Barbie Answers Oppenheimer
No Spoilers, Other than Oppenheimer Does Indeed Invent the Atomic Bomb
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Like millions of other people, I dedicated part of my weekend to Barbenheimer. It was a joy and a privilege to plan a day around a double feature, which I arranged the way I would heartily recommend to others: first Oppenheimer, then a 60-90 minute break for a meal, then Barbie. The theaters were packed; the costumes were plentiful; the popcorn at our local indie cinema was so good and refills were one dollar.
It was movie-going at its finest, and I feel zero desire to rank one film above the other. Going to the movies is awesome, and I’ve missed it horribly, and it saddens me that this weekend isn’t a sign of innovative Hollywood moves to come, but the beginning of a seemingly interminable dry streak.
WITH ALL OF THAT SAID — Barbie and Oppenheimer *are* in conversation with each other in ways worth unpacking.
Oppenheimer is a Classic Christopher Nolan film. There’s the twisty quasi-noir plot; a tortured and beguiling male protagonist; an obsession with brunettes; periodic (and arguably superfluous) surrealist elements; and a total disinterest in the interior life of women. That description might make it sound like I didn’t like the film — I did, and I especially liked Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. But the film, like all of Nolan’s work, is ultimately most interested in the masculine world: a world of great darkness, deception, and cruelty. Men ruin men, and men make the world worse for everyone: themselves, of course, but also the suffering women who populate its fringes.
Unlike other masculinist directors — absolutely Zach Snyder, sometimes David Fincher, absolutely Quentin Tarantino, most of Clint Eastwood — Nolan does not dislike women. There is no vaguely Freudian impulse to punish them, either as actors or as characters. They are not the cause of men’s suffering; men do that to themselves. No one would argue that Nolan’s films are feminist, but those do place the blame for a broken world squarely on men.
Oppenheimer fails the Bechdel Test (does a woman talk to another woman onscreen about something other than men) because the dominant history of The Manhattan Project, particularly as collected in Oppenheimer’s source material (American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) fails the Bechdel Test. And this isn’t (just) the history of the Manhattan Project, it’s the history of Oppenheimer — who, at least as characterized here, was utterly uninterested in the conversations of women with anyone other than him.
There’s one woman scientist in the film, but there were dozens of women involved in the creation of the bomb — a history expertly collected in Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. These women not only contributed to the science that made the bomb possible, but also to the dissent and protest that becomes a key cause of Oppenheimer’s own torture. They were just excluded from the larger power games that tear the men of this film asunder. They were not Prometheuses (Promethei?) They were not the main character in men’s telling of the broken and still-breaking world, and thus: they are not in a Nolan film.
Which is another way of saying that patriarchy begets patriarchal art. Men’s self-regard (and concern) is the narrative gravity; the idea that other audiences would also be interested in such a narrative goes unquestioned.1
There’s a logic that’s long guided Hollywood, at least since the beginning of the blockbuster era: Teens will watch things intended for them but will shy from things aimed squarely at adults. Adults will watch things aimed at them, but will also watch things aimed at (older) teens. Men will watch things made for them, but will shy from things made “for” women. Women will watch films made for them and will also readily watch things made for men. So if you want to make the biggest hit possible, you aim for something that will hit all four quadrants: a film aimed squarely at an audience of 16-18 year old boys.
If you look at the summer movie schedule, you can see that logic in action. The top-grossing films for each week, starting in May = Super Mario Bros., Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fast X, The Little Mermaid, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Insidious: The Red Door, and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part 1. Apart from the fact that all of these films are built on existing IP, they’re also all — with one pointed exception — built for boys.
Boys are taught at a young age that movies will bend to their interests and center their perspectives. If they don’t, they don’t have to watch them. I already see this in the exclamations of my friends’ kids when it comes time to decide on a movie: “that’s a girl movie” is enough to shut down any suggestion.
Girls, by contrast, are conditioned to identify and empathize with the perspective of men — and observe worlds in which they are perpetually secondary. Up until the early 2000s, there was a robust offering for films that refused that perspective (the so-called “women’s film” or weepie, the screwball, the rom-com) but the reorganization of Hollywood under the God of IP has all but killed the middle-budget women-centered film.
BUT WHAT ABOUT STREAMING, you might say, THERE WE CAN FIND CONTENT NOT SOLELY INTENDED FOR WHITE STRAIGHT MEN. It’s true, I love it over there. But the cinema — the public, familial sphere of entertainment — remains dominated by that same tired understanding of whose perspective must always be privileged. Audiences blame Hollywood, Hollywood blames audiences, but the problem with always taking the least risk (as a studio, as a movie-goer) is that you’ll keep reverting to the norm, and that norm will continue to degrade. See: Indiana Jones 5.2
So what is Barbie? It’s a film with swagger like a male-oriented blockbuster. It assumes everyone, everyone, wants to see it. The marketing campaign makes that explicit in a topical sense (“If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you. If you love Barbie, this movie is for you”) but it’s also in the casting, the humor, the roll-out, all of it. Some of that swagger stems from its IP, which lends it the immediate recognition studios have taught us to demand to get us into an actual theater.
But it’s more. Barbie understands itself as the main event. Not of the week, but of the summer. It has, as the kids say, REAL MAIN CHARACTER ENERGY. Which makes sense: the Barbies aren’t just the main characters of this film, but of the whole world. They live in a matriarchy where the levers of power are controlled by women. Men are superfluous, unskilled, and primarily eye candy; the very idea that they would have an inner life is a punchline in and of itself. And if that sounds mean or heartless, imagine how it feels when it’s only slightly more sublimated in all the films where men’s perspective rules.
That’s the joke, of course — and the punching heart of the film. Barbie doesn’t argue that the world should look like Barbie’s world so much as dare you to find offense in it, to just try and make the argument that a judicial branch with a token man is somehow offensive. It’s smart and winking about the relationship between us and the products that become overdetermined with meaning, value, and play; it pokes at the absurdities of masculinity with the sort of familiarity of someone who’s actually known a lot of men, not just known about the idea of men.
There’s a real skill in making a character like Ryan Gosling’s Ken so aggressively one-dimensional. (How much of this has to do with Greta Gerwig co-writing the script with Noah Baumbach? Unclear, but I imagine it contributes to the feeling that men get that patriarchy is ridiculous). And there’s a real skill, too, in allowing Margot Robbie’s Barbie to wake up to the realities of the world in way that doesn’t feel hackneyed, but sympathetic — like the first time I realized that adults telling you you could be anything did not mean you could be anything, or when I really and truly understood, looking at that row of presidents on the wall, who was actually allowed to be president. Realizing how our world works is heart-breaking. Funny, sure, but heartbreaking. Barbie gets that.
I think Oppenheimer does too. It’s an incredible piece of cinema. But there’s a reason Barbie is busting all projections, why the enthusiasm for it feels contagious, why people can hold a valid feminist critique alongside the doll’s truly complicated place in feminist history and their enjoyment of the film. Barbie as film, Barbie as posture, Barbie as movie-going experience — it’s such a challenge to the masculinist vision of the world. Not a utopian one, not one free of the chains of consumerism or other forms of intersecting privilege, but a rejection of the de facto centering of the white male experience, both as subject matter and as audience member.
We can hope that Hollywood takes Barbie’s success as evidence of audience hunger for that sort of experience, but judging from this New Yorker profile, it’ll probably just keep trying to develop that script for UNO and start development on Indiana Jones 7 and whatever Christopher Nolan wants to make next. But the good news, the great news, is that there are so many other ways to get this feeling — the thrill of seeing a world built around a perspective that’s not your own, or at the very least, the one you’ve been taught to assume.
If Oppenheimer asks: Why and how do men seek dominion over one another? What can the (male) mind imagine? Why does (male) genius corrode? Then the answer of Barbie is: Great questions. But what if we asked some different ones?
You could also sub in white, hetero, and American for “men” here — sometimes all four of those qualities work together to create a big hegemonic identity; sometimes they’re more complicated. Oppenheimer’s Jewishness affects the way he wields and understands power and his place in society, for example, but it does not change his understanding of women.
There’s another essay in here about how the continued globalization of the film industry, the opening of the Chinese film market, and how anticipating Chinese censors has amplified these trends, but again: another essay.