By Esther Fultz
I’ve never been a big film person. Sure, I’ll watch the occasional film with my family, and I’ve seen “The Sound of Music” and “The Lord of the Rings” more times than I can count. But seeing films in the theater isn’t a common occurrence for me, and before this summer, I never would’ve seen myself watching two films back to back. “Barbenheimer” changed that.
Contrary to popular recommendation, I watched “Oppenheimer” first and the film didn’t disappoint. Throughout the entire three hours, I found myself captivated by the intricacies of scientific discovery and Oppeneheimer’s trial, as well as the undergirding theme of morality throughout the film. At its core, Oppenheimer addresses the question of whether creating weapons of mass destruction to potentially save American lives was ethical. This question clearly troubles Oppenheimer, whose battle with mental health worsens following the making of the atomic bomb as we see him experience horrific visions of innocent people burning from the bomband noise in his mind so loud it nearly drowns out everything else around him.
The power the atomic bomb has unleashed is not lost on Oppenheimer and his colleagues – it didn’t create just a new weapon, it’s created a new world. Throughout the film, Oppenheimer compares himself with the legend of Prometheus, who took fire from heaven and gave it to men, causing men to resent him. Oppenheimer speaks during his trial that they created the weapon as a protective measure against other countries and hoped not to use it, but quickly realized this was impossible. Oppenheimer even voices his fears to President Truman that technological advances will cause other nations to build more destructive weapons, forcing the U.S. to respond in kind, but Truman quickly laughs off and ignores his concern.
Although “Oppenheimer” received backlash for not showing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its devastating impact, it nonetheless paints a bleak picture for humanity. The audience is left to grapple with the reality of human nature and the failings of prominent people.
Oppenheimer’s struggles aren’t confined to the atomic bomb; his marriage is characterized by infidelity and his children aren’t a priority in his life, which leads to the portrayal of Oppenheimer’s affair with Jean Tatlock being a controversial subject for Christian viewers. On the one hand, it adds little to the plot and the story could’ve been told well without it. However, it does contribute to the audience’s perspective of Oppenheimer as a broken, flawed, lust-filled person. Oppenheimer is the central character of this film and his achievements are respected, but that doesn’t make him a hero; he’s a person of above-average intellect yet with very average human desires and failures.
In this realism lies some of the appeal of “Oppenheimer.” This film isn’t fun, it’s heavy but it’s honest. It’s not afraid to explore hard subjects, and it invites the viewer to do so as well. The nuanced picture of humanity presented in “Oppenheimer” prompts viewers to honestly examine themselves, their own opinions and biases and the actions that result.
While “Oppenheimer” is a hard film to follow, watching “Barbie” afterwards while I was still contemplating the depth and emotional intensity of “Oppenheimer” made me slightly irritated at how shallow “Barbie” initially seemed. On a certain level, I appreciated the plot and humor of the film but I think I would’ve appreciated it more had I seen it before “Oppenheimer” or on its own. Having said that, “Barbie” is uniquely remarkable for being lighthearted and funny while also sparking conversation and addressing nuanced issues.
Feminism and the struggles women face is a central theme of the film and interwoven into nearly every aspect of the plot. Many aspects of this were handled well, particularly Gloria’s speech towards the end of the film about the difficulty of balancing all the different expectations placed on women: beauty, intellect, thinness, money, leadership, and more. At the end, Gloria admits these are expectations women place on themselves, saying she is “so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”
This is something I found myself able to relate to deeply. I often overwhelm myself with the pressure to succeed and simply to be liked. Rarely do I acknowledge that I am the one placing this pressure on myself, and that by doing this collectively as a society, we perpetuate a problem that hurts us all.
Other aspects of feminism portrayed in Barbie are more problematic, particularly the portrayal of men at the beginning of the film. Men are portrayed as unintelligent and unmotivated – while the Barbies hold important jobs and positions of power, the Kens sometimes don’t have jobs at all. After all, Stereotypical Ken isn’t even a lifeguard, his job is just “beach.” Men are also displayed as controlling and power-hungry, particularly after the Kens learn about patriarchy and decide to take over Barbieland.
Additionally, at the beginning of the film, a lot of Ken’s worth seems to come from Barbie’s opinion of him – one line says that “Barbie always has a good day but Ken only has a good day if Barbie says hi to him.” However, as the film progresses, we see this dependence directly critiqued. Defining men by the attention and approval of women is unfair to them and unhelpful to everyone in society. Throughout the film, we see Ken grow in his ability to define himself apart from Barbie and accept her lack of interest in a serious romantic relationship with him.
The end of the film also shows change in Barbieland as a whole, but perhaps not as it could. When one of the Barbies asks if Barbieland can go back to the way that it was, the president says no, adding that “No Barbie or Ken should be living in the shadows.” The Kens are allowed to hold government positions, although the Barbies say they won’t have equal influence until women and men in the real world are truly equal.
One final aspect of the film I appreciated was the discussion of the doll Barbie herself. Barbie arrives in the Real World thinking she’s empowered women everywhere and that they’ll all be grateful to her, so she’s taken aback when she hears Sasha’s opinions about the unrealistic standards Barbie sets for women.
To a certain extent, both Barbie and Sasha are correct. Barbie was originally created to empower young girls and show them they can become anything they want to be. However, Barbie’s unrealistic body standards send the message that in order to be successful women must be thin and attractive, and all of Barbie’s achievements can put too much of women’s worth in what they achieve rather than simply who they are as people. As a result, Barbie has caused insecurity and comparison for many women, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t redeemable.
At the end of the film, Gloria suggests creating an Ordinary Barbie, an idea that’s applauded by other characters and further sends the message to the audience that individuality should be celebrated and no one should feel pressure to live up to a certain standard.
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are currently showing in theaters
Esther Fultz is a senior Social Work major and the Off Campus Editor for Cedars. When she’s not writing or editing for Cedars she enjoys thrifting, making coffee, exploring new places, and spending time with friends.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Universal Pictures. Header created by Ben Konuch.