in , ,

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” Are More Similar Than They Might Seem

"Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" Are More Similar Than They Might Seem

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” both officially hit theaters on July 21, and at first glance, they seem like polar opposites. The contrast between them — one pink, feminine, and comedic; one militant, masculine, and hyper-serious — has sparked many a viral tweet, and the internet has been saturated by fans posting photos and videos of their competing “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” outfits for months.

The films definitely live up to this visual dissonance. “Oppenheimer” is all desert browns and clinical whites, while “Barbie” is a wonderland of color and does, indeed, feature a ton of pink. But both movies are unexpectedly thematically similar. Both focus on unsolvable questions about human nature, and both emphasize reality’s fragility and how quickly ideas can shake up everything we think we know. Both stand on their own, but at the end of the day, I think they’re best seen together, as they both can illuminate each other’s core messages in surprising ways.

The most obvious similarity that “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” share is that they revolve around a product that changed the world: Barbie dolls and the atomic bomb. While these products obviously have very different levels of impact, both are infamous cultural touchstones, which is definitely part of the films’ theatrical allure.

Both are extremely American products, too, embodying a kind of larger-than-life capitalist end goal. Barbie’s looks and, later, her career successes (she’s the president, she’s a doctor, she’s everything) can be seen as an embodiment of an idealized kind of femininity; Barbie is the perfect blank slate of a woman, becoming anything and everything people want her to be. Meanwhile, the bomb was and is the ultimate expression of American exceptionalism, an expression of power so complete and totalizing that it is near godlike.

Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” actually do manage to critique the products and systems they revolve around. In addition to featuring a line directly calling Barbie a fascist within the first quarter of the movie, “Barbie” does an excellent job of exploring just how challenging it can be to be a woman in the world. It’s also an examination of the dangers of gendered society, proving that patriarchy harms the Kens just as much as it hurts the Barbies, and it even makes a subtle argument for liberation from fixed gender roles.

Meanwhile, “Oppenheimer” is about the process of making the atomic bomb, but it also shows how much carelessness and cruelty led up to dropping it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, a government official argues against dropping a bomb on Kyoto because he and his wife honeymooned there. Watching “Barbie,” with its depiction of the Kens’ desperation and fragility, makes the patriarchal groupthink at the core of “Oppenheimer” seem all the more grotesque.

Still, it’s hard to argue that either film truly, successfully challenges these systems. Despite its nuance and self-awareness, “Barbie” is still technically an elaborate Mattel ad, and it’s still centered on Margot Robbie’s stereotypical Barbie and her brand of beauty. (That’s also part of its joy, and it’s entirely possible to come away from the movie seeing it as a carefree celebration of traditionally discounted femininity, which is also very valid and necessary.)

Meanwhile, “Oppenheimer” luxuriates in the grandeur and terror of the bomb itself. It’s also a sympathetic, humanizing portrait of a man who created and launched a death machine that fails to truly address the bomb’s casualties, and a viewer could easily come away seeing it as a simple war movie or even a tribute to the bomb’s creator.

Ultimately, both movies are Rorschach tests of sorts. Neither one of them tries to tell audiences how they should feel. Instead, they force us to interrogate our own discomfort with the questions they raise.

Very fairly, on Aug. 1, Warner Bros. Japan publicly denounced the US Warner Bros.’ use of Barbenheimer memes, arguing that mushroom-cloud imagery juxtaposed against Barbie downplays the bomb’s unbelievably horrific consequences. While there’s no justification for Warner Bros. sharing photos of a laughing Barbie in front of a mushroom cloud, those memes may also be a good metaphor for the hyper-saturation and desensitization that defines the digital landscape today, and for the way capitalism and the attention economy try to distract us from real issues. After all, every day, I personally scroll past headlines about horrifying violence and typically do nothing but continue scrolling on to the next attention-grabbing post, just with a little more of a funny feeling in my chest.

Fittingly, the films arrive during an extremely anxious moment in time. Shifting gender roles, threats to LGBTQ+ rights, and an increasingly polarized political climate are rupturing America, and “Barbie,” with its nuanced, contradictory, yet strongly feminist and queer-coded messaging, finds itself squarely in the middle of that conversation, provoking backlash from conservatives as well as inevitable critiques from the left.

Simultaneously, climate change is presenting an existential threat that’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore — see: unprecedented heatwaves and smog-filled New York City skies — and it promises a kind of destruction that few objects other than the atomic bomb have ever rivaled. Like the atomic bomb, climate change has also been enabled by unregulated greed, stemming from powers at the very top. Add the threat of AI to the mix, and it’s not hard to see why a movie about the possibility of global destruction fits the general mood.

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” as a unit have also been hailed as official markers of audiences’ return to theaters in a post-pandemic world, but it is not the same world as it was before. The pandemic altered everyone’s lives in vastly different ways and showed how fragile systems many of us took for granted are. Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” seem to reflect that instability: in “Barbie,” Robbie’s Barbie realizes that the perfect world she knew is not at all fixed. “Oppenheimer,” too, is also about the way that an invention can entirely alter the fabric of reality. In addition to its actual destruction, the atomic bomb’s impact on human consciousness can’t be understated. It marked a point of no return, and its threat still looms, reminding us that a press of a button can destroy everything we know. And it’s hard to ignore that Barbenheimer arrives as the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes shut down Hollywood — proving that yet another well-oiled machine can easily be destroyed, this time by collective action.

In short, yes, you should see both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” and preferably in theaters. In terms of the order to see them in, there’s obviously only one right answer. Start with “Oppenheimer” to fill you with existential dread, then finish the night with “Barbie” to remind yourself that you’re not alone in being scared — and nobody really knows how to be a woman, or how to live. Yet fortunately, stories have always helped people connect and push through, and Barbenheimer is, without a doubt, the summer’s greatest.


What do you think?

1.2k Points
Upvote Downvote

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *