Barbenheimer: Barbie and Oppenheimer Are Two Sides of the Same American Story


This article contains some mild Barbie and Oppenheimer spoilers.

The Barbenheimer has landed! And it has been fun, hasn’t it? Going to the cinema and seeing people walking the streets in neon pink outfits! Scrolling through the memes! Arguing over the merits of different viewing orders (we actually got a Wikipedia mention over our contribution to that debate). The whole project has been a mix of nuclear-age aesthetics, feminist discourse, and the kind of publicity-tour drama that we haven’t seen since Don’t Worry Darling. Sure, the whole thing soured a bit once certain politicians tried to get in on the act, but the fact is it has been a long time since film discourse has been this fun.

And yet, it has to be said, going into Oppenheimer this writer felt a bit uneasy. We are talking, after all, about a film that covers the creation of a weapon that killed 220,000 people and has gone on to put the entire population of the human race at risk. It doesn’t matter if you think that dropping a nuclear bomb on two major civilian population centers was justified or not—it is the kind of action that will stain the conscience of a nation for centuries to come. In the face of that, is it tasteless to scroll through Twitter, liking 300 posts of people in pink outfits paired with moody black and white selfies?

It turns out it’s fine.

You see, Oppenheimer is a film about a serious subject matter, and it is, frankly, a brilliantly made film. Christopher Nolan brings all his skills and tricks to bear on this movie and it pays off. The plot is as tightly wound as we have come to expect from the man who presumably saw his parents killed in an alley by a linear narrative. You may feel free to call bullshit on Nolan’s claim that there is no CGI in this film, but the use of practical effects is genuinely astounding. But this is not a serious film. When a well-known auteur makes a film about a hard-to-work-with genius, whose relationships suffer because of his commitment to his work, and whose enormous ego can be forgiven because they’ve got just such a goddamn brilliant mind, we can be fairly safe in the assumption that whatever the film says it’s about, we know what it’s really about.

But what if we do take it seriously? Not just Oppenheimer, or Barbie for that matter, but the whole Barbenheimer idea? If we actually do follow through and treat the whole double bill as one film, what is that film about?

What it is about is American global power.

Two Sides of the Same Story

Barbie opens with an almost shot-for-shot remake of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene parallels, exactly, humanity’s ape ancestors seeing the alien monolith (in this case, a giant Margot Robbie in a bathing suit), and then gaining self-awareness. In Barbie, the scene ends with a child dashing its baby doll against the rocks. In 2001 the original scene climaxes with an ape ancestor inventing the first weapon, starting the process of development that would eventually lead to the bomb in Oppenheimer.

But the parallels between the stories of the bomb and Barbie are weird from the outset, even before we get to this past weekend’s cinematic interpretations. Because both real histories ultimately begin with something important: an idea from Germany.

For Oppenheimer, that idea was quantum physics. For Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, it was the German comic strip, Lilli, and its often scantily clad “golddigger, exhibitionist, and floozy” protagonist. Originally, the fashion doll was released to tie in with it. In 1964, Mattel would go on to buy Lilli, to prevent any awkwardness later down the line. Both Oppenheimer and Barbie are thus born out of an origin with international influence, which in turn went on to lead to an American creation with international implications.

For Oppenheimer, it was nuclear weapons. It’s not hard to see how they equate to “global influence.” For Barbie, however, the influence might be subtler but it’s no less meaningful. Barbies have sold in 150 countries around the world, with Mattel at one point reporting “99 percent” global brand awareness. With that awareness, comes awareness of the ideas Barbie represents. These include a version of feminism, specifically the idea that women can do any career they choose, as well as a body aesthetic that has rightly drawn fire from feminists. This can have a real and damaging impact, with the dolls being linked with eating disorders in studies, such as this one.

But both nuclear weapons and Barbie dolls are seen as a way to spread one idea in particular, and it is an idea both halves of Barbenheimer deal with directly, if in different ways.


It is not hard to see how nuclear bombs or Barbie dolls relate to capitalism. Nuclear weapons, obviously, are an excellent way to threaten to bomb communists, as well as a demonstration of the might of the capitalist military-industrial complex machine.

Barbie, meanwhile, whose origins go back to those bright days in the decade after Oppenheimer’s bomb was dropped, lives in the capitalist dream. Barbie can sell her labor however she may wish, and with her earnings from that labor she can buy a dream house, a dream car, and every conceivable kind of outfit or vehicle. Is there anyone who better represents the promise of American capitalism than Barbie? And yet, if there is one thing that is surprising about both Oppenheimer and Barbie, it is that both films appear to be at best ambivalent to capitalism.

The earlier acts of Oppenheimer (perhaps not coincidentally the ones that would have shown right after the entire cast walked out of the premiere to go strike) see Oppenheimer mixing freely with communists, communist sympathizers, and union organizers. More than that, the film takes great pains to show that the U.S. would not have been able to win the nuclear arms race without holding its nose and bending its security clearance requirements to allow these reds, pinkos, and fellow travelers to work on their classified weapons programs.

Barbie, conversely, presents Barbie’s world as the most utopian of utopias, and obviously, that utopia is American. The president may be Black and a woman, and her office may be in a bright Pink House, but that house is modeled after the White House in Washington D.C. And yet, when Barbie and Ken arrive in “the Real World,” one of the first problems they run into is a need for cash—something that has simply never occurred to them in Barbieland. At the same time, we meet the board of Mattel, the company that has licensed and been consulted on every aspect of this movie.

