University of Maryland cinema and media studies professors gathered Friday to offer their thoughts on the recent “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.
Both Warner Bros.’ Barbie and Universal Pictures’ Oppenheimer were released on July 21. Social media users latched onto the irony that these films with polar opposite tones were being released simultaneously, giving way to the “Barbenheimer” sensation.
The roundtable, hosted by this university’s Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies and the cinema and media studies’ department, aimed to discuss why the Barbenheimer phenomenon came about and how it redefined the movie-going landscape.
Panelists analyzed the feminist messaging in each film, outlined where plot points fell flat and offered perspectives on what “Barbenheimer” will mean for the film industry moving forward.
Kate Keane, the history department’s assistant director of undergraduate studies, discussed how the themes of Barbie played off of those in Oppenheimer — creating more connection between their contrasting tones than audiences may have expected.
“As I watched the films, I thought about the way they were speaking to each other,” Keane said.
Both Barbie and Oppenheimer touched on topics such as “motherhood, marriage and sex,” Keane said. Oppenheimer indirectly addressed women’s sexuality in the 1950s through its characterization of Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock.
Tatlock struggled with her sexuality in real life, but that was never touched on in the film. Nolan has a “spotty track record” for his portrayal of female characters, but the exclusion of Tatlock’s identity spoke to how heteronormative 1950s were, Keane said.
The Barbie doll was released in a time period when most women were expected to be married and have families, which contrasted the film’s Barbie, who shows little interest in Ken and rejects his pursuits. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, features ’50s-style married women, but still highlights the “frustrated housewife” role.
Keane added that motherhood was portrayed as unfulfilling in both films through the treatment of Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, and Midge, a perpetually pregnant Barbie doll.
“We see Kitty, she has children, she doesn’t seem all that thrilled about it. Jean doesn’t have children. But Barbie doesn’t either,” Keane said. “She has a dream house that is a single woman’s paradise — filled with cool outfits with a swimming pool. And the one doll that does follow that [motherhood path] is ‘Poor Midge, pregnant Midge. She was a huge failure.’”
Other panelists criticized Barbie for its underwhelming feminist messages and ending.
Associate history professor Melinda Baldwin explained that the film’s ending was a simple resolution and referred to Ken’s claims of never wanting to implement patriarchy in Barbie Land as a “cop-out.”
“The reaction that I had watching the movie was, my god: if only patriarchy were that fragile,” Baldwin added.
Barbie’s handling of feminist conversations were a key topic of discussion, with some panelists adding that radical ideas in the film were glossed over in favor of Ken-centric conversations.
Speakers also zoomed out to discuss the importance of Barbie’s success within the broader media industry. German studies and cinema and media studies professor Hester Baer felt Barbie made the patriarchy a “household word” around the world.
Barbie’s ability to top male-centered films like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to become the highest grossing film of 2023 so far was monumental for the entertainment industry, Baer said.
Old Greenbelt Theater executive director Caitlin McGrath said she saw a swell of audience members firsthand opening weekend thanks to “Barbenheimer”’s impact.
“At the theater, it was a huge deal. It really blew the doors off,” McGrath said.