Battle of the Barbenheimer
The highly-anticipated dual premiere of “Barbie and “Oppenheimer” reveals complicated gender politics.
I went into the dual premiere of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” (coined “Barbenheimer”), cautiously optimistic. Since the advent of streaming services, Hollywood has grown disgustingly commercial, with films existing as a product first and an artistic mode second. “Where is the soul?” one might ask, upon watching “Don’t Worry Darling” or “Don’t Look Up.” I worried Barbenheimer would be the same gig — theatrical blockbusters compensating for a lack of depth with aesthetics. When the integrity of a film rests solely on its cast and production budget, the story usually suffers.
“Barbie” presents Barbie and Ken’s satirical odyssey outside of “Barbie Land”: a reversed plastic patriarchy, where women occupy all positions of power and men “beach.” On a quest to rid herself of distorted human features — flat feet, thoughts of death and cellulite — Barbie (Margot Robbie) traverses dimensions to the real world. Upon landing in Venice Beach, California Ken (Ryan Gosling) discovers the thrills of the patriarchy, while Barbie bears the burden of walking past a construction site in a leotard. When the duo returns to Barbie Land, remnants of patriarchal reality begin to distort Barbie’s girl-power paradise, as embodied by Ken’s decision to remodel Barbie’s dreamhouse into a toxically masculine “mojo dojo casa house.”
“I’m only here because I believe in Greta Gerwig,” I overheard one teenager explain to her mom as she shuffled into her seat for Barbie. She wasn’t alone. Since the whopping success of “Ladybird” and “Little Women,” Gerwig has amassed an impressive cult following of young, female cinephiles.
Of course, not everyone in the theater that fateful Friday was there for Gerwig. To the delight of film-bros across the globe, Christopher Nolan’s harrowing biopic on the father of the atomic bomb, “Oppenheimer” premiered in theaters that same night. The film follows J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) throughout various stages of his scientific career, beginning with his initial interest in quantum physics in the mid-1920s. The bulk of the film showcases a team of scientists developing nuclear warfare under Oppenheimer’s leadership in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Nolan intricately weaves together three narratives and timelines, switching from black and white to color as a way of connoting different perspectives and subjectivities. The film primarily toggles between Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb and his subsequent security hearing — a proceeding by the United States Atomic Energy Commission to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance and credibility.
Gendered connotations accompany the Barbenheimer punchline. In the weeks leading up to the films’ theatrical release, “Oppenheimer” assumed a masculine depth as “Barbie” took on a girlish frivolity. This playfully, divisive juxtaposition between the two films’ aesthetics and plots quickly became a viral meme and overall internet sensation.
Despite a vast divergence in subject matter, putting the films in conversation with one another was surprisingly natural. I watched “Barbie” first, which informed the feminist framework through which I analyzed “Oppenheimer.”
Barbie is at once aesthetically superb and emotionally resonant. Without touching CGI, Gerwig reconstructs the world as it is marketed to exist by Mattel: arched feet, pink water slides, two-dimensional refrigerator shelves and an exclusively female Supreme Court. Gerwig showcases her range and versatility as a director with childlike set design and adult humor. If nothing else, “Barbie” made me laugh, owning its campy ridiculousness with every monochrome outfit and Dua Lipa cameo. The rules of Barbie Land may not always be clear, but a self-reflexive scene among Mattel CEOs clarifies that it doesn’t matter. Gerwig’s Barbie Land, simulation or not, captures a jarring dissonance between the illusion of gender equality and the reality of patriarchal sexism, manifesting both on the Venice Beach boardwalk and in the boardroom.
With a hop, skip and a small Diet Coke, I left Barbie Land and entered “Nolan Land,” a male-dominated cinematic universe, equipped with characteristically complicated chronology and 65-millimeter film. Oppenheimer is an immersive and visceral experience, with masterful editing and an impressive lead performance by Cillian Murphy. Throughout Oppenheimer, I had difficulty keeping track of names because all the men looked the same. To be fair, a biopic on American nuclear warfare was never going to be the most intersectional of films. But come on, three women in three hours? I’d like to think Nolan’s lack of intersectionality is embedded within the film’s commentary, but Jean Tatlock’s (Florence Pugh) entire role in the film — Oppenheimer’s topless and co-dependent mistress — is such an offensive, underdeveloped depiction of mental illness it’s hard to justify.
In Barbie Land, heteronormative gender dynamics are comically reversed, with the “Kens” existing only in service to the “Barbies.” In Oppenheimer, the patriarchy is left firmly intact and unquestioned. Unironically, Oppenheimer is a film about mass societal destruction. Even when accounting for historical accuracy, Jean Tatlock exists as little more than a manic accessory to Oppenheimer, with less characterization than Barbie’s 1995 Chanel runway pendant necklace. Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, gets more character development than Tatlock, but her plotline is barely developed outside of an alcohol addiction.
Some critics argue that “Barbie” is little more than a defensive ad for Mattel, who is trying painfully hard to appear woke while ultimately pushing a product. On the art-ad pendulum, I’d argue that Barbie swings back and forth, cementing its paradoxical status as a commercialized work of art. The film never had the capacity to be a subversive cultural critique on account of its partnership with Mattel. For this reason, the central hypocrisy surrounding Barbie’s existence as a sexed-up, Eurocentric “feminist role model” is left largely unresolved by the end of the film. Still, Gerwig’s wit and depth bleeds past corporate constraints in many pivotal moments throughout the film, with quotes like “She’s not dead. She’s just having an existential crisis,” and “go white savior Barbie.”
Despite centering around an inherently problematic Barbie framework, Gerwig touches on important feminist themes, like the beauty of aging, sacrifice of motherhood and power of autonomy. The ideas in Gerwig’s film may not be new ones, but their clever articulation and mass dissemination is groundbreaking to watch on the big screen.
While many high budget thrillers feel like a parody of themselves, “Oppenheimer” is the real deal, with impeccable pacing and transcendental visuals. That being said, Nolan distances his characters from the audience through a characteristically convoluted plot structure. Unlike “Barbie’s” self-aware and playful script, “Oppenheimer’s” overambitious dialogue prevents you from relating to its characters and feeling “in on it.” Overdramatized one-liners like “Robert, try not to blow up the world” epitomize the pretentiousness of the film.
“Barbie” tells a much more profound story than its exaggerated marketing campaign would lead you to believe. Simultaneously, the film never tries to convince you that it is something deeper than it is, constantly cracking jokes at its own expense. “Oppenheimer,” conversely, fails to live up to its assumed gravity. Despite shoving its profundity down your throat with its 100-million-dollar budget on a silver spoon, “Oppenheimer” fails to elicit an emotional response. Fans and critics commonly recommend rewatching Nolan films multiple times to fully understand them, but at what point is a film’s inability to resonate on the first watch a failure rather than a flex? While Nolan succeeds in craft and spectacle, his story fails to pack a punch.