We don’t know much about the Barbie movie. We know it involves multiple dolls (Lawyer Barbie, Diplomat Barbie, Dua Lipa Barbie). We know Greta Gerwig (of Lady Bird and Frances Ha indie fame) directed it. We know that it will feature a Dreamhouse and Kens and these roller skates and feet and that life in plastic is not so fantastic once Barbie starts thinking about death. But what’s the plot? What’s the tone? It’s hard to say more than what Wikipedia provides: “After being expelled from the utopian Barbie Land for being a less-than-perfect doll, Barbie and Ken go on a journey of self-discovery to the real world.”
The movie has built anticipation via a marketing campaign that’s reluctant to reveal anything else, and so far it has worked. An intentionally obtuse trailer has 36 million views on YouTube. The cast posters went viral when they were released in April, then went viral again with a filter that Barbie-fied anyone: Beyoncé (“This Barbie is a music legend”), Lady Gaga (“This barbie is trying to investigate Jan 6 herself — ‘I looked for evidence’”), and a four-year-old YouTube beauty feud (“This Barbie is like ‘Oh my God, time and place!’”). Someone erected an actual Dreamhouse in Malibu, and Margot Robbie is globe-trotting in cosplay.
While it’s tough to say exactly what Barbie is, it’s easy to say what it isn’t: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a biopic about the father of the nuclear bomb, which is premiering on the same day in a largely black-and-white color scheme that almost definitely won’t contribute to a pink-paint shortage. Come July 21, some fans will trek offline to see Robbie grinning in her Corvette; others will be readying themselves to watch Cillian Murphy gaze despondently at an atomic explosion. Early box-office tracking estimates suggest there may be slightly more of the former than the latter.
“It is kind of a competition,” says Azhar, a U.K.-based Barbie fan who has been tweeting about the movie’s potential to “subvert our expectations” for over a year now. “Are the film bros or the girlbosses gonna win?”
Annie, a film-school graduate whose tweets are regularly Barbie focused, if not Gerwig focused, summarizes her fandom using this GIF of Peter Griffin with the caption “me running past oppenheimer film bros at my local amc on july 21 2023.” She doesn’t think girlboss is the best designator for Barbie fans; instead, she describes the film’s supporters as “girls who are obsessed with the same five movies”: two of Gerwig’s past films, Lady Bird and Little Women; Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides; James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted; and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby.
But the girls designation doesn’t quite cut it for Vern Hass, another film-school grad who has gone viral several times over for his Lynchian Wendy Williams edits and who emphasizes how hard the “film fags” — typically fans of the aforementioned five movies, plus more camp classics like Valley of the Dolls and Muriel’s Wedding — are riding for Barbie.
Taken together, Vern and Annie are better described as “film girlies,” united in a desire to watch an unabashedly feminine movie, specifically one that speaks to younger cinephiles who have been primed to like the work of Gerwig, one of the few female directors to get consistent Oscar recognition. “I like how honest she is,” says Annie. “She’s very good at finding the little moments in the big stories. They feel close and relatable.”
Vern likes that Gerwig’s movies are defined by their wit. “Christopher Nolan isn’t known for his biting wit,” he says. “His movies are for Civil War–replica basement dads.”
Yet there are also Barbie fans like Fola, a frequent presence on Succession-Tok who’s getting a Ph.D. in microbiology and doesn’t particularly care about Gerwig one way or another. She’s excited because “as a bad bitch, of course I had a couple Barbie dolls that I would mutilate as a little child.” The movie is more notable to these supporters as the first live-action Barbie film to bring Barbiecore to life (unless you count Life-Size).
Oppenheimer isn’t the first to bring an atomic bomb to the big screen, nor is it the first explosion-centric movie about a Great Man to find its audience. Nolan has made several himself, and almost every one since Batman Begins has topped the box office on its opening weekend (Interstellar lost out to Big Hero 6), often in mid-July, the director’s preferred time to release a movie.
But this July, Universal’s Oppenheimer will compete against Barbie, a movie Warner Bros. has placed all its marketing might behind (see: the merch) and whose cast and crew have been quicker to acknowledge the promotional opportunities of this counterprogrammed moment. While Gerwig and Robbie are posing in front of the Oppenheimer poster and signing these T-shirts, Nolan is simply talking up Oppenheimer’s 70-mm. IMAX print. Warner Bros. even planned early Barbie screenings for some regional journalists on the same night as Universal’s previously scheduled Oppenheimer press screenings. (“Yes, it’s the same night as Oppenheimer,” a screening invitation to journalists in Washington, D.C., reads. “No, there is not another screening option.”)
Oppenheimer fans seem similarly oblivious to the rivalry. While Barbie stans are posting memes like this, Oppenheimer fans are making more earnest videos that begin with “We need to talk about Florence Pugh’s character” and “Can we talk on how scary accurate this movie is going to be?” When they do mention Barbie, they seem unfazed. “I don’t think the target audiences for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer overlap all that much,” conservative blogger Steve Sailer tweeted. “Barbie fans aren’t really into ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’”
Fola, mutilator of Barbies, disagrees. They plan to see both movies on the same day over the July 21–23 weekend — Oppenheimer first so Barbie can be a “dessert.” In fact, Barbie fans may be the best thing to happen to Oppenheimer. Paul, whose Twitter profile picture is his face in a Barbie poster captioned “This Ken is a little too excited for Barbie (2023),” also plans to take an Oppenheimer shot with a Barbie chaser. But they say if Barbie weren’t premiering in theaters on the same weekend, they would just have caught Oppenheimer when it started streaming.
“I just want to see movies by artists and filmmakers,” says Vern, who also plans to see the films as a double feature (Barbie first, Oppenheimer second). Barbenheimer is less a competition for Vern and more an unholy alliance that has managed to garner the attention of even Tom Cruise.
“I’m pro-theatergoing surviving,” Vern concludes, unintentionally doing his best impression of cinema’s savior.
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