#Barbenheimer: Friends or Foes

As Barbie and Oppenheimer hit theaters and became mainstream sensations, the precedent they set, both individually and collectively as widely successful social commentary, acts as a call for future media to dive further into the flaws within our cultural values and standards.

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When we look back on the summer of 2023, one word will undoubtedly remain in everyone’s minds for years to come: Barbenheimer. When the fantasy comedy about Mattel’s superstar, Barbie, was announced to be released on the same date as the historical thriller following the man behind the atomic bomb, Robert J. Oppenheimer, the duo quickly became an internet and pop culture phenomenon. Upon their debuts, the films were immensely successful, collectively grossing approximately $500 million on opening weekend alone. Largely due to social media trends ranging from fan-made Barbenheimer T-shirts to humorous posters featuring Barbie’s glowing smile before a mushroom cloud, the two movies have quickly become associated with one another, whether in a positive or negative light. As our world enters a stage of increasing reform, the presence of mainstream media that critiques societal institutions becomes essential.

Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, has a deeper message than most moviegoers expect, using bright satirical comedy as a way of denouncing the historical impact of the patriarchy. As it follows lead actress Margot Robbie, also credited as a producer, playing the role of “Stereotypical Barbie,” the movie shifts between the real world and “Barbieland” to draw attention to the underlying issues caused by systemic misogyny. The film was a smash hit, becoming the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman in history, but perhaps its larger success lies in its ability to get its lesson across by emphasizing the self-irony of using Barbie as a feminist symbol. Since Barbie’s inception, critics have highlighted the problems with presenting a doll that exemplifies unrealistic Eurocentric beauty standards as a “role model” for young girls, and the film further develops these critiques through its over-the-top visuals that may dilute its core message. The movie is even self-aware, as middle school student Sasha (played by Ariana Greenblatt) tells Barbie that she “destroy[s] girls’ innate sense of worth, and [is] killing the planet with [the] glorification of rampant consumerism.” However, the film navigates this irony by humanizing Barbie as she traverses through the patriarchal version of Barbieland and spotlighting Gloria (played by America Ferrera), who represents the ordinary woman. Gloria’s role as both the woman who has idolized and, later on, inspired Barbie is integral; in a powerful monologue, she demonstrates the paradoxes within societal standards for women: 

“You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

While many are right to say that Barbie is essentially what Forbes writer Erik Kain calls a “Two-Hour Mattel Commercial,” it nonetheless has become an example of media that can achieve mainstream success while criticizing cultural flaws. It is important to note that there is still more to be done—many have pointed out that the film is a symbol of white feminism and doesn’t represent the struggles of women of color. As Metro News columnist Nadeine Asbali puts it, “It almost feels a waste to have such a diverse cast without actually promoting a feminism that is truly inclusive to all the groups represented in the film.” Though it is only a launching point, by highlighting the concept of misogyny and reaching wider audiences than any other film like it, Barbie comments on the patriarchy while maintaining accessibility. Popular media’s grasp on public opinions holds more sway than ever, and Mattel’s 2023 production certainly uses its worldwide platform as a revolutionary manifestation of societal commentary.

On the other hand, Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy as Robert J. Oppenheimer, offers a deeper look into an often neglected facet of society for the average viewer: the delicate power balances hidden behind smiling politicians on national television and tailored press reports from government agencies. Through a chronological depiction starting from the initial eureka moment when scientists all over the world began to explore the possibility of an atomic bomb to the final countdown leading up to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see how intertwining forces of political power, money, and morality interact. Oppenheimer faces pressure as a scientist pioneering the future of American military strategy while being associated with those involved in Communist circles; Lewis Strauss engages in behind-the-scenes manipulation to systematically destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation; and the full scale of destruction Oppenheimer’s creation is capable of is realized on actual lives.

In a seemingly insignificant scene, Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh) asks Oppenheimer to recite a line from the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Despite this being a short moment in the lengthy film, this line captures the essence of who Oppenheimer is. In the final sequence of the film, in response to his original fear that he may have become the catalyst for the eventual destruction of the world, Oppenheimer says, “I believe we did,” and we see a catastrophic future unravel, a world ripped apart by weapons of mass destruction. The film is a chilling yet accurate depiction of the state of the modern world: many call it the longest period of peace history has seen, but that is only because we are held together by a steadily snapping rope of mutually assured destruction and a fear of annihilation. 

The film is not without its shortcomings. Oppenheimer’s storytelling emphasizes various problematic patterns within the American film industry: the use of female characters just to sit still and look pretty for the main character or, in the case of Nolan’s films, “sultry and smart, but tragic,” according to Metro News writer Kristy Puchko. Furthermore, the lack of analysis regarding the impacts historical events had on other countries—in this case, how the bombings actually affected Japan—exemplifies much of the ignorance present throughout not only Hollywood but American policymaking and societal standards as a whole. Nonetheless, the job Oppenheimer carries out by emphasizing the stakes of political and economic interaction in the status quo is critical: it teaches us to open our eyes to the bigger picture, but perhaps even more importantly, to recognize how we are often our own worst enemies. But, through recognition and reflection, Hollywood’s job now is to amend the shortcomings we see in Oppenheimer and reach for even deeper levels of critique in the future. 

Regardless of the massive success of Barbenheimer, there was a good deal of hypocrisy surrounding these two movies. Gender role influencers on social media pushed the narrative that “Barbie was for girls and Oppenheimer was for men,” obviously putting down one release in favor of the other. This doesn’t come as a surprise due to Barbie’s unapologetic traditional femininity and catchy advertising that caters more to social platforms. As a result of how much the Barbie movie has influenced trends and buzzwords—such as Kenergy, the “This Barbie” trend, and general hot pink vibes—there is pushback. Oppenheimer has settled into a place as Barbie’s “competitor” on social media. Trends set the two unrelated movies up as adversaries, and there were countless debates over the validity of seeing one over the other. But while, hypothetically, all this would do is uplift both movies at once, more often than not, Barbie became a threatening show of “modern feminism” to a lot of people who regarded that as a bad thing, while Oppenheimer was lauded as a real man’s movie, capitalizing on our society’s systemic misogyny, which was exactly what Barbie set out to address. Though it was never supposed to be this way, Barbenheimer’s worldwide reach made them more than simply two pieces of cinema. And whether coincidence or not, their natural contrast means their impact cannot be separated.

As the curtain falls on this chapter of the film industry, we’re left with a resounding call to continue questioning, discussing, and evolving our understanding of the intricate tapestry of society. By setting a historical precedent, the power behind Barbenheimer has become a symbol of what the film industry should aspire to accomplish and a start for future social commentary. The flaws both movies possess can be lessons for future films to reflect on and grow beyond. It becomes clear that filmmakers hold in their hands the power to craft the world of the future—we hope to see them utilize it to break the restrictions currently holding us down.