The movie ably skewers Mattel’s own brand messaging, pointing out that this “feminist” toy is overseen and controlled entirely by men. But Will Ferrell’s CEO character isn’t here to rehash his “Lord Business” character from The Lego Movie. He might be the latest in a long line of white male CEOs at a megacorporation but he’s not in this for the money, he’s in it for the dreams of young girls (in the least creepy way possible). Because ultimately, neither half of Barbenheimer has come to bury America; they’ve come to praise it.

Warts and All – Just Not Too Many

In Oppenheimer we never see the bombs fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our viewpoint is firmly fixed to characters in the United States. When scenes are in color, it is to tell us we are viewing someone’s subjective experience (Oppenheimer didn’t have sex with Jean Tatlock during his security hearing) while black and white sequences are from the perspective of Oppenheimer’s hidden nemesis, Atomic Energy Commission head honcho, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Both are subjective perspectives, neither leave the cast of American characters.

So we see the bombs fall as they did, hearing about it over the radio, imagining it in nightmares. Viewed harshly, you could be forgiven for thinking Oppenheimer argues the worst thing about dropping nuclear bombs on Japan was that it made a few American scientists sad. It is certainly weak tea compared to works such as Rod Serling’s Carol for Another Christmas. This politically-charged Christmas special is no more graphic in its portrayal of the bomb, and the sets it builds to show Hiroshima after the bomb dropped are no more convincing than those in Barbieland. But during his service, Rod Serling toured Japan after Oppenheimer’s bombs fell, and his descriptions of children whose faces were melted by the blast will stay with you. And they should.

Oppenheimer brings us blinding white light, ghostly images of peeling skin, one glimpse of a charcoaled corpse, and a loud, overpowering racket that is frankly par for the course in Nolan’s sound mixing. And the justifications, at every step of the way people are justifying why this bomb needs to be built. We are told that they have to drop the bombs to end the war, that there is no other way, and this is not just told to the characters, it is told to us, the audience. The trolley dilemma is set up neatly, and if you are reluctant to pull the handle and switch the train tracks, you simply don’t understand the gravity of the situation.

Oppenheimer seeks to portray itself as a hard look at the ethical consequences of the Manhattan Project, but everywhere you look, there are the vague lumps of objects brushed under the rug, When Oppenheimer chooses the site for Los Alamos, a great deal is made of what a completely unoccupied piece of land it is, but when the bomb has been dropped and someone asks Oppenheimer what he wants to do with the land now, he answers, “Give it back to the Indians.”

 The truth is, for those willing to look, there is plenty of information out there about the people who were kicked out of their homes to make way for Oppenheimer’s secret town. Barbie also does its bit to justify and defend its legacy, and that is not surprising. For all of Oppenheimer’s faults, it is not actually (as far as we know) directly funded by the U.S. Military. But unlike Oppenheimer, Barbie has put a lot more thought into what its audiences are thinking. It takes the time to answer actual criticisms its audience may have, rather than shadowboxing straw men.

The idea that women can be anything, but at the cost of having to be everything, and being criticized for all of it, is at the heart of Barbie, and Barbie is portrayed as an effort to combat that phenomenon but also a delivery system for it. Are there places where it could have been more radical? Pushed harder? Made its criticism sharper? Of course, but Greta Gerwig is a good deal more critical of its toy company overlords than Nolan ever is of the guy who became Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

Finally, A Film About Men

But once you get past the politics and self-justifications and the discourse, both stories turn on one common element. One thing that feeds capitalism, war, and the American ideal.

The climax of Oppenheimer is not the detonation of the first bomb or the dropping of bombs on Japan. Oppenheimer’s climax, the payoff the whole film leads up to, is when Lewis Strauss misses out on a job through a hearing because years earlier he had Oppenheimer’s security clearance ripped away through another hearing. And this occurred because, on a couple of occasions, Oppenheimer bruised his ego. Oppenheimer’s own ego is also front and center throughout this entire film. People are constantly telling him how important he is, how special his vision is. After the bombs drop, the questions we are asked are, “How is Oppenheimer affected by this? How does he feel about it? How will people perceive him? Can he be forgiven?”

Barbie’s plot also hinges on the fragility of the male ego. The story is ultimately about Ken discovering the patriarchy, and the power of a world where everything is built around catering to men’s feelings while asking nothing of them. Despite living in a world where Kens are “completely superfluous,” we gradually see that everything Barbie can and is expected to be must be in service to, or subservient to, men’s ability to see themselves as the hero of the story.

It is Ken bringing patriarchy back to Barbieland that sees Barbieland face its first taste of war (ahem, to some extent). Note: This isn’t the old take about how if women ran everything, there would be no war. The issue isn’t men, it is patriarchy and a weird deference to the male ego that Oppenheimer has on full display.If there was one truly striking and illustrative parallel between Barbie and Oppenheimer, one reason why these films actually work as a double bill beyond a coincidence of release dates, internet memes, and it just being plain funny, then it is how both films end. Barbie ends with its titular character taking possession of her own agency and identity, her own ego, by accepting and facing the inevitability of her own death. Oppenheimer ends with its titular character contemplating the inevitability of the death of the entire human race as a result of his.

The post Barbenheimer: Barbie and Oppenheimer Are Two Sides of the Same American Story appeared first on Den of Geek.

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