The Summer of Barbenheimer: Being Worthy of Main Character Energy

Unless you’ve been off planet, or without WiFi, you have likely heard of the Barbenheimer film phenomena. Released on the same weekend, the two wildly different films, have captured audiences this summer.

One for its ability to recreate the childhood playsets of the eponymous doll’s pop-colored pink world into a feminist critique of modern-day womanhood.

The other for how noted Hollywood storyteller, Christopher Nolan, peels back the layers to gaze at the conscience of the man who created the atomic bomb.

Vintage Barbie by RomitaGirl67

The other thing both these films have in common is that they are able to take a historical figure and ask us to view them sympathetically.

That’s right, Barbie, the doll that once promoted impossible beauty standards, now garners our empathy as she fights against them in her effort to live a nuanced life in the real world.

Barbenheimer: About Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, meanwhile, whose project took over a corner of New Mexico, is plagued by doubt for the power he can create, all the while the US Government clears the land it will need to test the bomb, divesting it of cattle, homes, and people already living there. This is the frustrating thing about Nolan* as a filmmaker – he is among those in Hollywood with the most leeway, and yet he still can’t spare** 10 minutes for an opening scene of a few kids being rushed off the land.

Or when the first shovel goes in to build the labs, we don’t see any of the Latino workers who were tasked with the manual labor – or eventually – handling the radiation. Surely this type of historical accuracy in the background could only strengthen the storytelling and underline the burden shouldered by the ‘father of the atomic bomb’? What about a tiny epilogue showing any of the children, parents, teachers, and people of New Mexico ‘downwind’ or affected by the test days, months, years, and generations later?

I remember when the cast was announced for Nolan’s latest and Tweeting that his cast seemed very one-dimensional.

And someone replying – “Well, white people built the bomb. What do you want?”

We had a little back and forth with my explaining (before knowing the total history) that well, someone else of another race had to have been involved…

Fun With Barbie

While Barbie does a little better than her opening weekend rival, offering a supporting cast with impeccable diversity credentials including Issa Rae and Lizzo, as well as America Ferrera and many others. There is a running tongue-in-cheek poke at masculinity as well via Ken, the ever-present boyfriend without a purpose. But we have seen other versions of this in ironic cameos of Toy Story plots.

I guess what I’m saying is how impressed I am that a doll who left many of us feeling alienated and alone while growing up because we didn’t have the hair, the skin, or the features she touted, is now an international cultural sensation for women everywhere.

Barbie gets depth and feelings and troubles and most of all our sympathy. As a blonde white woman whose journey takes center stage.

Imagine another writer duo with this budget starting the story with another one of the dolls?

Or another writer starting with the story of any of the girls in the school who ended up with cancer from the Trinity tests. Whose fathers might have been among the men digging the ditches, placing the platforms, and clearing the so-called ‘barren’ land?

Many are calling/hoping for the same.

A Barbenheimer Sequel?

So we hope there will be spin-off films; where Malala Barbie gets to tell her story. Even as talks of a sequel swirl… you get the feeling this type of character (or director) doesn’t share the screen easily.

*Nolan also gave no screen time to the thousands of Indian soldiers who were stranded alongside the British in Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation.

**One notable exception to Nolan’s homogenous casting is John David Washington in Tenet.


Connect with Mohana on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her work here.

To learn more about life in the Arabian Gulf, check out the Crimes In Arabia series!

Why Naatu Naatu’s Oscar Win Isn’t a Slam Dunk for Diversity

You would think being the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar would be a sign of a major step forward. Some sort of ethnic glass ceiling shattering at Hollywood’s most glittering evening. But that is actually the opposite of what this year’s performance of the Best Song nominee showcased.

I have to admit – they got me. Put a guy with a black beard on stage in one of the leading roles – just like in the movie – and I assumed it was some up-and-coming South Asian dancer who would all soon hear about. But no. Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover, while clearly super talented, have no roots from the Indian subcontinent.

Why Naatu Naatu's Oscar Win Isn't a Slam Dunk for Diversity by @moha_doha #diversity #theoscars #indian

Because while the steps were well executed and the celebration was around the pivotal scene of a film criticizing the colonial outlook on Indian culture – there was not one person of Indian descent on the stage. Not even when half the scene was played by Indians in India demonstrating to the British the local stamina far outpacing the colonizer in dancing.

Why The Lack Of Diversity?

We could speculate on all the reasons how this came to pass, or why the stars of the film, purportedly wanting the focus to be on the vocalists, were not available to perform the dance themselves. (Was it really because one of them thought there wouldn’t be enough rehearsal time?) Visa complications apparently kept the original choreographer away until the dress rehearsals.

But the award of the choreography to Nappytabs, a dancing duo associated with the So You Think You Can Dance reality TV franchise, left most South Asian Americans in the industry, and otherwise shaking their heads.

If indeed, Ram Charan and NTR Jr. felt they got enough out of the film, and didn’t need the pressure of a rushed performance, the rest of us sure could have used the boost…

Click here to watch the performance on YouTube.

