A NEW phenomenon is sweeping the digital stratosphere – the movie double bill of Oppenheimer and Barbie, kitschily named on social media ‘Barbenheimer’.
A film about as grim a subject as the invention and deployment of the first atomic bomb seems a strange pairing with the story of a pink-clad plastic doll whose goal is to empower women. Barbie, manufactured by Mattel, has seen her status bolstered under licensing and distribution deals with the entertainment conglomerate Warner Brothers and an array of global brands including Chanel, showcasing their out-of-reach (to us mere mortals) products in almost every scene.
This feature combination is celebrated with a raft of memes and ever more camp fan-art (one poster depicting the surprised doll gazing up at a pink mushroom cloud), and reflects an established Hollywood marketing strategy called ‘counterprogramming’, where two seemingly contrasting films are released on the same day to lure the widest audience into cinemas.
However in our identity-driven rights-based culture, these two productions may share many complementary themes.
Barbie has ignited vitriolic debate pitting feminists against so-called reactionaries, and eliciting contempt from commentators such as Piers Morgan and Ben Shapiro who thrashed its scriptwriters for the overuse of trite third-wave dialogue including soapbox monologues on the difficulties of being female, oppression by the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Meanwhile conservative writer Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, like other Gen Xers, believes the ‘bros’ should take a chill pill and lighten up about the doll who wants to be human.
Barbie’s existential crisis can never be more than a rip-off of Pinocchio (as the only place a story about a doll can go), but instead of a longer nose she starts to sprout cellulite. ‘Barbenheimer’ trending taps into a fundamental uneasiness many have nowadays about a sneering elite who constantly reassure us that they only want what’s best for us, for the planet and of course to keep us all safe.
Barbie also toys with ideas of transcendence, redemption and overcoming collective shame. Embarking on a voyage to the real world after uncovering the threat of a mysterious force which threatens to destroy her girl-boss groomed paradise, she encounters rude, chauvinistic men and has to come to terms with the possibility that the fascist is the one in the mirror. It may be more angsty but is no less dark compared with Oppenheimer’s principal theme of the guilt which plagues the hero for creating a weapon of mass human extinction.
A Google search for Shapiro’s Barbie review leads you to wade through three pages of taunting ridicule; while he does seem bitter the point he makes is that the movie isn’t really appropriate for little girls. Alongside its schmaltzy scenes of the sisterhood and deep-voiced trans Barbie, overtly queer Kens embracing each other in Lycra and double entendres at the disco, some materialistic shallow and stereotypical gender roles are reinforced rather than rebutted.
It’s testament to the banal quality of such offerings that cinema-goers now feel compelled to wear fancy dress to see yet another round of box office bores and we can but yearn for the summer comedies of yesteryear (the funniest of which could not be produced today). Due to recent Ofcom ‘consumer protection’ rules, film makers can’t even make spoof shows like Borat, and Little Britain got cancelled after Black Lives Matter protests.
Nevertheless the absurd can be compelling in some way and ‘Barbenheimer’, with all that it implies, matches our newly carved landscape of awaiting an apocalyptic rebirth, whilst contenting ourselves with the crumbs of everything which represents what used to be hearty meatloaf.
The other day I stumbled across some clickbait on a relationship trend called ‘breadcrumbing’, where one partner throws the other a few texts here and there or bits of attention to keep them nibbling on the line. This epitomises our atomistic, self-actualisation-focused, narcissistic me-first culture. Is it any wonder some men might choose to lock themselves in a underwater pod (or a spaceship) and sink to the bottom of the sea (or jet off to the stars) rather than risk approaching a woman and be tarred a stalker or even a rapist?
Or that a woman might prefer to ‘come out’ as a gay man in order to secure free, reliable healthcare for herself and baby? Certainly the reinvention of self and exploration of bio or marine or galactic frontiers are the new dreamscapes capturing collective imagination that us all glued to the monitor for most of our waking lives now.
Why live in the real world when the fantasy is safer, and affords such better opportunities?