Stop calling it ‘Barbenheimer’

What do the two largest summer blockbusters this year have in common? They both teach us about women and society.

You have no doubt heard the ugly portmanteau “Barbenheimer” multiple times by now. If you have not—lucky you—all you need to know is that it refers to the fact that Oppenheimer and Barbie, two long-awaited summer blockbusters from Hollywood, are out on the same day, could not, by their subject, be more different, and yet get along gleefully.

Explosive intros

Oppenheimer is about the physicist who headed the Manhattan project in the US towards the end of WWII that gave us the atom bomb. And Barbie is a ruthless (but not ruthless enough in my opinion) commentary on the patriarchy. Both were headed by well-known directors: Chris Nolan on the former and Greta Gerwig on the latter.

In every sense two films of this stature-by-association releasing together should have spelt war at the box office but these have been welcomed on equal footing by nearly everyone. I say nearly because some people (read, self-declared alpha males) took offence to Barbie.

Above all else you might think that a film about science, politics, vendettas and our penchant for the destruction of our own species would make a more powerful statement about who we are as humankind versus a film starring a plastic toy from 1959 that has been on the brink of being outdated for about ten years now, with its maker Mattel constantly re-inventing it. But no, Barbie still seems to threaten some people’s ‘manhood’ and turn others off since it’s all ‘lefty political moralising’. This entire comment thread is hilarious. If you are interested, I wrote about my own thoughts and self-reflections in an essay after I watched the film.

Ben the jester

To understand all the faults with the Barbie film, let us look to the manliest man in existence, the conservative guru Ben Shapiro. To prove his point—and possibly to show how manly he is—he employed the caveman-like tactic of burning a plastic doll and streaming it on YouTube. Ladies and gentlemen, take note.

To begin, let us remind ourselves that the 39-year-old Mr Shapiro either walked into a store and bought a Barbie doll sometime last week, or his Amazon order history now includes a Barbie doll. This is fine, there is nothing wrong in buying a Barbie doll.

Mr Shapiro called the Barbie film “one of the worst movies” he’d ever seen. That’s fine too; that’s his opinion. He then said it was a film intended for “young and middle-aged mothers and their daughters”. The middle-aged bloke who bought Barbie dolls for a YouTube video said the Barbie film was for young and middle-aged mothers and their daughters.

Mr Shapiro’s takeaway from the film apparently was that “the only way you can have a happy world is if the women ignore the men and the men ignore the women.” Which is probably why he burnt a Ken doll too along with the Barbie doll. (Did he do this in one take? Did he have spare Barbie dolls in case he messed something up or if the fire was too feminine for his taste? Where are the spare Barbies now, Ben?)

Loud in their absence

On the other hand, Oppenheimer never set out to talk about women but spoke loudly through their conspicuous absence. There are not too many women physicists. Women make up only about 20% of physics graduates even today. Professors at the University of Pittsburgh blame this on “societal stereotypes and biases, expectation of brilliance, lack of role models and chilly culture of physics”.

You may argue, not entirely incorrectly, that as a work of art exclusively about Oppenheimer and nobody else (which was also marketed as such), Oppenheimer did not owe us factual correctness or social commentary. Not too many famous women physicists were involved in the Manhattan project (more likely because of prevalent biases, not their competence) and Nolan’s script does not necessarily test the women in its cast (all of them supporting) any worse than society already did back then, but it should get us talking about one physicist more than anyone else; and she should have at least been mentioned in the film: Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission theoretically based on Einstein’s work.

Meitner is held in high regard in the physics community today. She was immensely respected even back in her day—but only within the physics community. The likes of Bohr (present in the film) and Planck (vaguely referred to in the film) voted for Meitner to win the physics Nobel a total of 84 times. She never won. And the film Oppenheimer never mentioned her either. She also never partook in the Manhattan project and this was of her own accord. She wanted to have nothing to do with the bomb and spent her life campaigning against nuclear arms. This is of course not a black-and-white issue (someone would have built a bomb eventually; it was only a matter of time) and was driven by personal preference more than anything.

Takeout time

The takeaway, at the end of the day, remains the absence of women in Chris Nolan’s film which serves as a stark reminder that a lot needs to be done, even today, to ensure more women are encouraged to be a part of the sciences.

Whereas Barbie is wholesomely in the face about women’s issues and Oppenheimer unintentionally speaks of women in science, their combined effect is most welcome: the stage is set sufficiently well for dialogue and action for women’s empowerment out here in the real world.

Let’s get started.

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