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!