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Amanda Bergeman July 31, 2023
Margot Robbie in ’Barbie‘ and Cillian Murphy in ‘Oppenheimer’ Margot Robbie in ’Barbie‘ and Cillian Murphy in ‘Oppenheimer’ (AP images)

“Barbenheimer,” the simultaneous July 21 release of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” turned a meme into the most widely anticipated cinematic event of the year. The films’ contrasting aesthetics have been fodder for jokes, photo edits and themed outfits. Fans have been delighting in their favorite filmmakers going head-to-head, pitting pitch black against bubblegum pink.

The whole thing is funny, if you are able to differentiate the film “Oppenheimer” from its real world inspiration, but that line has definitely blurred. When a “Barbie house” appeared in Malibu as a promotion for the film, the internet was quick to joke that the Oppenheimer team would nuke it for their own marketing campaign.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are both trying to stop the destruction of their own worlds.

The films’ apparent incongruity created a farcical pairing that busted the box office. Tens of thousands of people bought same-day tickets for both “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” watching them as a double feature. In their first weekend, “Oppenheimer” grossed $82.4 million and “Barbie” a whopping $155 million at the domestic box office—becoming the biggest-ever opening box office for a film directed by a woman. What fans who saw both didn’t expect was how well the apparent opposites thematically complement each other.

For all their differences, Barbenheimer has some genuine thematic throughlines. Lynda Carter, the actress most famous for her portrayal of a super-Barbie role in the 1970s Wonder Woman show, brilliantly observed that “Barbie lives in the world Oppenheimer made.” That is undeniably true. Barbie was first created in the late 1950s, the most nuclear-haunted time of world history, which was also the pinnacle of the post-war consumer boom. “Barbie” may have been a reaction to the post-war restoration of traditional gender roles, when the G.I. Kens came back from the war and Rosie the Riveters were kicked out of the shipyards and sent back to the kitchens.

Perhaps the most striking example was the ending of the free child care programs the federal government had created to accommodate so many mothers going to build planes, tanks and ships. It was an intentional move to get women back into the home. This is almost exactly what occurs in “Barbie,” when Ken returns from the “real world” enamored of patriarchy and ready to introduce traditional gender roles in the Barbieland utopia.

The actress Lynda Carter brilliantly observed that “Barbie lives in the world Oppenheimer made.”

Both films dig into titular characters uncomfortable with their own legacies. This may seem an odd comparison. After all, J. Robert Oppenheimer created the atomic bomb, and Barbie is a plastic doll. But both created (and are creations of) their particular moments of American history—moments whose legacies we are still dealing with today.

Barbie takes her legacy very seriously. In the film, all the Barbies in Barbieland think they have solved all the world’s problems for women, but as soon as she enters the real world, a girl accuses Barbie of fascism, stating she makes women feel bad about themselves and displays unrealistic beauty standards. Barbie weeps at this criticism. In a speech intended to celebrate the bomb’s use, Oppenheimer envisions the bomb’s destruction in an incinerated skeleton and a woman with flaking skin. Neither Oppenheimer nor Barbie really understands that they’ve done anything wrong until they confront the effects of their actions. They are both haunted by unintended consequences and wrestle with the fact that many people do not like or approve of them.

Taken together, Barbenheimer is a scathing indictment of life in a man’s world.

Neither character directly apologizes or asks for forgiveness, and neither can truly dismantle the damage they have done. Yet they both try to distance themselves from their pasts. Oppenheimer, in real life and in the film, continues to work in nuclear science but becomes opposed to further nuclear proliferation and the brewing arms race with the Soviets. Meanwhile, Barbie works to let go of the perfectionism that plagues her and her legacy. They are both seeking penance, but neither truly believes they are deserving of forgiveness. Barbie’s fears are met with kindness: Gloria, the woman who brought Barbie to the real world, reassures her: “You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough.” Oppenheimer’s wife confirms his fears: “You think because you let them tar and feather you that the world will forgive you? They won’t.”

Taken together, Barbenheimer is a scathing indictment of life in a man’s world. Barbie is overt in its criticism of the patriarchy, even if delivering it within a satire. The male-dominated “Oppenheimer” is a little more subtextual. No women are in the rooms where it is decided to drop the bombs that kill between 129,000 and 226,000 people. U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson jokes he doesn’t want to drop the bomb on Kyoto because he honeymooned there. Nolan uses this moment to underline how out of touch these powerful men are with the reality of what they are doing. Oppenheimer says he lost his faith in the project when he realized that anything he built would be used against our enemies in war. Barbie and Oppenheimer did not choose how the world reacted to them, but there were real-world consequences whether intended or not.

Barbie and Oppenheimer also both deal with existential dread. They question the meaning of death and wrestle with the sanctity of life. Oppenheimer is utilitarian in his thinking about the bomb until it is used. He justifies its creation by saying, “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t.” But by the time the bomb is built, the Nazis had already been defeated. And though the bombs may have hastened the end of the war, he cannot help feeling he has blood on his hands. Barbie feels the sanctity of her own life as she steps into what it means to be human, mortal and imperfect. These two people didn’t mean to be more than they are. He just wanted to be a physicist, and she just wants to be a woman.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are both trying to stop the destruction of their own worlds. Oppenheimer seems resigned to the fact that the damage is done and nuclear war is inevitable. Barbie is hopeful that things can and will change for the better. They make a much more thought-provoking pairing than a mere internet meme could convey. The juxtaposition of masculine and feminine, destruction and creation, dread and hope, may leave moviegoers thinking a little harder about their own place in the world.

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