What Barbie can teach us about nuclear weapons (2024)

What Barbie can teach us about nuclear weapons (1)Photos courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures (Oppenheimer) and Warner Bros. (Barbie)

An unlikely meet-cute took the internet by storm when Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer were released on the same day: July 21, 2023.

In the buildup to what became known as “Barbenheimer,” social media filled with commentary on the unlikely pairing. Twitter threads debated the perfect order and schedule for seeing the two films, while memes and TikTok videos played with the apparent radical differences between Barbie hot pink and Oppenheimer ash. The Barbenheimer dichotomy revealed interesting and highly political insights into the popular understanding of nuclear weapons.

Opposites attract. Barbie and Oppenheimer seemed to occupy two extremes. As the director of the Manhattan Project and “father of the bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer embodies American hard power: weapons and warfighting capability. A child’s plaything and fictional “it girl,” Barbie embodies American soft power: shaping culture through attraction and appeal.

Barbenheimer is not a joke to everyone. In Japan, where Oppenheimer has not been released, the Barbenheimer mash-up has been criticized for making light of the weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To a scholar of popular culture and nuclear weapons, there are many interesting layers to the Barbenheimer phenomenon. Where memes and TikToks played on points of radical difference—in color, schedule, and subject matter—there were underlying assumptions about nuclear weapons and war to be unpacked.

Because nuclear weapons and war are far removed from public scrutiny and debate, the public comes to learn about these weapons through film, television, and video games.

Barbenheimer memes offer a unique insight into the popular imagination of nuclear weapons and war. Though easily dismissed as frivolous, these memes should be read as deeply political. They are a rare window into the tone, mood, and narrative of nuclear weapons among the next generation. They can reveal what is assumed, what is feared, and what is unknown.

Color contrast. The first point of comparison at the heart of Barbenheimer is color. Many jokes juxtapose or merge the hot pink, associated with the Barbie brand, with black—the color that has come to represent Oppenheimer. Encountering the strange coupling of pink and black feels unsettling and out of place, and many people found humor in highlighting the paradoxical pairing.

Barbenheimer car! pic.twitter.com/4tlVMePprX

— Greg (@gwiss) July 20, 2023

It is notable that black seems to be universally associated with Oppenheimer, given that one could just as easily imagine a fiery red or radioactive green. Perhaps black better connotes the seriousness or morbidity of the Manhattan Project. It suggests a black hole, a black box, a dark pit in public knowledge about nuclear weapons. Neither fire nor radioactivity immediately come to mind. Instead, there is a deep abyss—an absence of the ability to imagine nuclear weapons and war.

RELATED:Oppenheimer’s second coming

The gendering of this comparison will not come as a surprise to most readers. Barbie is stereotyped and marketed as a “girl’s toy,” with Ken dolls and G.I. Joe filling a market gap that allowed boys to play with dolls without risking their masculinity. Nuclear weapons are also starkly gendered in policy discourse, as well as in the media and popular culture. These gendered narratives are reinforced, even exaggerated, by Barbenheimer.

Relying on the juxtaposition of difference, Barbenheimer constructs a clear binary between what is deemed feminine and what is deemed masculine. While one may be welcomed as a Barbie girl in a Barbie world, they would be silenced or shunned in the “real world” of nuclear weapons and war.

Schedule conflicts. As well as color, a second point of comparison was the trend of sharing Barbenheimer viewing schedules online. This trend invited online debates over whether one should watch Barbie and then Oppenheimer, or the reverse. Barbenheimer schedules associated the mood and connotations of different foods, drinks, and activities with each film. For example, “black coffee and Oppenheimer” in the morning, followed by “Barbie and co*cktails” to end the day.

people seeing barbie first are wild. the schedule needs to be
black coffee and a cigarette
oppenheimer around 11 (its 3 hours)
mimosas and brunch
barbie around 6/7
dinner, drinks, club https://t.co/oRxWJmE2xm

— trish (@ULTRAGLOSS) June 26, 2023

Humor here relies upon strong and shared cultural associations and conventions—for instance, the consensus that black coffee is a strong and serious drink, while co*cktails are fun and flippant. Femininity becomes associated with a lack of seriousness and a carefree lifestyle preoccupied with trivial dramas such as dating and fashion. Masculinity is constructed as opposite to and incompatible with femininity, imagined as serious and defined by complex strategy, trade-offs, and moral dilemmas.

RELATED:Responsible science: What Sam Altman can learn (and not learn) from Nobel and Oppenheimer

While it is funny to play on stark differences, the Barbenheimer memes definitively place nuclear weapons and war in a man’s world. This excuses, and even encourages, women to turn their attention away from these issues.

The gender divide. Having now watched both films, I fear that this gender divide has only become wider. Hailed as a feminist tale of matriarchy and girl power, Barbie challenged and expanded the boundaries of what is deemed feminine. Oppenheimer, true to history, filled laboratories with white men (with brief dialogue encouraging the film’s only female physicist to resign due to the unknown impacts of radiation on the female body). Significant contributions made by women were ignored. Women otherwise appeared as wives and girlfriends, unsurprisingly not passing the Bechdel test—which measures how many women characters are named in a film, and what they talk about.

