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What We Missed About the Whole “Barbenheimer” Controversy
And What It Tells Us About Men And Women
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I bought into the “Barbenheimer” media hype and saw the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies within a few days of each other. The idea was that, in the same opening weekend, one should see both the uplifting and fun-filled film sponsored by Mattel immediately following the three-hour biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb.” Margot Robbie said it was something like having a steak dinner followed by an ice cream—one purportedly deep and complex experience followed by a light-hearted journey into a fantasyland of pink hues and plastic people.
That was not my experience.
First of all, credit where credit’s due: the Barbie movie got me thinking.
Seemingly, it was an attempt at subverting everything from traditional gender roles to what toys tell us about the world we’re living in and how we all, whether we like it or not, may be pawns in a grander scheme. But I didn’t like it.
A salt-of-the-earth friend from Oklahoma reminded me that this was sort of the point. Was I, a forty-year-old man, supposed to enjoy a movie about a girl’s toy come to life? Still, I found the whole thing confusing and therefore frustrating. My wife and I walked away from the theater with entirely different experiences: I thoroughly confused and she quite satisfied.
“I appreciated it for the art that it was,” she told me as we exited the theater together.
But I, on the other hand, did not know what the hell I had just seen. And this, as is often the case for me, sent me on an existential quest.
A Fake Land Full of Plastic People
No one in the Barbie movie, even the so-called “real people” were all that real. At the highest point of drama in the film, an all-male executive team at Mattel headquarters runs around, clunkily chasing the plastic heroine in the same disjointed ways as the toys move. At least Barbie experiences some sort of personal transformation. Nonetheless, the film was a chaotic mess of conflicting themes and storylines.
Or so it seemed to me—a man.
After that, we waited a few days to see the Christopher Nolan epic. Initially, we had wanted to hold out for the 70-millimeter IMAX experience; but after a few days of impatience, we caved and settled for the really, really big screen with Dolby sound. If it was so great, I figured, we could go back and see the IMAX version after the opening week frenzy died down.
I had high expectations for the film, as people were talking it up, saying it was giving audiences nightmares and that it was clearly Nolan’s magnum opus. Bracing ourselves for anything, we bought our second tub of popcorn for the week, settled in for another show, and waited for something to happen.
Nothing really did.
I just wasn’t impressed. Was it visually stunning? Sure. Did the confluence of so many lives and storylines into a history-defining moment feel impactful? Yes, of course; but I’d read up on all that before seeing the movie, so none of it was new to me. The storytelling was choppy and uneven, the characters felt thin, and the ending was more than a little melodramatic. The most obvious message—that the man who helped bring atomic energy into the world spent the rest of his life trying to undo what he’d just done—was certainly fascinating but also got lost in the time-hopping and everything else that was trying to happen.
It was a fine film, but only just “fine.” Even though it spanned three hours, there were so many faces and names, so much happening, that by the end of Oppenheimer, I didn’t really believe in or understand any of the characters.
Stunned by my own dissatisfaction with these two films that had just broken all theatrical attendance records since before the pandemic, I wondered what I was missing. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
My quest turned to the quagmire of online film reviews, where I read everything from how each was bound to win an Oscar (for very different reasons, mind you) to how pundits were protesting hidden messages from the “woke” mob in Hollywood—and all other assorted nonsense. None of it was satisfying. All I saw were reactions to reactions.
Maybe, though, there was something to glean, tucked in between these two warring factions. Perhaps there was art to be found within the dichotomy. What if, I wondered, we could slow down all the controversy and contentious op-eds and look at each film as a complementary piece to a greater whole?
Maybe there was more to see.
This Is About Men and Women (But Not)
First, let’s take a look at Barbie.
On the surface, this is a story about a toy who lives in a land where all the girls are named “Barbie” and all the boys named “Ken.” One morning, Barbie awakes with sudden and startling thoughts of death, which she attempts to push aside but cannot. Eventually, the toy is forced to embark on a journey into the “real world” to find the person playing with her so she can get back to being “normal” (that is, not having a care in the world).