We Still Have Work To Do On Diversity

From years of being told they don’t have enough experience, to now being told that they weren’t being chosen because they weren’t among the dancers Nappytabs knew, it feels like the same old story in Tinseltown: a referral club that shuts out anyone new. And if you can’t get cast as an Indian dancer for an Indian song from an Indian movie at the Oscars… then, what hope is there?

The Oscar performance of Naatu Naatu shows the system-wide disregard for authenticity or recognition of how a moment like this could showcase a song, a film, and indeed, a nation, through its specificity. Imagine not one person on set saying – hang on who’s doing the Indian check? Even if it is as token. Blatant disregard for acknowledgment of the culture from which this song and film stem is a stark example of cultural appropriation. One that further underlines what has been true for a long time – brown people have very few public spaces to occupy – even when creating our own cultural representations.

So, Oscar night was a double slap – first because using non-South Indian dancers, choreographers, and producers undercuts the film’s overall message: stand up to colonialism. Second, it also erases the specificity of Indianness since the film was made in Tollywood – not Bollywood – the Telugu-speaking areas of the south, and the original dance moves are inspired from that folk tradition.

Those of us from the Southern states, my family included, have long felt our cultures play second fiddle to Hindi or Punjabi, Northern languages that tend to dominate the film and music industries.

While the film’s popularity and the song’s win are a watershed moment for Indian cinema as a whole, it also showcases how high the barriers within the American entertainment system remain.


Connect with Mohana on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her work here.

To learn more about life in the Arabian Gulf, check out the Crimes In Arabia series!

Why It Doesn’t Matter Who Jon Snow’s Parents Were

The memes for those who aren’t watching #GoTS7 are hilarious.

(And if you have no idea what that sequence of letters means, I apologize. Come back next week when we might be talking about something more relevant to the entire world, not only those of masking our sorrows in pop culture. Check on Wednesday. Because the finale airs Sunday).

For the rest of us, eagerly awaiting the 7th episode in the 7th season, the hours spent trawling the Internet for fan theories are best not tallied.

(PS for you lot — if you’re not caught up on the latest, don’t read on until you are).

I need to talk to you about something that has been bugging me ever since Gilly’s observant question about the meaning of the word “annulment.” Two episodes ago in EastWatch we learned one of the most famous bastards in all of fiction, Jon Snow, might have been married. Not only that, they were of noble, even kingly blood.

This was no surprise to us, the faithful, since close readers of the books have long suggested that R+L=J (Prince Rhaegar and Lady Leanna made Jon). With Gilly reading of the marriage in the text, completely ignored by Sam, I’ve been bittersweet moping. Up until then, everyone in the world of Westeros thought Jon was the result of his father Ned Stark’s wandering eye while he was away at war.

Moping because while we know the truth, did Catelyn Stark ever suspect in her heart of hearts, that her husband never betrayed her? Though she told everyone his ‘bastard’ was living among them, even groused with him about it now and then, maybe she nursed hope with each time she heard, “that wasn’t the Ned Stark saintly way” as men shook their heads in confusion over Jon.

A string of clues that the baby’s mother was someone else have been planted for several characters ….. now we await the moment that Jon (and everyone else) finds out.

I’m sad for Ned and Catelyn – happy for Jon that he wasn’t the case of his father’s shame – sad our figures of honor will not relish in the truth. If this is a story about anything, its about families. And the Starks are at the heart of it all.

On the other hand, I don’t need Jon to be royal to sit on the Iron Throne. (Which his true father’s birth makes him, as the grandson of the mad king, he’s the ‘true’ heir to the throne).

In fact, I’m moping for another reason now.

Until now G.R.R. Martin’s intricate world has suggested that the wilest one would rise up to claim the 7 kingdoms.

For 7 years we’ve been rooting for Tryion, Jon, Sansa or Daenerys, not because they held legitimate claims, but because they were earning the right to sit on the iron throne. An idea that runs counter to royalists and notions of privilege  very much in keeping with contemporary battles.

We don’t like the Lannisters, especially not Cersei, because they were born to the thorne, abuse their power, and consume their wealth without regard for others. (Remind you of anyone??)

We like our heroes to have merit and pluck. We want them to see the little people, like us, break the wheel of oppression, and cheat death. That makes them royal.

That makes them fit to rule our hearts and hearths.

Enough of the incest-is-common-in-royal-lines so an Aunt-Nephew marriage is fine. Down with the existing paradigms of royalty and ruling.

Yes we want Jon to have the masses adore him as he deserves for his brooding self sacrifice (though this week his idoicy cost us, and the good guys, a dragon).

And of course we want Daenerys to be rewarded for being the first person (not to mention woman) in the history of that world not to use dragons to unleash terror on civilians.

But these rewards don’t have to be because their of royal blood. Maybe in spite of it.

Let’s hope there’s a cinderella they’re bringing out in Season 8 who will remind us that what the world needs now is pedigree or lineage or wealth in their leaders. We need heart. And I’m not only talking about Westeros. Obvs.