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Barbenheimer – A Coincidental Fantasy and the End of the World
In his recent appearance on Lex Friedman’s podcast, Yuval Noah Harari makes this point again and again: storytelling is the most powerful tool we have.
For example, Harari says, “If you go to Jerusalem, it’s an ordinary place. But then you have the stories about the place. And it’s the stories that people fight over.”
In this context, it’s fascinating to consider the power contained in the story that has unexpectedly overtaken pop culture: The story of Barbenheimer.
Barbenheimer is Barbie (hot blonde! fun in the sun!) plus Oppenheimer (“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”). Two huge movies released on the same day. Two huge movies that couldn’t be more different. Two huge movies that, slammed together by pure coincidence, perfectly capture the essence of this moment in time.
When reading about Barbenheimer, articles on the topic tend to boil the phenomenon down to a single question: In what order do you watch the two movies? The consensus seems to be that you watch Barbie first followed by Oppenheimer.
It’s not an entirely stupid question, since the movie viewed first will surely color the mood of the second. And the movie viewed second will color the memory of the entire experience in full—and possibly your view of the world going forward.
Both movies are about objects. The one being a doll, the other being a bomb. Both objects are potentially extraordinarily harmful or, if used wisely, extraordinarily benign or even beneficial. Barbie dolls can bring joy, but can also perpetuate negative stereotypes and cause body image issues. Nuclear bombs can destroy civilizations, but can also institute peace between antagonistic governments.
It comes down to how each object is put into a story.
In terms of the two movies about the objects, again, what’s fascinating is the combination of the Barbie story and the Oppenheimer story. The combination is immediately compelling—particularly as a visual. The Barbenheimer fan art is utterly delightful.
But beyond the aesthetics, it’s the emergent story of Barbenheimer that’s truly the powerful thing. The story of the two films combined speaks to a frivolous, consumer-based lifestyle lived out in the context of an overshadowing impending doom. It’s the experience of scrolling through Instagram and seeing hot models in bikinis juxtaposed with war images from Ukraine. It’s a fancy cocktail served poolside juxtaposed with an image from a funeral. It’s an elaborate vacation photoshoot (which might in fact be staged—totally fake) juxtaposed with someone’s cancer diagnosis (which also might be a complete fabrication for social clout).
This oscillation from one extreme to another is the central feature of metamodernism. Technically, the oscillation described by metamodernism is between a modernist conception of reality and a postmodernist conception. Or, colloquially, it’s the oscillation between sincerity and irony.
In the case of Barbenheimer, Barbie is the ironic, postmodern way of looking at life while Oppenheimer offers a heavy dose of sincerity. Watching both films (or just holding the idea of them both in your head at the same time) puts you right on the vortex of our metamodern era.
Back to Harari’s point: storytelling is the most powerful tool we have. A tool for what? Ultimately, a tool for making sense of reality, even if it’s mostly a fantasy.
And of course it’s mostly a fantasy. Ultimately, according to Harari, the best storytellers are not the Hollywood screenwriters, but the bankers. They created the story that money has value, which is the story that drives our entire civilization. And as Brooks Barnes wrote for The New York Times, “In Barbie vs. Oppenheimer, the real winner may be the box office.” So before the world ends (before, that is, one or another of our stories concludes with a real-world apocalypse), go out and buy those tickets.
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