Incluvie Foundation Gala - Learn More

‘Barbenheimer’: The Union of Diverse Filmgoers

Much more than a meme, 'Barbenheimer' actually diversifies viewer bases and spreads the important message of both films wider than they otherwise would have!

Apart from the fact that they’re both brilliant American screenwriters and directors, Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig don’t have much in common. Their filmographies couldn’t be more different. The Inception director is known for making intellectually intriguing large-scale films which tell expansive stories about enigmatic characters and often present like a puzzle for the viewer to solve. On the other hand, the Little Women director is known for making tender slice-of-life movies focused on one or a few ordinary people which explore the emotional and philosophical implications of patriarchy and the human condition itself. Not just that, their two latest films, Barbie and Oppenheimer are films about the world’s most famous doll and the world’s most famous weapon of mass destruction respectively. So, yes, on the face of it, the entire phenomenon of ‘Barbenheimer’, this joint hype for the two films because they’re releasing on the same day, is just a meme and an example of people getting lost in the sensationalism that comes with the growth of pop culture.

It works brilliantly as a marketing strategy for both films, representing our obsession with paradoxes and filmgoers’ love for claiming favourites amongst films. It also does something which neither film could have hoped to do alone – unite two seemingly disparate groups of filmgoers. A Greta Gerwig film draws a crowd of Indie film lovers and a large percentage of the viewers are women. Similarly, a Christopher Nolan film draws a crowd of people who enjoy large-scale intellectual exercises and is often majority male. Please note that these are gross generalizations and it’s entirely possible that there were theaters packed with men who watched Little Women or women who watched Interstellar. Nonetheless, these are representative statistics, and thanks to ‘Barbenheimer’ the two crowds crossed paths. But instead of waging war over which film is better and jeering at each other, they mostly decided to join hands and go see both!

[L-R]: Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer

Indie film fans who like slice of life pictures about society were filling up seats to watch a blockbuster-scale film about the father of the atomic bomb and his communist ties. Similarly, fans of challenging films about scientific discoveries and enigmas were showing up in large fractions to watch a film about Mattel’s most famous toy, and the way patriarchy has tarnished Barbie inventor, Ruth Handler’s, intention behind the doll. A sense of community was grown out of a box office clash and the viewer base of both films diversified quite organically. Nolan’s fans weren’t busy gatekeeping Oppenheimer by resorting to pseudo intellectual condescension because they were busy watching, and wait for it, enjoying Barbie! Greta’s fans weren’t busy claiming they’re superior because they enjoy lesser-known Indie films which have serious implications about society instead of chasing SciFi thrills because they were also discovering the merits of Nolan as a director. This is all thanks to ‘Barbenheimer’!

We live in a world of sensationalism, so of course the Barbie VS Oppenheimer debate is happening online amongst moviegoers who have seen both. But the fact that there’s so many who have seen both is very special to me as a fan of the community aspect of watching films in theaters. Fans of her previous works knew Barbie would be an exploration of the complicated but glorious nature of womanhood along with a side-note on what it means to be human. But a huge proportion of people watched the film with zero idea of what it would entail just because of the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon. And thanks to that, the beautiful and important message of Greta’s film is reaching far and wide. In fact, Barbie had a better opening box office weekend than Oppenheimer! Even if a lot of people went to watch the movie because their kids are excited about a Barbie movie or because Indie-esque cinema is becoming more popular (Everything Everywhere All At Once just won seven Oscars a few months ago), this is a staggering statistic that I would never have predicted.

[L-R]: Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig

Oppenheimer is part-biopic-part-courtroom-drama, and much like the huge viewership for Barbie, a lot of people went to watch it without knowing what it is. In fact, the trailers don’t reveal that there’s a important trial which the film will cover over the entirety of its closing act. ‘Barbenheimer’ has a new generation familiar with arguably the most famous trial broadcast and popularized in America in the 50’s. The closest modern examples might be Johnny Depp VS Amber Heard and the January 6 hearings popularized by pop culture. It’s a political film with a message about communism and doing the right thing. Maybe a story about bombing Hiroshima doesn’t say as much to everyone as a film which deconstructs patriarchy, but with a new threats of war looming on us thanks to the growing tensions amongst the nations, it is an important story to know. Division is frankly unavoidable, and Barbie’s commentary will probably not affect as many men as one might hope, but due to ‘Barbenheimer’, more people got exposed to it than would have originally, and that’s a major triumph!

Diversity on the screen is only important or impactful if it eventually helps people be more tolerable and accepting of diversity in the real world. Oppenheimer is a film that explores just how much of a villain Robert Oppenheimer really was and how much of his story has been conveniently fabricated by capitalist American media. Barbie is a film that explores why a capitalist toy which profits off of selling body image issues to children is somehow meaningful. Both will only be impactful if their messages are heard far and wide. A phenomenon like ‘Barbenheimer’ ensures this, by diversifying the viewer base, and I’m glad to know the stories have spread.