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The Film Phenomenon of the Year: All About "Barbenheimer"

Pop Culture

July 26, 2023

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is no longer the festive tune of choice to be dragged out by radio stations just before Halloween; it’s 21 July 2023, when pop culture exploded and offered us a surplus of material for online content— we've had articles, memes, articles on memes, and, oh, apparently, a playlist. What we haven't had until this week is the polished cinematic masterpieces we've been promised for so long, and now the movie event of the year is yours for the booking.

Now that Barbenheimer is officially out in the world, we're celebrating its opening week with a deep-dive into the history of strange movie release dates, what the internet's reaction says about our current culture, and, of course, the memes.

The First Barbenheimer

Despite its pop culture freshness, this isn't the first time two very different films have been released on the same day. 18 July 2008 saw the absolutely iconic duo of Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight head to the silver screen for the first time. When all is said and done, I know which corner I'd rather be fighting in.

While the supposedly light and airy offerings of a jukebox musical and fashion doll fantasy biopic seem direct opposites to the gritty story of a crime-ridden city and the invention of the atom bomb, the core issues at play aren't actually all that far apart, as Kelly Scanlon writes for Far Out Magazine.

"Despite their obvious dichotomies, [Barbie and Oppenheimer] both deal with real-world struggles and existential paranoia. It’s the same with Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight. There are multiple parallels at play, like the intricate struggles faced by their respective characters.

"For example, consider Bruce Wayne’s enduring battle with his dual personas, a franchise-long exploration of his internal conflicts and moral dilemmas. When compared with Sophie’s journey in Mamma Mia!, we witness two characters perpetually navigating contrasting circumstances. Sophie, while seemingly confined to the idyllic Greek island, equally finds solace and purpose in its place."

— Kelly Scanlon, Far Out Magazine

So, despite the newness of Barbenheimer's chaotic satirical marketing, it actually calls back to Batman and his ABBA dancing pals. Who would have guessed? Maybe there's a Robert Pattinson-shaped Ken somewhere in the not-so distant future. A girl can dream!

Barbenheimer: feminism in action?

For the generation of women who grew up with #GirlBoss— although under a slightly different name— Barbie holds a nostalgic joy. It's easy, it's generic, and, with the internalised misogyny of pink-hating uprooted and thrown to the compost heap, a celebration of the gloriously pastel. While there's hope that Barbie will get a conversation rolling about gender equality in a very palatable way, there are definite hits and misses, as Macabasco writes for Vogue on the gap between the film's marketed message and Mattel abstaining from calling the film feminist:

"Making a movie about feminism when your corporate overlords can’t bring themselves to say the word seems like an impossible task— as is one doll brand reflecting all women, or one toy appealing to all girls, or one movie speaking to the multiplicities of contemporary gender identity, or indeed writing critically about a bubbly summer film that scores of viewers are bound to enjoy without hesitation."

— Lisa Wong Macabasco, Vogue

While far from perfect, examining Barbenheimer from a wider cultural lens, there's an opportunity to celebrate a subtle shift in entertainment. Despite suggestions that Barbie's timing is down to a feud between Warner Bros. and Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan, the memes have a different story to tell— one that points towards a brighter future for the fun, glamorous, and hyper-feminine.

Combining the creator of the atom bomb with America's IT girl of consumerism might feel a bit strange, but the online enthusiasm surrounding both of these films is worth giving some credit. While the feminine palate and history of Barbie could be expected to give way to the more violent, historical film extravaganza that is Oppenheimer, tempting the kind of film buffs that demand to be taken seriously and who themselves are made the butt of the joke through Gerwig's latest project, instead, the two have co-existed and birthed a beautiful internet love-child.

While Barbie's feminism falls short in some areas, the approach that fans have taken to interacting across genres and building a mutual excitement over movies spanning the aesthetic spectrum is a step in the right direction. Where the directorial and acting talent is this great, why fight when you can instead slip on a pair of pink fluffy heels and a black overcoat to have the time of your life?

It's not the definitive solution to the reluctance of many to embrace the label of feminist, and mass-market cinema offerings still have a long way to go towards embracing an interectionalist outlook, but this snapshot of culture gives a hopeful glimpse into the possible.

Silence your phones and get ready, it's time for The Memes

Carefully curated meme collections have abounded, from Twitter to The Tab and Cosmo. Apparently, the whole world's bowed down to the pop sensation. The internet's fast-paced reaction time is hilarious at best (and terrifying at worst) but for better or worse, Barbenheimer has seen the world group together around photoshopped atomic bombs over hot-pink dreamhouses, birthing a whole new viral sensation.

The creative undertakings of the masses in response to this day in cinematic history is a beautiful, strange, and unlikely thing. It's the event of the summer, and 2023 will forever be reminiscent of hot-pink Cilian Murphy and glitter bombs. As one of the lucky people to have headed to Barbie on opening day, I've got some catching up to do— if anyone needs me, I'll be studying up on nuclear power and ordering an overpriced black trench coat on Depop. I might not yet have the dreamhouse, but the dream summer is well underway!

Daisy Finch
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Writer since Jun, 2023 · 8 published articles

Daisy enjoys long walks on the beach, trashy books and every opinion piece she can get her hands on. When not hiding out in the library, she enjoys writing for online publications and heading to nearby fields for crafternoon meetings with friends.