Barbenheimer. 2023 ✍🏽#Barbie #Oppenheimer pic.twitter.com/aeKpxE1qH9

— JustRalphy (@JustRalphyyy) July 3, 2023

Ultimately, Barbenheimer teaches us that popular culture—starkly and uncritically—defines the nuclear realm as masculine. To be taken seriously in a world of nuclear weapons and war, women must adapt and conform; they must take off those pink heels and wear the black suit.

While it would be wonderful if Oppenheimer renewed public interest in nuclear issues, I would be concerned if this interest came only from a fascination with the hyper-masculine things that go boom.

What Barbie can teach us about nuclear weapons (2024)

FAQs

What Barbie can teach us about nuclear weapons? ›

Ultimately, Barbenheimer teaches us that popular culture—starkly and uncritically—defines the nuclear realm as masculine. To be taken seriously in a world of nuclear weapons and war, women must adapt and conform; they must take off those pink heels and wear the black suit.

Why should we learn about nuclear weapons? ›

Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth. One can destroy a whole city, potentially killing millions, and jeopardizing the natural environment and lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects.

What is the biggest threat from nuclear weapons? ›

Long-term effects. In the long-term, nuclear weapons produce ionizing radiation, which kills or sickens those exposed, contaminates the environment, and has long-term health consequences, including cancer and genetic damage.

What was the top secret US led efforts to build the first nuclear weapon? ›

The Manhattan Project was an unprecedented, top-secret World War II government program in which the United States rushed to develop and deploy the world's first atomic weapons before Nazi Germany.

What do we know about nuclear weapons? ›

Nuclear weapons release ionizing radiation as a result of the uncontrolled chain reaction of fissile materials. Exposure to radiation—including fallout from nuclear explosions—causes acute and long-term illnesses that are often deadly, as well as genetic and inter-generational health effects.

Why do the US need nuclear weapons? ›

In addition to deterrence and assurance, the United States historically has committed to achieving its political and military objectives if nuclear deterrence fails by having the will to use its nuclear weapons in war.

Why is it important for us to learn about nuclear reactions? ›

Understanding these reactions can help answer questions about the origins of the elements around us. As important as these reactions are, they are extremely difficult, or in many cases impossible, to measure directly because many nuclei that participate in these reactions are radioactive.

Is the U.S. making a new nuclear weapon? ›

The U.S. is building new nuclear weapons, including a massive missile called the Sentinel. They're up to 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The program could cost more than $130 billion.

Who has the biggest nuke? ›

Tsar Bomba, Soviet thermonuclear bomb that was detonated in a test over Novaya Zemlya island in the Arctic Ocean on October 30, 1961. The largest nuclear weapon ever set off, it produced the most powerful human-made explosion ever recorded.

Which country has the most powerful nuclear weapons? ›

Top 10 Countries with Most Powerful Nuclear Weapons in the World
  • Russia. Russia has the largest number of nuclear weapons in the world. ...
  • America. ...
  • France. ...
  • China. ...
  • Britain. ...
  • Pakistan. ...
  • India. ...
  • North Korea.
Apr 17, 2024

Who is #1 in nuclear weapons? ›

Five are considered to be nuclear-weapon states (NWS) under the terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In order of acquisition of nuclear weapons, these are the United States, Russia (the successor of the former Soviet Union), the United Kingdom, France, and China.

What are 5 things you know about nuclear energy? ›

Here are five fast facts to get you up to speed:
  • Nuclear power plants produced 772 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2022. ...
  • Nuclear power provides nearly half of America's clean energy. ...
  • Nuclear energy is one of the most reliable energy sources in America. ...
  • Nuclear helps power 28 U.S. states.
Mar 23, 2021

Do nuclear weapons prevent war? ›

The study determined that nuclear weapons promote strategic stability and prevent large-scale wars but simultaneously allow for more low intensity conflicts. If a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, and one state has nuclear weapons and its opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war.

Why is it important to learn about nuclear energy? ›

Nuclear is the largest source of clean power in the United States. It generates nearly 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year and produces more than half of the nation's emissions-free electricity.

What is the importance of nuclear bomb? ›

Nuclear weapons produce enormous explosive energy. Their significance may best be appreciated by the coining of the words kiloton (1,000 tons) and megaton (1,000,000 tons) to describe their blast energy in equivalent weights of the conventional chemical explosive TNT.

Why do we need to test nuclear weapons? ›

Testing nuclear weapons offers practical information about how the weapons function, how detonations are affected by different conditions, and how personnel, structures, and equipment are affected when subjected to nuclear explosions.

Should the world have nuclear weapons? ›

Nuclear weapons have no place in the modern world, and there is no justification for their proliferation, testing and stockpiling. Their destructive power has fueled international tensions and created an uncertain, unsafe world.

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