2023 – The Cut
July 13, 2023
“What is a doll?” asks America Ferrera, head tilted to one side, hands kneading the air. We’re awaiting her second iced coffee of the day, and she’s in the throes of a mini-speech on the semiotics of the toy. “What, across centuries and across cultures, across civilizations, has a doll meant? A doll is a representation of a woman’s deepest intuition.” The original question — “Did you, America Ferrera, whose work represents all that is not Barbie, have qualms about being in a blockbuster about Barbie?” — has been forgotten. Dolls, she reminds me, did not begin with Barbie but have been integral to female play, ceremony, and self-actualization for centuries. Dolls and therefore Barbies and therefore the Barbie movie reveal “deeper meanings in our culture and in our psyche,” she concludes. The coffee comes. Did she answer the question? she asks.
Ferrera’s doll lecture could be a deleted scene from Barbie. In the film, she plays Gloria: mom to a moody teen daughter, assistant to Mattel’s CEO, and lifetime Barbie lover who must help save Barbie Land from the patriarchy. Greta Gerwig, who had admired Ferrera since watching Ugly Betty weekly with her friends in her first post-college apartment, wrote the role specifically for her (later casting Ferrera’s real-life husband as Gloria’s). Still, for Ferrera, getting into the role wasn’t straightforward. The character plays with her daughter’s old dolls when she feels lonely and put-upon by the demands of motherhood and life; Ferrera, however, says she never played with Barbies growing up. The youngest of six children raised by a single mother in the San Fernando Valley, she says the toy’s fantastic life had always felt alien to her. “My cousin had Barbies at her house, and we’d play with them there, but everything — from the Dreamhouse to the Corvette to the pool to the 20 different outfits — felt so inaccessible.” Not to mention that Barbie was “blonde-haired and blue-eyed and perfect. She probably made me feel bad about myself as a kid.”
It’s a muggy June day in New York, but we’re tucked into an air-conditioned corner of the Swan Room, a hotel bar not far from the downtown apartment Ferrera has lived in for 15 years. We’re exactly one month out from the release of the film, which, by this point, has been promoted in an outrageous marketing crusade that’s involved more than 30 brand collaborations, endless takeovers, and countless photos of Margot Robbie in archival Barbie outfits. Today, Ferrera is in a look she calls “edgy Lower East Side mom-jeans Barbie” — blue jeans, a white tee, a leather jacket, and a gold necklace inscribed with the names of her two children. Questions about them seem to make her tense, as indicated by a bobbing left knee that only stills when we move on to other subjects. Ferrera is, and always has been, private, a state she maintains by speaking like a politician, or at least an empowering Instagram caption, steering personal questions to generalizations of what’s “happening in the culture” or “to us as women.” It’s the language of identity politics, a topic on which she has edited a book, and of activism, which she is deeply engaged in, launching nonprofits and giving speeches at events like the Women’s March. When asked if she would ever run for office, she hasn’t said “no,” and doesn’t say “no” today, “because you never know anything, right?” It’s a little like being in the presence of the valedictorian of Hollywood. If acting hadn’t worked out, her backup plan was to be a human-rights lawyer.
The Barbie movie might seem like a strange project for Ferrera, whose work — her starring role in the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves, her part as the “beautiful on the inside” Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty — has for decades questioned and critiqued beauty standards. Her book, American Like Me, opens with an essay about self-acceptance; it tells the story of her first crush, who snubbed her in favor of her blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmate. In her TED Talk (titled “My Identity Is a Superpower — Not an Obstacle”), she discusses how she avoided the sun, straightened her curls, and tried to lose weight to please Hollywood.
But, as Ferrera points out, there are a million versions of the Barbie movie — some of which we’ve sampled fleetingly in the film’s belabored, nearly decade-long journey to theaters. And after cycling through a number of rumored big names to helm the project (Diablo Cody, Reese Witherspoon, Alethea Jones), the spinner landed on Gerwig. Ferrera was drawn to her script, she says, because it confronted the doll’s role in “shaping expectations for women.” Gerwig’s Barbie Land is a joyful doll utopia where “all the Barbies are Barbies, they’re every color and shape,” and therefore “there is no perfect.” The argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that everyone in Barbie Land is beautiful, none more so than Margot Robbie, who replaced Amy Schumer as the lead and, as Ferrera notes, “looks more like Barbie than Barbie looks like Barbie.” Still, it’s no wonder that Gerwig’s Barbie — gently feminist, coyly self-aware — spoke to Ferrera. “After reading the script, I felt like I was on a mushroom trip,” she says. “I was like, Barbie is everything.”
Ferrera, 39, made her film debut at 17, when she was cast in Real Women Have Curves as Ana, a teen whose domineering mother constantly reminds her she would be beautiful if she lost weight. It premiered at Sundance in 2002 and, quite suddenly, made Ferrera into a kind of representative of self-love. Shortly after, she played Carmen, the only sister in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) who worries she’s too fat for the magic jeans. The message of both roles, and later of Ugly Betty, which would thrust Ferrera into mainstream fame and make her the first and last Latina to win a Lead Comedy Actress Emmy, is that true beauty comes from within.
