Barbenheimer was insensitive, actually
A few days before the 78th anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the hashtag #NoBarbenheimer started gaining popularity in Japan, demanding an end to the most viral trend of the summer: Barbenheimer. The buzzword was created by fans on social media embracing the simultaneous releases of the two diverging blockbusters, Barbie and Oppenheimer, produced by Warner Bros and Universal Studios, respectively. It then turned into a media firestorm – with hashtags, memes, t-shirts, all serving as unpaid promotion for both films – and fueling a global zeitgeist that is now more exploitative than entertaining. Barbenheimer is truly the definition of overkill.
People – critics, commentators, fans, etc – apparently feel Barbenheimer marks a "cultural moment," reviving the appeal of going to the movie theatre globally and showing how cross-marketing competing films can eschew bitter capitalist rivalry and lead to a "two is better than one" situation. It is undoubtedly a major moment in pop culture but it's also a telling testimony regarding present culture: how toxic positivity in mainstream media drives a runaway train to regions where sensibilities are nowhere to be found.
The #NoBarbenimer moment in Japan, where Oppenheimer has not yet been scheduled for release, is a valid call to take a step back and reassess what we are doing. It came about after Warner Bros retweeted a viral Barbenheimer meme, featuring Margot Robbie (as Barbie) atop the shoulders of Cillian Murphy (as J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb), against a backdrop of the mushroom cloud. Barbie's producers, while marketing a movie as being feminist, went on to promote co-marketing that entailed making "harmless fun" out of the first and only use of an atomic bomb. The Japanese subsidiary of Warner Bros criticised this publicly as being "extremely regrettable."
The truth is, the reason behind the blind spot in our social awareness, persisting till date, lies in the fact that the US has not yet had a moral awakening regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is undoubtedly a deliberate amnesia regarding these existential horrors.
The US division did immediately issue an apology. But the fact that they egregiously embraced the tone-deaf meme as part of their marketing campaign implies two things: Hollywood's money-making knows no boundaries, and the mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has clearly not yet entered the laundry list of the topics that require our social awareness.
We live in the age of cancel culture, where people are very "woke" and hyper-sensitive to what we can or cannot joke about. It's not socially acceptable to make jokes about Nazis or the Holocaust or 9/11, for example. So why is it okay to make jokes about the bombing of two major cities in Japan?
Barbenheimer has revealed a blind spot in our history-citing activism today. Persecution of civilians in conflict is on the list of topics that the current global culture deems "serious." But somehow, the moral implications of the most grotesque bombings in history are not yet acknowledged with the same seriousness.
The memes, some AI-generated and some made by humans, include the orange hues of the nuclear attacks. Some show Mattel studios with grey fumes behind them, others have pink-washed the mushroom clouds – all of which dissolves the message, or debates, offered in both films into a meaningless reincarnation of Hollywood's sensationalist glam and glitz. Pink clouds depicting a nuclear attack will definitely not take down the patriarchy – which is the underlying theme of Barbie. And showing Oppenheimer carrying a doll on his back while the atom bomb he made explodes in the background glosses over the guilt of the scientist, and the conflict between science and politics captured in Nolan's film.
Not to be a party-pooper, but over 200,000 Japanese civilians died in those flaming clouds; the actual number of casualties from the lingering radiation is still unknown.
There's a fundamental issue with the concept of co-marketing a subversive satire about the world's most popular doll with a historical biopic about the scientist who made the most destructive weapon ever used in war. Oppenheimer is a very tricky, consequential film, grappling with a moral dilemma that still haunts US history: whether the scientists and the politicians had a real sense of the indiscriminate damage that it would cause and whether Japan would have surrendered even if the bomb had not been dropped. The official Strategic Bombing Surveys in 1946 concluded that Japan would have surrendered irregardless, leading to unresolved debates as to whether the bombings were war crimes fueled unscrupulously by the arms race with the Soviet Union.
Some critics have speculated whether the insensitivity fuels Nolan's Oppenheimer itself, which did not feature the bombings from the Japanese perspective. Nolan has said that showing the bombings would "depart from Oppenheimer's experience and betray the terms of storytelling." The scientist learned about the atom bomb on the radio, and the three-hour film adopts a personal prism, portraying the mix of accomplishments and guilt that Oppenheimer felt regarding the consequences of what he had created. Hollywood's tendency to create films from the perspective of White men, while demoralising the lived experiences of Asian people, is one that should be discussed. But the fact is, relevant debates have faded into the background because of the craze, and people seem more interested to know if Cillian Murphy would be open to playing the role of Ken in a Barbie sequel.
The truth is, the reason behind the blind spot, persisting till date, lies in the fact that the US has not yet had a moral awakening regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is undoubtedly a deliberate amnesia regarding these existential horrors. On May 18, US President Joe Biden travelled to Hiroshima to meet with G7 leaders. He said nothing about the bombing when visiting the peace memorial. Neither did he meet with survivors. Biden, who talks about atonement and says what great nations do is come to terms with their dark sides, still seems to not have come to terms with the dark history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nolan's film ends with Oppenheimer telling Einstein that they've started a chain reaction that could destroy the world. That chain reaction is still very relevant, as the Russia-Ukraine war continues,and the US and China continue to lock horns in a new Cold War. The same "race war" between the Soviets and the US that unleashed cataclysmic power is not beyond the threats lurking in the current bottleneck geopolitical climate. So, instead of stretching the memory-hole of the bombings with Barbenheimer, it's time for us to use this moment to learn from the worst of humanity.
Ramisa Rob is a journalist at The Daily Star.