest. Similar to the trend of “What Was I Made For,” Little Women found an influx of popularity following the release of Taylor Swift’s album, Evermore, in 2020. Little Women was already almost a year old at the time, but when the song “Champagne Problems” hit TikTok, it was as if the film was a new release! Edit after edit poured in, and the Little Women fandom was alight with creativity and joy.
Though Lady Bird has never enjoyed the same sort of social media edit success that Little Women (and now Barbie) have, the baseline of Gerwig’s personality and the somewhat nostalgic love for the debut film upholds the ever-growing online fandom spaces for Gerwig’s filmography. The consistent presence and focus of girlhood in her films has carved a space for her in fandom, but perhaps it was waiting for her all along. The very idea of fandom is a community of people, often majority young girls, who come together over their love for something. It seems only natural that these films centered around an overwhelming love for girls and women and their passions and ideas would find a home in fandom.
The Cult of Gerwig
Gerwig’s films have always been home to the growing pains of girlhood, so much so that she has come to be known for her gut-wrenching monologues about womanhood and growing up – so far present in each of her films. She knows what’s going to resonate with her audience because it resonates with her, she’s telling these stories for herself as much as she is for us.
What makes Greta Gerwig stand out is her obvious, straightforward passion and excitement about every film she makes. She doesn’t pick topics for money or to solely further her career as a director, she picks them because they are important to her, as a fan, and because they make her feel. Her wit turns even her more melancholy musings hopeful, and her earnestness bridges the gap between audiences and the screen. She has a beautiful writer’s voice, and she’s never been afraid to use it. Aside from every glowing praise we could give her topics, directing style, and general talent – her writing is the heart of all her works. Her writing the scripts for every film she directs assures that her heart will beat within its frames.
In the lead-up to Barbie, many wondered how Gerwig would possibly be able to bring her deeply feeling, relatable, feminist core to a film about a doll that has an at best complicated history with womanhood – but clearly she knew exactly what she was doing. Just like with all of her characters, she dove down deep to pull up Barbie’s inner truth, flaws and all, in a way that allowed everyone to see themselves in her to some degree. And Gerwig doesn’t plan to just sit back and rest on this success, she’s already signed on to tackle new adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ beloved series The Chronicles of Narnia. The story of four ordinary children finding a portal to a fantastical land that they must fight to help save is rife with compelling content for Gerwig to bring to life – and fans are particularly excited to see her take on the complicated ties of sisters and the loss of girlhood in these rather intense circumstances.
All in all, it’s easy to see why Gerwig has become a household name after solo-directing just three films. Things move faster in the digital age, sure, and her passionate fandoms have certainly helped her case, but above everything else, it’s the surety of her emotion that has taken her to this level of immense success. She’s providing something unique in a time that feels mired in repetition and blah. Moreover, she’s specifically catering to a female audience, which still feels like a rarity. It’s nice to see someone so passionate and earnest find success so early in their career, and we can’t wait to watch her career, and her characters, bloom.
Juneau, Jen. “Greta Gerwig on Failed Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet ‘Barbie’ Cameos: Like Being ‘Without My Children.’ People, 11 July 2023, https://people.com/greta-gerwig-on-failed-saoirse-ronan-timothee-chalamet-barbie-cameos-7559019.