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Barbie lets America Ferrera play the kind of geek we never see

Monologues are fun, but being nerdy rules

America Ferrera in Barbie, sitting in a car and looking shocked Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Every character in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is perfectly crafted perfection. The dolls — Stereotypical Barbie, Beach Ken, and dorky Allan, among others — steal the spotlight, but Gerwig considers her human characters, the ones who give these toys ideas and conflicts, too. There’s the goofy Mattel CEO (Will Ferrell) and abrasive teenager Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt).

The one that really resonated with me was America Ferrera’s Gloria, the kind of dork we never see in movies.

[Ed. note: This post contains some slight spoilers for Barbie.]

A group of women in pink jumpsuits, looking out of the back of a van Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Halfway through the movie, Gloria reveals herself as the one who played with the doll version of Margot Robbie’s Barbie — not her daughter, Sasha. And Gloria is the one with complicated feelings on womanhood, who imbued Barbie with thoughts of dying, and imagined her toys coming to terms with the complexities of life. Highlighting this facet of being a woman is already fascinating, but the facet of Gloria’s personality that really set her apart to me is that she is actually a super-duper huge geek — and isn’t ashamed of it in the slightest.

Yes, Gloria is a mother, but she’s also a Barbie nerd. She knows everything there is to know about the fashion doll and also doodles her own designs for hypothetical Barbies (which is actually how Stereotypical Barbie ends up with her existential crisis). When Gloria gets to Barbieland, she absolutely geeks out over every little detail, squealing over the discontinued dolls and pointing out the rare outfits. It’s a thoroughly refreshing portrayal of what it means to be nerdy — one that’s a long time coming.

We’ve come a long way from The Big Bang Theory, where a very common punchline would literally be “and then a girl walks into a comic book store.” But the typical notion of what constitutes a geeky pastime is still very much focused on the same sort of (stereotypically male-dominated) passions, like science fiction movies, superheroes, and video games.

I’m not saying that girls don’t enjoy these nerdy hobbies — they can, they should, and we should get those characters on screen, too. (Finally, a girl played Dungeons & Dragons in the last Stranger Things season!) For a long time, though, when movies and TV depicted female characters who were also geeks, they were usually geeking out over typically male-dominated interests. Which is fine, but also only reflects a specific and limited quadrant of hobbies and how people enjoy them.

Barbie (Margot Robbie), in white cowboy hat and hot-pink two-piece denim sleeveless crop-top and lace-up pants, does a big arms-out “Here I am!” gesture to a group of middle-school girls dressed in dark, muted colors in an outdoor school cafeteria in the 2023 live-action Barbie movie Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This is changing with characters like Euphoria’s Kat, who writes smutty One Direction fanfiction, or the girls of Turning Red, who squeal about boy bands, devour vampire novels, and draw beautifully cringey fan art. Ferrera’s Gloria marks a refreshing take on the nerdy female character. She’s not a teenager, and not only is she a mother with hobbies and passions, they’re both intertwined with and extend beyond the complicated relationship she has with her daughter. And the thing she’s geeking out about (namely Barbie) is something that rarely, if ever, is seen through a nerdy lens.

If you take the pink sparkles and unabashed femininity at face value, Barbie seems like the furthest thing from a traditionally geeky interest. But the dolls are big collectors’ items, like Legos or Gundam figures, and the toy line has a long and fascinating history. That’s not even mentioning the whole expansive world of lore across movies, TV, and more that could give the Transformers universe a run for its money. Being deeply invested in Barbie is actually a really geeky thing; Gerwig fully indulges in that passion, not just the toy’s legacy.

From a personal point of view, it’s just really nice to see an older woman be super passionate about her interests. Considering the toxic fandom viewpoint that women over 25 have aged out of hobbies, it’s validating to see an older woman — and at 39, America Ferrera isn’t even old — express geeky passion. And it’s especially validating when it’s a hobby that doesn’t traditionally fit into a geeky box. I spent a lot of my adolescence being told by gatekeeping dudes that my interests weren’t good enough while also simultaneously being shut out of the stuff that was geeky enough because I didn’t do it the right way. Now, the current biggest movie in the world centers on a woman who geeks out over Barbie dolls, so I can close my eyes in satisfaction and smile in peace.

Barbie is out in theaters now.

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