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From memes to communion: decoding "Barbenheimer"

"Barbenheimer" is an ironical name that actually hints at a deep human need.
"Barbenheimer" is an ironical name that actually hints at a deep human need.

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In the clever portmanteau that is "Barbie" plus "Oppenheimer," we have a bizarre phenomenon that only the Internet can contrive: Barbenheimer. The name may have been contrived ironically, contrasting two drastically different movies. But its existence speaks to a deep human truth echoed in our communities of faith: we need each other.

I’ll admit it - I wasn’t excited for either "Oppenheimer" or "Barbie" when they were first announced to air on the same date. I enjoy both Greta Gerwig’s and Christopher Nolan’s works well enough. Still, I’m not a huge historical buff - whether it comes to the harsh reality that is the atomic bomb or the consumer reality that is Mattel. I anticipated letting both of these films pass me by and only catching them on-demand if they scored high enough on iMDB. 

Then came the memes.

And - like the bomb and the doll both - it changed everything.

What’s the deal with Barbenheimer?

"Barbie" would be a fantastic exploration of consumerism and feminism as presented by the Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig and the star-studded cast including Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and the bizarre choice of Will Ferrell. 

"Oppenheimer" would be a realist historical biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist overseeing the Manhattan Project. It is directed by the also-Oscar-nominated Christopher Nolan and the similarly star-studded cast features Cillian Murphy, Florence Pugh, and Robert Downey, Jr. 

Two undoubtedly Oscar-bait films with seemingly polarized purposes. When it was revealed in a post-COVID world that the two films would air on the same date, July 21st, 2023, the Internet decided that the stark contrast between the two films was worth making viral.

It began innocently enough, with fans of either or both projects using counter-programming efforts to create fake promotional materials for the opposing film with a swapped color palette, and then evolved eventually into movie-goers imagining what that day would be like to experience both films back to back in a single visit to the theaters.

Thus, Barbenheimer would consume news feeds until Twitter decided to rebrand. It was a delightful time to be on the Internet, reminiscent of the 2020 mashup of "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" and "Doom Eternal’s" dual release date. 

Spot the Difference

The challenge that faces my work as a clergyperson on the edge of trending pop culture phenomena like this is to wrestle with the question: why did this trend take off and what can the church learn from it (if anything)? 

I tend to start my explorations within the community I’ve fostered these past three years at Checkpoint Church. What is the vibe in the room? Who is excited about which movie? Both movies? In what way are they excited? Is it really just for the memes? Is there something more to this?

Then, it becomes time for self-analysis: What do I personally experience in the midst of the phenomenon and in the experience of both films?

The truth I found at first is this: I’m not sure if the polarization is the meme at all. 

In fact, the lack of polarization might derive the most pleasure from this mashup.

I Am Become Barbenheimer

From the outside looking in, it would be easy to believe that "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are diametrically opposed to one another. And, perhaps someone from the Silent or Boomer generations or Generation X might experience each film differently since they “lived” them. 

But for the digital native - the ones behind the memes - Barbenheimer is a story of similarities, not differences. 

Both films are ultimately tragedies, even if "Barbie" might end on a punchline.

Both films are very real, even if they are dramatized for the screen.

Both films are covertly about the people who came after - not the ones we’re seeing in the film.

Both films are about unwanted roles being foisted upon parties that aren’t entirely innocent.

"Barbie" is "Oppenheimer".

"Oppenheimer" is "Barbie". 

Hence, Barbenheimer.

On a deeper level, each of these points can be echoes of the lived experience of the digital native in the current post-COVID climate of existence.

We hide behind jokes, but life feels tragic in the 24-hour news cycle. We value stories that mirror real life - even our escapist productions must echo reality.

We are living in a consumerist society that is still impacted by the Cold War sentiment in the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. We are constantly told what it is to be a Gen Z, Millennial, Digital Native, or “Kids These Days.” 

We are "Barbie".

We are "Oppenheimer".

We are Barbenheimer.

It’s harsh, but I believe this is the sad truth behind the cult phenomenon. The digital native is wrestling with the duality of the Anthropocene and the result is both glittery pink and sepia-toned warfare. 

Confronting Duality with Comm(union)

Even with the heavy tones of this article, Christians are Easter people and there is still hope yet. This is far from the first existential crisis for a generation. While the Internet has a unique way of presenting its processing, the undercurrent remains familiar - loneliness.

It is ultimately our connection with others that drives our deepest fears. 

The mother and daughter in "Barbie" are losing their connection with one another. A physicist fears ostracization for speaking up in "Oppenheimer". 

These sentiments spark feelings we hold within ourselves:

SAG-AFTRA joins the WGA Strike because AI might separate us from our work.

Millions of Twitter users fear losing over a decade of curated community. 

We fear being behind on trends if we choose Reels instead of TikTok. 

It might seem trite to those outside of digital culture, but these are genuine relationships and concerns on the line here. And that fear is warranted, whether it is comprehensible or not.

The role of the Church in the face of this is no different than it has always been, but we may need the reminder anyway - we are to build a community. We are to unite and provide a space of radical generosity, welcome, and hospitality. 

Look past the memes and the jokes and see the generation of beloved Children of God who are seeking to be loved in a broken world that is saved by a grace that the Church should be sharing.

Rev. Nathan Webb of Checkpoint ChurchNathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He hosts a weekly newsletter podcast: To The Point.

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