Fascist or Communist; what is Barbenheimer trying to say?

Note: this article contains spoilers 

As “Barbenheimer” swept the box office weekend with a collective 235.5 million in ticket sales, conversation online has now turned to the distinct messages of the films. I watched both films within a few days of each other, however, I was struck by a distinctly similar theme. Underneath the buzzwords and the intrigue, I found both movies took the political and made them about the human experience.

There was one scene in each movie that made the greatest impression on me as a viewer when it comes to this theme.

Barbie, when meeting the girl she believes is “hers”, gets verbally ripped apart and ultimately called a fascist. She is understandably distraught, and while she does try to defend herself, is ultimately unable to continue the conversation.

In a completely different setting, Oppenheimer sits under review for his security clearance, and is confronted with his past communist ties. His brother, lover, and wife, while all former members of the American branch of the party, still signify his apparent sympathies to the overseers of his case.

It’s easy to dismiss the Barbie scene as typical teenage behavior, taking buzzwords and using them pointedly without perhaps a full understanding of what they mean. Likewise, the audience in Oppenheimer has seen the man remain loyal to the US, disagreeing with some of the sentiments expressed by the communist party and ultimately not joining it himself.

But are these points correct? Merriam-Webster defines fascism as a “political philosophy, movement, or regime… that exalts nation and often race above the individual…a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”. Obviously Barbie, coming from Barbieland, is not at all involved in politics, and does not have any particular power of her own. On the other hand, “Oppenheimer” makes it painstakingly clear that the scientist is only interested in, well, the science of it.

But the point of these scenes, I believe, is that they make you pause and consider it. Even though earlier parts of the movie do not in any way support this, it seems plausible, just for a moment.

As the character Gloria later expresses, Barbie in some ways represents the all-encompassing expectations placed on women, impossible standards in a philosophy or movement that accepts no alternative. Oppenheimer is depicted as hosting communist gatherings, reading the literature, and openly mingling with people who do call themselves communist.

The Barbie movie ultimately takes Barbie on a journey of self-discovery, taking the idea that “Barbie does everything” and making it “Barbie doesn’t have to do everything”. That’s what it means to be human, after all.

In the full swing of the 1950s McCarthy era, a mere accusation of communism was enough to taint even the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Oppenheimer never joined the communist party, that much is clear, but to understand why these allegations are so against what we the audience know about him, we need to take a look at his wife.

Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer was a member of the communist party. As part of statement in Oppenheimer’s trial, she reveals she left the party because she disagreed with some of its ideals. The same reason Oppenheimer never joined. Both of them were college educated individuals with access to the literature of the party. Oppenheimer sympathized with some of it as it pertained to science, his interest, but decided against joining. Kitty, having joined, saw the flaws and left. Ultimately both people came to the same conclusion, one earlier than the other.

In a bubble, this train of thought is perfectly logical. But when “communist” is synonymous with “enemy of America”, it’s hard to behave logically. Likewise, when Barbie is, well, perfect beautiful Barbie, it’s hard to imagine she could be anything else.

Both movies present the easiest assumption, and then spend hours proving it wrong. Barbie is just learning what it means to be human and grows and changes in her point of view. Oppenheimer, however, isn’t given that chance. Like his wife is forever a “commie”, his search for knowledge is used against him. In “Barbie”, the main character rejects the chance to be pretty, perfect Barbie again because she has learned that there is more. Likewise, Oppenheimer learned that communism isn’t good for him, but is still punished for his choice to seek knowledge.

As people, we grow and change, but we cannot keep holding that against one another. “Barbenheimer” as a collective experience demonstrates the dangers of doing so, both to the individual, and people as a whole.

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