Phoebe Maltz Bovy on being a Barbara girl in a Barbie world—and the Shabbat dinner goals of Greta Gerwig

Noah Baumbach: Jewish father-only but deeply Jewish-coded all the same.

Where were you when you learned that Barbie, the most gentile of all the children’s toys, was actually created by a Jewish woman? It’s one of those facts I both know I once found surprising and cannot remember a time when I didn’t know it.

But yes, Barbie was the invention of a woman named Ruth Handler. The doll was named after Handler’s daughter Barbara. As with Christmas music and preppy Ralph Lauren clothing, something that made however many Jews feel like outsiders was in fact a Jewish invention. As a matter of matrilineal descent, Barbie—blond, blue-eyed and devoid of neurosis even by doll standards—is absolutely Jewish.

We are of course talking about Barbie because Greta Gerwig directed a bright pink movie, Barbie, that might be in a theatre near you this coming Friday. In the New York Times Magazine, Willa Paskin unpacks the feminist ambiguities of the film, of which Gerwig herself tells Paskin, “‘I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.'” Are Barbies a stand-in for unrealistic beauty standards? (So white, so thin, so anatomically impossible.) Or are they heroic girlboss figurines not bogged down with housewifely responsibilities? Are they woke or problematic? Does even having this conversation have any purpose other than in the selling of merch, aka movie tickets and, evidently, Barbie dolls? In the interview, Gerwig, who is not Jewish but who is deeply socially enmeshed in Jewish family life, told Paskin, of the Barbie viewership experience she hopes for, “‘I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner [with family friends],'” adding, “‘I want them to get blessed.'”

Jewish women wanting to feel seen (not that this is the only use of entertainment, one hopes) could look to Barbie, but there are other options as well. The actors’ and writers’ strikes in Hollywood may be putting new entertainment on hold, but there is always the admirable real-life performance of Fran Drescher, aka “the Nanny named Fran“ from The Nanny, in her role as labour movement leader.

We might think we could look to a new U.S. theatrical production of Funny Girl, but apparently comedian Fanny Brice was cast as a non-Jewish actress, this despite explicit attempts at finding a Jewish lady for the role. Whether Jewish actors need to be cast in Jewish roles is an ongoing debate of sorts, an offshoot of the similarly aimless-yet-compelling ‘are (any) Jews white?’ conversation. If Jews are racialized, then casting Jews as Jews is a thing. If not, it becomes rather difficult to articulate the case. Then again, these debates exist for gay characters as well, so who knows.

I will have to conclude by suggesting, if you want to feel good about being a Jewish woman—which I’d imagine applies to about half those reading this, but may for reasons you’ll soon see be of interest to more still—to stream Doc Martin on Pluto. The 2004-2022 Britcom co-stars Caroline Catz. “Catz” is a stage name she chose, Caroline Caplan being unavailable, in order to still sound Jewish. A twist, where stage names are concerned. Anyway, Catz plays the beautiful head teacher whom the titular doctor plus everyone else in town is in love with. I do not get the sense from any of the episodes I’ve seen (have reached season 3) that the character is Jewish (is anyone in rural Cornwall?), but I’ve decided it counts.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz