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Barbenheimer: A Surprising Battle of Messaging and Framing

A review of what Barbie and Oppenheimer do well and bad with messaging

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 4 months ago 11 min read
This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 520713.

Barbenheimer emerged as a meme to talk about the joint release of Greta Gerwig's pink and feminine metacommentary Barbie and Christopher Nolan's brooding and masculine Oppenheimer. Soon the Internet was ablaze with talks of double features, promotional deals, and fans coming to the theaters dressed to the nines in pink.

And so, given that these two films have been paired as a viewing experience, it seems only natural to compare them critically. When we do that, we come across contrasts in not only how they talk about gender but also these films contrasting messages, which nevertheless intersect well with one another.

Barbie: great framing, mixed messaging

Barbie is about "Stereotypical Barbie," as well as all her other iterations, both old and new, in the fictional dimension of Barbieland. This is a land of imagination powered by all the children who play with these dolls. From Mermaid Barbie to a Barbie President, Barbieland is a feminist matriarchy where people there believe all the problems of patriarchy in the real world have been solved through the representational politics of the Mattel Corporation (more on this later).

Yet when a tear opens up in our two realities, Stereotypical Barbie quickly learns that "representational politics'" conquest of patriarchy is a lie. She goes on a fabulous journey of self-discovery to the "real world," which, coupled with her naivete, allows the film to have a frank conversation about gender and the patriarchy that rules our world.

From a very blunt takedown of the ruling Citizens United to a plot-essential bit making fun of mansplaining, everything we see in the film is meant to deconstruct patriarchy, and it's pretty cathartic for the viewer. America Ferrera's Gloria gives a brilliant monologue on the paradoxical rules of womanhood, saying:

“It is literally impossible to be a woman….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.”

When I finished watching this speech, the audience was in tears. The whole point of this monologue was to name, as Gloria calls it, "the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy" and provide the viewer catharsis that their feelings are valid.

This film is very aware of how it is being perceived and how it frames things to the viewer, all to aid in that catharsis. For example, there is a throwaway line where Stereotypical Barbie, who Margot Robbie plays, is talking about how she doesn't perceive herself as beautiful. The narrator jumps in, joking that Margot Robbie was the wrong actor to cast in this role to make that point. This narrative technique being used here is referred to as "lampshading," or bringing to the viewer's attention a narrative problem and then moving on. It's not only a result of this film's overly meta approach but of wanting to reassure the viewer that, yes, "it gets them" and is "in on the joke."

Yet, while I loved most of what this film does, there was something unsettling with its concluding message. Throughout the film, there is a bumbling Mattel CEO character, played by Will Ferrell, who just doesn't get how out of touch he is. He gets defensive and abuses his power, but he is never portrayed as anything more than oblivious. I found it a strange choice to make, especially since, narratively, nothing happens to his character other than him referencing silly suggestions and "tickling retreats."

We can go around in circles on whether this framing was appropriate, but what bothered me is that toward the end, after the chief tension of the film has been resolved, Gloria proposes to him to create an "Ordinary Barbie" that will not succumb to the exceptionalist narrative the Barbie doll has traditionally adhered to (note: someone outside Mattel has made this). The CEO initially rejects this idea, but after he's told it will make money, he quickly agrees. We have here not a refutation of Mattel's power to set cultural norms but a plea for it to change its priorities. It's an argument of finding incremental change through the marketplace, and given how badly this company has messed up our norms in the first place; it's one I am wary of.

We see this incrementalism further in how the Barbies take back power from the Kens after the latter had done a coup. The Barbies ultimately shun the more "masculine" violence of the Kens (who pantomime war in the best musical number of the movie) and vote their matriarchy back into power. It was a narrative move that felt very strange given the dire straights Gloria's daughter Sasha depicted society being in in the first half of the movie. She says Barbie represents "sexualized capitalism," "rampant consumerism," and "fascism." Is voting harder supposed to be the solution here?

Furthermore, are we supposed to approve of this returning to the status quo? The film ends with the Kens still being oppressed under the Barbieland matriarchy but given a token lower-end court position by President Barbie to symbolically represent the disproportionate amount of power that women have in the real world. The film denies us a tidy resolution, which I am torn on. On the one hand, patriarchy isn't resolved in the real world. Why should the matriarchy be abolished in Barbieland?

On the other hand, the problem comes with the solutions they have pushed for in this film: market forces and voting, which, although they cannot be ignored (I have a long history of encouraging people to vote), are inadequate on their own. If voting harder and buying more ethically were viable solutions to "rampant consumerism" and "fascism," we would have done it already.

Barbie ends with a delightful text that frames the problems women face under patriarchy beautifully but leaves the viewer with a mixed message on how to fight it. In many ways, this film is a fascinating counterpart to its more "masculine" twin: Oppenheimer, which has a tighter message but fails in my perspective in how it frames its characters.

Oppenheimer: great message, terrible framing

Oppenheimer is inevitably about masculinity. The thing about "male" movies is they often don’t have to be explicitly framed as conversations about masculinity because male is the current default (particularly white, straight, cisgendered men). Yet considering this is a biopic about a Great Man of History, the implication is clear.

Oppenheimer is a story about quantum mechanics physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer who would go on to be a key figure in the Manhattan Project, notably Project Trinity: the codename for the first atomic bombs. The weapons he would help build, named Little Boy and Fat Man, would be dropped over the municipalities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least one hundred thousand people. These actions were initially heralded as ending the war with Japan, but in more recent times, have been criticized as needless posturing used to establish US hegemony and ignite the Cold War with the USSR.

There are many messages you can tease from this 3-hour film spread across three separate timelines (a small note I have is that it was way too long), but one is that the development of nuclear weapons was a mistake. Dr. Oppenheimer later rejects the argument that dropping the bomb was necessary, and we, as the viewer, are given no evidence that he's wrong. The film ends with him nihilistically talking to Einstein about how the development of nuclear weaponry "destroyed the world," referencing the cataclysmic nature of what he has released.

Another message is that the men pushing for this "great" development are spiteful and short-sighted. There is a brilliant scene where Oppenheimer is talking to President Truman about how the dropping of the bombs has made him feel guilty, and the president perceives it as a sleight against his greatness. In real life, Truman allegedly called Oppenheimer a "crybaby scientist."

We see this pettiness further highlighted in a key plot point involving a series of political hearings: one for Oppenheimer's security clearance after the war; and another, much later, for Lewis Strauss's confirmation hearing in the Senate for Secretary of Commerce. Strauss was another key figure during the Manhattan Project and later the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer and Strauss should have been friends (or at the very least begrudging allies), but because Oppenheimer has a mild conversation with Albert Einstein that causes the man not to register Strauss's presence, he assumes, incorrectly, that Oppenheimer is turning Einstein against him. It's this nonexistent sleight that pushes Strauss to work secretly to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance and eliminate his influence.

This pettiness applies to Oppenheimer himself, who works on the bomb (despite being told by many that it's a mistake) because of his ego. Oppenheimer perceives himself as one of the few that can pull it off and chooses to let himself get wrapped up in nationalistic propaganda, not seeing through this jingoism until after the damage has been done. It's hard to see any of these great men of history as truly great, and that's the whole point: one I enjoyed immensely. When you zoom in on the posturing and petty fights, the shine of their greatness dims.

The problem I had with the film (besides, again, it being too long) was how it framed many of its characters, particularly its women. Despite the text criticizing the men in the film ruthlessly, few prominent women are involved in the narrative that Oppenheimer isn't f@cking directly, and even these characters are severely neglected in the movie. His first partner, Jean Tatlock, was a reporter for the Communist Publication the Western Worker and probably a queer woman. However, she is depicted in the film as deeply unhappy that she and Oppenheimer have separated and kills herself shortly after he calls off their relationship. Still, in reality, the situation is more complicated. The pathologization of homosexuality is argued by some to be a factor in her suicide — a fact the film glosses over.

Similarly, Oppenheimer's wife, Katherine, or "Kitty," also has an arc, but it feels almost lazy. Her transformation from disillusioned housewife to battle-worn politico feels sudden and unearned. We simply didn't see that happen in the film (though I would have loved to), and it speaks to how uninterested Nolan was in developing his female characters.

The only women characters Oppenheimer isn’t f@cking that receive notable screen time are during the Operation Trinity flashbacks. These include engineer Lilli Hornig, whose inclusion is very relegated to the margins, and scientific librarian Charlotte Serber, who, in a bit of sexist revisionism, is depicted as Oppenheimer’s secretary. In real life, Project Trinity had many women scientists involved in it, making their absence in this film notable. This absence (as well as the others we have discussed) is more about Nolan neglecting this history than anything willfully malicious.

When discussing how women characters are often ignored in period films, particularly in those surrounding “Great Men,” there is a tendency to bring up that period’s misogyny as a defense. "That era was misogynistic," goes the argument, "so wouldn’t these women be ignored and belittled?" And yes, they would (and were, and are), but that’s speaking past the point. We are not discussing history here but how women characters are framed in this fictional narrative. In a story, you can have female characters that exist in the past, who experience hardships and discrimination, and still have a proper arc and character development. They can even be somewhat empowering (see Carol, Hidden Figures, etc.).

The same point can be brought up with the indigenous tribe that occupied some of the grounds in Los Almos before the military seized the land for the project. Several times in the film, it’s brought up that the land was used by this unnamed tribe, including during a tense conversation with President Truman, but we aren’t given any more details than that, and we really should have. Historically, there was an indigenous woman who worked on Project Trinity, hematologist Floy Agnes “Naranjo Stroud” Leea, whose point of view in the film could have made that conversation more impactful.

Looking from a birdseye view, I enjoyed the message of Oppenheimer, but how it framed its characters could have used more work. It is a criticism of Great Man Theory that still slips into it every once and a while. His genius is brought up repeatedly in the film in a way that feels gratuitous, and centering on the other intelligent women in his life may have been helpful to counterbalance that. My advice for this text about how "Great Men" are petty and exclusive would have been to include maybe the characters it thought these men were marginalizing.

An Explosively Pink Conclusion

All in all, I enjoyed the Barbenheimer phenomenon. These films are so different, yet core themes tie them together, which I suspect was part of the reason this trend happened in the first place. Oppenheimer is gritty, slow, and grounded in the "real world." It's also very, very male. Barbie was fun, irreverent, and very very into talking about patriarchy.

There were undoubtedly drawbacks in how these films broached these subjects. Barbie had tight humor and framing but lacked a message to go with its cathartic conclusion. Oppenheimer was tight in what it was trying to say but could have benefited from a more intersectional approach to framing its marginalized characters during this contentious period of history.

Regardless, Barbenheimer was a fun treat in the hellscape known as the 2020s. Pretty in Pink never felt so dark and foreboding.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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