But even as she emerged “as a symbol of embracing your beauty and telling beauty standards to fuck off,” inside, she felt differently. “I had internalized self-loathing,” she says today. Her idea of what was a beautiful and valuable woman, and the fact that that was white and thin, had been hammered into her from girlhood. “I was surrounded by women who deeply internalized those standards and expectations and taught them to me. Movies, musicians, models, dolls — everything we idolized,” she says, emphasized that there was one way to be beautiful and that wasn’t her.
Even after her starring roles, Hollywood continued offering Ferrera gigs like “pregnant chola No. 2” and “gangbanger’s girlfriend.” Red carpets and photo shoots fomented her doubts — she would show up to fittings only to be presented with racks of sample-size clothes. “It was like, You know how I am. The movie is called Real Women Have Curves,” she says. She tells me she doesn’t remember much of the press from her years on Ugly Betty, which she began filming in her early 20s, often working 20-hour days to the point where she was “sick all the time,” but much of it was obsessed with her looks and involved convoluted descriptions of her body (e.g., “less zaftig,” “neither lumpy nor emaciated”). But the press wasn’t the problem. “In my mind, I felt I wasn’t meeting the expectations of what an actress should look like, or how thin they should be, or how beautiful.”
Ferrera’s self-possession cracks when she talks about this period; she says that “rewiring” herself has been a lifelong process. Therapy helped, as did finally getting relief from an old shoulder injury, a relic of a car accident when she was a teen. Doctors wrote the injury off, prescribing her sleeping pills that she trashed, and by her mid-20s she was “in a debilitating amount of pain.” Then, in her early 30s, she started competing in triathlons, which shifted her relationship with her body from loathing to acceptance and then finally “to gratitude.” She’s completed two. “I had this whole story about being forever in pain and exercise being about fitting into something,” she explains. Training for triathlons — running two hours a day, swimming in the ocean; things she had for a long time thought herself incapable of doing — changed that completely. Still, in spite of her progress, Ferrera shudders at the idea of playing a Barbie herself. “My gut instinct is, Hell, no,” she says. “I would’ve been way too triggered by the need to physically play something perfect.”
As a human inoculated against patriarchy, Gloria’s task is to bring the Barbies back to feminist consciousness, a restoration that begins with a speech that, as Robbie’s character says in the film, captures “the cognitive dissonance of being a woman under the patriarchy.” Gerwig wrote the original monologue, but she and Ferrera spent months refining it. “We would text each other anything related to it,” says Ferrera, explaining that they made edits together, drawing on songs, articles, and movie scenes that got at “what Gloria’s talking about.”
One thing they referenced was a notebook entry that Ferrera had written nine months before joining the project. Later, I ask if she can say more about it. She’s calling from L.A., the first stop on Barbie’s three-week, seven-country press tour. “No?” she responds, sounding affronted. Then she pauses for a long 30 seconds. “Ultimately, it was about giving myself permission to let go of expectations that had been placed on me.” She speaks slowly and reluctantly. “I was trying to meet those expectations and be my true self. And those things were at odds, and something had to give.” That, really, is the thrust of Gloria’s monologue and of Barbie, which is largely about the ludicrous expectations placed on women. The monologue required nearly 30 takes. Gerwig says that during Ferrera’s performance, everyone on set (“Not just women — men, too”) was crying. At one point, an assistant director told Robbie to get it together. “He said, ‘You don’t need to cry, you’re not on-camera,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘I’m not doing it on purpose.’”
In a way, Gloria is the evolution of Ferrera’s past roles: a grown-up composite of Ana, Carmen, and Betty, someone who has processed and overcome her own struggles and is now in a position to impart her wisdom to other women. Next year, Ferrera is set to direct her first feature film, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which she shadowed Gerwig to prepare for and is about a young Mexican American woman who shirks cultural and societal expectations. She’s still in touch with her Sisterhood castmates, particularly Amber Tamblyn, who lives nearby and whose daughter is nearly the same age as Ferrera’s son. “She is so difficult now,” says Tamblyn of Ferrera. “She’s always having me pick up her dry cleaning. One time, she had me come over and organize her T-shirt drawer,” she says, laughing. “I haven’t seen her change. Other than I think she’s become somebody who feels more confident in their ability to take up the space they deserve to take up, creatively and otherwise.”
In June, Mattel released dolls inspired by characters from Barbie. Despite her reservations about becoming a doll, Ferrera’s likeness was transformed into a petite, smiling Barbie with a bouncy brown blowout. The Gloria Doll is $50 and, says Mattel, “commands the room in her three-piece, all-pink power pantsuit.”