As you would expect, hijinks ensues, and she ultimately changes for the better by the end of the film. Most of the supporting characters have a similar, albeit lesser, arc. It is, essentially, the story of a fake girl becoming a real woman—a feminine Pinocchio, as it were. And of course, there are lots of layers beneath all that. But that’s the basic gist.
Now, let’s dig in to Oppenheimer.
Here is a tale of a gifted but flawed physicist whose task is to lead a team of brilliant minds to create the first atomic bomb. He and his cohorts are told that the Germans are planning the same, so they must rush to beat them in hopes of winning World War II. As we all know now, the U.S. never did drop a bomb on Germany but, in fact, dropped two on Japan, the result of which was the end of the war but the beginning of a whole new, terrifying reality. Not long after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the United States entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union, and the Cold War began. Today, we live in the shadow of this singular event, due in part to the life of one man.
Oppenheimer is a relentless chainsmoker, always seen with cigarette in hand, nervously bouncing from one task to the next. He is a fan of ancient mythology and dead languages and happens to have a Communist mistress. After the dropping of the bomb, he becomes somewhat of an activist against atomic warfare and loses his security clearance. He dies of throat cancer. The film is a tragedy, a tale of unintended consequences and how once you let Pandora out of the box, there’s no putting her back in.
So, there you have it. One story is about a toy who becomes a woman, and the other about a man who nearly destroys the world and, in realizing what he’s done, destroys himself. These are two stories about men and women; but neither is about men and women, and that is significant.
Allow me to explain.
In Barbie, there are no real men. There are a bunch of Kens who run around, fawning over plastic girls, the sole object of their desire. My wife told me this is often what it feels like to be a girl, only reversed. By the end of the film, the main Ken (played by Ryan Gosling) seems no more real than at the beginning. Only now, he is robotically mimicking a mantra Barbie has given him in hopes of setting the poor man free from his bondage. “Ken is me!!!” he shouts while whisking down a slide, exiting Barbie’s dream house.
Still, once you get to the “real world” of the film, most of what you see are L.A. beach bodies and a board of stodgy directors. I don’t think any of this is unintentional. The two supporting female characters, a daughter and mother, are the most “real” people in the film. But even they don’t reveal much. Together, they accompany Barbie on her journey back to Barbie Land and help her restore the matriarchy, albeit with a few alterations after the Kens have attempted to take it over and turn it into a horse-worshiping patriarchy. Nothing, not even the real world, seems all that real in this film. Everything is inflated, projected, and fantastical.
Similarly, in Oppenheimer, there are no “real” women. The females in the film are largely limited to an unstable housewife and a political radical who kills herself after the protagonist tells her that he can no longer see her. That’s basically it, with the exception of a few women scientists and a number of anonymous wives who join the men on their quest to defeat the Nazis. It is, for all intents and purposes, a story about men trying to stop other men from blowing up the world. And whether or not they succeed is questionable.
By the end of Barbie, you have a toy who has become a woman and begins to exercise that freedom, albeit still confined by the inherent limitations of such a role. By the end of Oppenheimer, you have a man who has tried to save the world and might have accidentally destroyed it.
“Now I Am Become Death”
Years after the real-life events of the Manhattan Project, the real J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked what it was like to witness the testing of the first atomic weapon. In response, he recalled that some scientists and soldiers cried; others laughed; but most were silent. He recounted a line from The Bhagavad Gita where the Hindu god Krishna appears to the warrior Arjuna in his terrible, many-armed form, declaring, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” In regards to the test site, Oppenheimer said, “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
I studied the “Gita” in college; it was taught my first year by a big-bellied, full-bearded professor who reminded me of Santa Claus. At the time, the short text was a confounding piece of literature for my Western mind. But it has been something I’ve returned to over the years. Still unpacking all the layers of such a sacred story, what I understand it to mean now is that wherever we are in life, all we can do is surrender to what is before us.
