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 ‘Barbenheimer,’ masculinity, and the American moment

By Sigurd Neubauer


Some of our friends among the conservative commentariat have not taken kindly to the Barbie film from Warner Bros. Co-starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as her beau Ken, the movie exhibits artistic excellence across the board, charm, humor, and intelligence. 

For starters, it was a pleasant surprise when it played Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Also sprach Zarathustra right from the onset. The tone poem, composed in 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) philosophical treatise of the same name, stands out as perhaps the most widely recognized piece from classical music repertoire in contemporary American popular culture. 

The film was by definition feminist, which should not come as a surprise to anyone. Barbie is, after all, a doll who generations of girls around the world have come to love.  The film also captures differences between men and women as the terminology “patriarchy” is introduced once the two dolls leave “Barbie Land” – where women rule – and into the “real world,” where, ahem, men are in charge, at least according to the film.

That there are differences between how men and women experience the world should not be considered controversial, but in today’s super-charged environment, everything is. 

The film’s numerous references to “the patriarchy” could be interpreted as satire, or it could be taken literally. How one interprets it may very well be tied to his or her own pre-existing political views, which is yet another example of why the film is intelligent.

Once Barbie enters the real world, the doll proclaims that neither she nor her beau have genitalia, which is another clever example of how the film mostly avoids getting drawn into the latest stage of America’s never ending culture wars. My five-year-old son found the reference amusing, which is to say, the film has something for everyone. My preteen daughters and wife loved the film as well.

Without giving too much of the plot away, even the ultimate battle for control over Barbie Land, should not be interpreted as an affront to masculinity as Barbie and Ken end up reconciling their differences. 

The battle between the sexes is also a classical theme spanning Western Culture from the Bible (Adam and Eve) to the wonderful world of literature, opera, and of course Hollywood.

The film also takes issue with the fact that not everyone loves Barbie and what she represents. 

Irrespective of what one may think of Barbie the doll, what is clear is that she represents the post-World War II era in which American capitalism, wealth and consumer culture became values people around the world wanted to emulate.

In many respects, Barbie represents the near-unlimited excess Americans continue to enjoy today as she’s very much part of the American Century.

This brings us to Oppenheimer, a film by Christopher Nolan starring Cillian Murphy as American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was released on the very same day as Barbie; on July 21, 2023. While the dual release has been dubbed “Barbenheimer,” it also represents an American moment where artistic excellence is married to U.S. history, and the unfolding societal changes engulfing the country at a time of uncertainty.

Oppenheimer serves as a reminder of the fact that America won World War II through dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan. Had it not been for Washington’s outright and overwhelming victory, the Barbie doll would most likely not have become the American icon that has inspired hundreds of millions of children around the world. 

Nolan’s masterpiece serves as a reminder of the stubborn fact that present day America – which is the richest and most successful country the world has ever seen – was created by men. It is a combination of the country’s military might, human ingenuity, industrial strength, and manifest destiny which has created the space for women and girls – as well as for people of all backgrounds – to fully participate in the American experience. This is the American moment. 

The Oppenheimer film captures America's long-standing liberal-conservative divide, including about what constitutes patriotism
Leslie Groves (1896-1970), (the military head of the Manhattan Project) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) in 1942
'Barbenheimer' represents an American moment  where artistic excellence is linked to U.S. history, and social change
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