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Food for the Soul: From Barbie to Oppenheimer and Back Again

It used to be called counter-programming. Studios would, for example, plan to release a comedy skewed to female audiences on a Super Bowl weekend, reasoning that women who would not want to watch football games all day might want to go with their girlfriends to the movies. No longer. Oppenheimer and Barbie were scheduled to open on the same July weekend, and thanks to social media and some very deft marketing, a new social phenomenon arose—watching these two completely different movies on the same day as a double feature became a thing to do. The phenomenon has been dubbed “Barbenheimer”; thousands of viewers prebooked tickets and, in some locations, tickets have been sold out for popular times and days. Millennials and Gen Z-ers, inspired by TikTok posts and the trending social media, have decided en masse that this is the summer when they will watch both Oppenheimer and Barbie on one day.

Oppenheimer, a long-awaited addition to Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre, is about the birth of the nuclear age, whereas the second movie—well, if you have ever played with a five-year-old girl, you know who Barbie is and what her life story could be. So…what kind of sign of the times is this combination of disparate movies that have managed to equally entice cinemagoers?

In the film industry, all marketing and sales people know that some films have no traction despite strenuous marketing efforts, whereas some pictures are “hot” from the moment they are announced. Sometimes the reasons are clear (for example, if they feature a famous director or star, or tackle a current affairs topic), but sometimes they are not evident—this is where the marketing skill of a distributor comes in. Indubitable marketing prowess of studios aside, it is interesting why so many 20-year-olds would believe that both movies are worth seeing—one about a doll and one about a nuclear scientist. Barbie’s marketing challenge was obviously how to cross over from family audiences to the ones without small kids, and even more so, how to appeal to adults, especially males. Oppenheimer’s marketing challenge was just the opposite—how to interest generations that are so far removed from the Baby Boomers, whose childhood was spent under the threat of an atomic explosion.

As much as “Barbenheimer” may be a phenomenon in U.S. theaters, the movie about the history of the atom bomb deserves to be reviewed separately, so we will leave it for another time. Let’s just take a look at Barbie, a movie that left all other summer releases in the dust.

People may have initially gone to see Barbie because social media made it trendy to see it, but its dazzling progress at the box office (the movie grossed $1 billion within three weeks of its release) is due to the fact that people left theaters so satisfied that they went again or told their friends to go. This is a rare event in the film industry, especially post-pandemic.

There are many reasons why Barbie resonates with audiences. The songs by popular artists (Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj) have played on TikTok for weeks, paving the way for the movie’s opening. The movie has Easter egg clues and jokes for adults as well as a pink extravaganza of dolls and fun dances for kids, and the dances are choreographed with Bollywood panache. Every production detail has been ramped up to the highest standards. Awards-level work was done by hair and makeup artists. The art department that created the Barbieland sets, contrasted with the reality of the Venice boardwalk (much less glamorous than tourists think), creates an immediate “wow” factor. The two leads, Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, deliver a range of emotions and looks that will get recognition at awards time as well.

All of this might not have been enough to make it a blockbuster, as evidenced by the recent box office failure of Amsterdam (also starring Margot Robbie and boasting an A-list cast and filmmaker credits). However, Barbie has what the other movie was missing—ideas that resonate with viewers. Director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a movie she directed in 2017, was a tone-perfect tale of a relationship between a mother and her 18-year-old daughter—love mixed with exasperation, concern mixed with irritation, and the range of mother-daughter dynamics that start with the first rebellion in girls’ preteen years and which can go on for decades of college, marriage, and raising grandkids. In Barbie, Gerwig comes back to this dynamic when she brings in the human protagonists of a mother (America Ferrera as “Gloria”) and her teenage daughter who long ago stopped playing with dolls. When the time comes that they have to explain the real-life world to fairy-tale Barbie, their explanations constitute the ideological heart of the movie.

Gerwig, through her protagonists, points out the impossible role of a contemporary woman: society expects her to be modest yet bold, efficient but not too perfectionist, caring but not too girly, a high-achiever and yet not bossy, seductive for her husband and maternal for the babies, but with time for multitasking a home loan, kids’ vacations, and a 50-page sales report all at the same time. The list could go on, and every woman knows that list. No wonder the female viewers clap their hands when Gloria enumerates what a woman in the real world is supposed to be in order to satisfy all expectations. Some men clap, too—if they empathize and understand the mothers, sisters, and wives around them. Fairy-tale Barbie discovers in her trip to the real world that the feminist dream of providing Barbie doll characters such as an astronaut or a president (of a country or a company) as an aspirational tool for young girls has been just that—a dream. In real life, some women may achieve power and success, but there are very few of them and all of them have to strive ten times harder than men to achieve anything.

This comedic clash between Barbie’s perfect world of appearances (all in Day-Glo colors) and the mundane reality is what keeps audiences laughing. The young adults also keep laughing at the pitiless satire of the male stereotypes of mansplaining, male gaslighting, and male grandstanding—all the irritating aspects of male behavior that women alternately complain or laugh about. Ryan Gosling is priceless as a Ken who struts in a gold chain/white mink combo in his “Mojo Dojo Casa House,” channeling a classic peacock boyfriend with a guitar; many women have had at least one like that in their lives. Male audiences are perhaps less amused, but they can laugh at themselves the same way Gosling the actor has embraced the satirical take on manhood. Baby Boomer men, or at least film critics of that generation, are struggling a bit with this dénouement, but this is precisely the point. Gerwig in her Barbie gives voice to all the women, usually younger ones, who post exasperated comments about their boyfriends and husbands. It is very telling that the movie has fallen flat in Korea and other Asian territories—societies where women’s position is not equal to men’s. These are two sides of female empowerment messaging. 

Barbie is a summer comedy with songs and jokes. It pokes fun at female/male relationships. It exposes the struggles of women for recognition of their abilities and the struggles of men who are expected to be macho even when they would rather play with kids and a dog instead. The movie is not trying to save the world. However, its meteoric rise at the box office and its universal appeal to all demographics is proof that a movie with powerful messages can cross age and gender preferences and become an entertainment of a season.