I have become Barbenheimer, destroyer of worlds

It was widely assumed when Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer were released on the same day, July 21 this year, that the two films would attract polar opposite audiences.

Clearly, such assumptions were wrong. And while the “double-feature” may have started off as a joke, as many have now pointed out, there are some interesting connections.

Both films focus on existential threats. In Oppenheimer, it is the atomic bomb, in Barbie, it is the patriarchy, introduced to Barbieland by Ken after an eye-opening trip to the real world. On the flipside, both films offer a vision of utopia, one where the threat of the atomic bomb can guarantee the end of all war, the other where everyone is happy every day, except Ken of course, who only exists as an appendage of Barbie and is deeply frustrated by his lack of agency.

But what do the patriarchy and the atomic bomb have in common. Well, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that the whole Manhattan Project was a patriarchal endeavour. Nearly all the main actors at Los Alamos were men, while the women were largely relegated to the roles of secretary and housewife. When the bomb test is successful, we are greeted with a orgiastic scene of male whooping and hollering straight out of the American sports arena. The American reaction to the discovery that the Nazis were trying to build an atomic bomb is the blunt male response; we have to build a bigger one.

Christopher Nolan is sensible enough to counter all this toxic masculinity by giving prominent roles in the film to Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s wife and mistress but they are both outsiders, deliberately excluded by the men from the core project. Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Oppenheimer’s nemesis, Lewis Strauss, is a poisonous concoction of male jealousy, insecurity, and narcissism. He is in many ways not dissimilar to Ryan Gosling’s Ken.

When Ken brings patriarchy to Barbieland, the effect is immediate and devastating. As Weird Barbie notes, the Barbies were like the Native Americans when the Europeans invaded, introducing smallpox and other deadly diseases. With no immunity, the Barbies’ sense of self-worth instantly dissolves in a puddle of patriarchal stereotypes.

After Barbie leads the resistance and restores her sisters to their rightful place, she realises things cannot go back to the way they were, with a world of happy Barbies but subjugated and quietly seething Kens. The Kens must be given their own agency and sense of self-identity if Barbieland is to prosper in the future.

In this sense, Barbie is more mature than Oppenheimer who, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, naively thinks he can put the genie back in the bottle and prevent the further development of weapons of mass destruction such as the H-bomb. Egotist that he is, Oppenheimer thinks he can wipe the blood off his hands by creating a world without war.

At the end of the movies, Barbie embraces the real world with a visit to her gynaecologist, while Oppenheimer, even after he is rejected by the establishment, still believes he has political influence, and an important role to play in saving the world.

The message of Barbie is hardly subtle, it is basically just a list of politically correct check boxes, while Oppenheimer is more nuanced and less judgemental. But both are enjoyable movies that if nothing else can help save the world of cinema (for a while at least) from the existential threat of smart phones and streaming services.

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