Jennifer Sep 12, 2023 Interviews

America Ferrera was never a Barbie girl. Born to Honduran parents in LA, the actor wasn’t interested in the blue-eyed, blonde-haired doll. “I didn’t play with Barbies for a number of reasons,” she says. “We couldn’t afford them. And they just didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t see myself reflected in that world in a way that captured my imagination.”

It seems curious, then, that the actor, who is known as a champion of inclusivity, takes top billing alongside Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in the Barbie film, one of the most-hyped releases in cinematic history. But, as she explains, “What’s exciting about being a part of this movie about such an influential icon in our culture is getting to expand and shift the narrative to include more of us, so young girls and boys can see themselves in something so dominant.”

Ferrera’s character Gloria, a Mattel employee who is ‘low on the totem pole’, is central to the action: a woman whose imagination, fears and aspirations drive the story. The film itself is an existential jamboree, in which ‘stereotypical Barbie’, played by Robbie (who conceived the project), leaves the utopia of Barbie Land on a quest to discover why she has developed ‘thoughts of death’ and cellulite. The two characters meet in the real world, and an irreverent and comedic odyssey ensues.

A large part of the appeal for Ferrera was that the film was written by Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, and directed by Gerwig. “They didn’t ignore what was problematic about Barbie, or the multitude of perspectives that people have,” says Ferrera. “I read the script and I was laughing on page one, then I was crying, and then I was laughing and crying. By the time I was done, I was deeply shocked at how invested I felt.” She acknowledges the divisive nature of the brand, as, she says, does the film. Gloria’s daughter Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) represents the haters—she goes as far as calling Barbie a ‘fascist’ and accuses her of ‘setting feminism back 50 years’. “There have been times when Barbie has been revolutionary, and then moments when she has been so behind the times,” Ferrera says. She points out that there was no kitchen in the Barbie Dreamhouse, thus freeing the doll from domesticity. “But we also look back and see the exclusion of so many of us—how long it took for her to have a Black friend, and then she had another ethnically ambiguous sort of brown friend. There were very inelegant times of change and growth.”

What fascinates Ferrera is what Barbie says about society. The opening of the film presents Barbie Land as an idealised world, but one that allows no room for womanhood in all its messiness and complications. The adventure that follows is an exploration of that tension. “A lot of people have very strong feelings about Barbie, as if she is something apart from us,” says Ferrera. “But people gave Barbie meaning. It’s only natural that our feelings towards her shift as we shift, as we change, and culture changes.”

Ferrera herself has been integral to bringing about such shifts in our culture. Her first major roles were in Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty, both of which hit the mainstream and helped bring a much-needed visibility to Latin Americans while challenging the conventions of female storytelling in Hollywood. In 2007, she was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. The following year, she committed to public political engagement—first campaigning for Hillary Clinton’s Democratic nomination, then teaming up with powerhouses including Eva Longoria to co-found Poderistas, an organisation that began as a digital-lifestyle platform to encourage voting within the Latina community. One of the driving forces of Time’s Up, Ferrera was also the opening speaker at the Women’s March in Washington after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in 2017; she went on to set up the not-for-profit initiative Harness in response to the election, as a way of amplifying marginalised voices.

So, when Gloria vents her frustration about the female condition in a powerful mid-film monologue, it feels like the bursting of a dam. “It’s so hard to be a woman!” she exclaims. “We’re always doing it wrong.” There are echoes of Laura Dern’s tirade on the image of the ‘perfect mother’ in Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a performance that garnered the actress an Oscar. “Greta called me and said: “I wrote an aria for Gloria!” When I first read it, it just hit me as truth,” Ferrera says. “That constant balancing act of expectations and contradicting roles that we try to play at all times. And it’s bubbling up in culture everywhere—this speaking out on the impossibility of the assignment of being a modern-day woman.”

For Ferrera, the opportunity to be the turning point in a dominant narrative was a dream. “It was almost too easy to connect to for me; that truth about womanhood, to deliver something so well-written and resonant. As an actor, it was a gift.”

Source: Harper’s Bazaar India