In the tale, Krishna—that is, a manifestation of the “all”—is telling Arjuna, a warrior reluctant to fight, that he must go to battle. It is his duty. And, by the way, Krishna tells him, time is a circle and it’s all been done before, so what does it matter, anyway? He himself, the God who is all things, includes even those soldiers who are yet to be slain and the time that brings about all inevitabilities:
Thou seest Me as Time who kills,
Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There stands not one shall leave alive the battlefield! Dismayed
No longer be! Arise! obtain renown! destroy thy foes!
Fight for the kingdom waiting thee when thou hast vanquished those.
By Me they fall—not thee! the stroke of death is dealt them now,
Even as they show thus gallantly; My instrument art thou!
Strike, strong-armed Prince, at Drona! at Bhishma strike! deal death
On Karna, Jyadratha; stay all their warlike breath!
'Tis I who bid them perish! Thou wilt but slay the slain;
Fight! they must fall, and thou must live, victor upon this plain!
As he appears to the young warrior, the transfigured deity is saying that everything is one. It all belongs, and what we humans can do is only what is ours to do. This is the Hindu concept of dharma, of doing one’s duty. If you are a soldier, you fight. If you are a preacher, you preach. If you are a scientist with the capability of creating atomic weapons that can kill hundreds of thousands of people in one fell swoop, well, I suppose you do that. At least, that might have been what was going through Oppie’s mind at the time.
But what does it mean, “Now, I am become death”? It doesn’t mean, “Blow up the world.” Rather, it means that all of life is connected. We are all part of one cosmic organism, relying on each other to survive. What the ancient Indian understanding of reality tells us that we often miss in the West is that balance is assumed. According to such a worldview, there are two major forces always at work in the world. Call them whatever you like. Order and chaos. Yin and yang. Masculine and feminine. The words don’t matter as much as the meaning behind them. The idea is that there are always two opposites at odds with one another but secretly in collaboration. And through that duality, the universe is created and held together.
Krishna is saying to Arjuna: “I am both of these things—the living and the dead, the warrior and the slain. I am all of it. There’s no need to hesitate doing what must be done. It will be okay.” If you try to reconcile this in your mind, you won’t be able. At least, I cannot. It is a paradox to experience, not a concept to grasp. Such is always the case with nonduality. According to the Hindu mind, this is all part of lila—the divine dance of creation. All of reality is simply God experiencing Godself. What can we do, then, but surrender to the playfulness of it all, the levity in such seemingly stressful clashes? Light and dark, good and bad, male and female—these opposites inform and define each other—and within that field of magnetic pulls, we experience the energy that allows us to live and breathe and have our being.
So what does that have to do with Barbenheimer?
Then again, it might mean that When Harry Met Sally was right. Maybe men and women cannot be friends. Maybe they will never fully understand each other (or why they like the movies they do). These two energies just might be irreconcilable; and that may be precisely what is needed. Without the masculine, you have nothing that is “real.” Only fantasies unfolding into other make-believe worlds. Without the feminine, you have mass extinction. One literally cannot exist without the other.
As I write this, my wife is washing the baseboards in our kitchen. Later in the day, she will pick up my daughter from school and I will bring home some dinner after she takes a long nap, recovering from an illness. We’ll settle into bed together, and I’ll read to her as she falls asleep, and we’ll spend the rest of the night holding each other.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but we need each other. That much is clear.
We could, of course, try to do all this on our own, and we might be successful; but that would be a lot less interesting and a lot less fun. In my experience, though, it is not enough to need one another—you have to want each other, too. And on this planet where these two forces keep solidifying their stances against one another, I wonder where that leaves us as a species. Maybe nowhere but to tell stories of total annihilation and absolute fantasy.
I hope we can do better.
P.S. Our friends and clients Justin and Londin wrote a book about sacred relationship, which offers another way of managing these conflicting energies, and recently released the audio version. Of course, it’s not for everyone (nothing is), but my wife and I highly recommend their work, especially if you’re tired of trying to talk your way through intimate conflicts.