Both Films Offer Lessons in Gender Equality

I’m late, ‘cos I’ve been processing. Watching Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in Barbie and Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr in Oppenheimer almost back to back was an experience. It gave me, and I’m guessing a lot of us, a lot to process.

And most of us are not experts, not film critics, not fully sorted about feminism and patriarchy, not historians, we have little or no knowledge about quantum physics or splitting the atom, nor are most of us psychologists or sociologists.

And yet, we should have our say. After all, Greta Gerwig and Chris Nolan made these awesome movies for us. Also, it would be fully understandable if each of us walked away from these films with a take of our own. Here’s mine.

Barbie vs Oppenheimer: More Alike Than You Might Think

For me, even as the films are vastly different in every way, they are points at which they converge. Both have focused on some of biggest themes of the 20th century. Oppenheimer focuses on the atom bomb, and through it, on the human ability to unleash horrific destruction on its own, and mankind’s absurd movement towards developing the capacity of destroying itself. Barbie talks about consumerism, and patriarchy, and the place of an iconic doll and the color pink in the understanding of feminism. But interestingly, these are some crucial overlaps in their themes, which we may have missed if the two films had not released on the same day.

Since we find ourselves grappling and obsessing with them well into the 21st century, its obvious that even at a societal level, these themes from the previous century are lot to process, and remain relevant today.   

Barbie, with the subversive choice of Margot Robbie in the title role, sets up the Barbie doll phenomenon as something that inadvertently challenged patriarchy. It identified and blew up the massive purchasing power of the female consumer. And with all the other avatars of Barbie, from ‘President’ Barbie to ‘Nobel Prize Winner’ Barbie, it also created a sense of women succeeding as a gender in 20th century.

Till Queen-dom Come: How Barbie Subverts Toxic Masculinity

Greta Gerwig then very cleverly busts this myth, by revealing that a Barbie-dom that’s totally Barbie-driven and Barbie-centric, in which Ken and all Kens are secondary, is actually a gender-inverted mirror image of the ‘real world’, which is totally male-centric and male-driven. The point is driven home further when Ken, played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling, stages a coup, dethrones Barbie and sets up a Ken-ruled, Ken-centric, Ken-dom.


(A film still from Babrie)

In The ‘Ken-dom’ Of Oppenheimer

How does this tie in with ‘Oppenheimer’? Well, to my mind, Los Alamos was almost a Ken-dom. Almost every one of the atomic scientists and quantum physicists and mathematicians gathered there by Robert Oppenheimer was male. While there was the motivation of fighting fascism, fighting Nazi anti-semitism, it was also a boys’ club. The race to split the atom, and the race to build the A-bomb, as shown by Nolan, also struck me as an all-male, narcissistic contest, in which the world-altering consequences of their actions were almost consciously ignored, so that they would simply not come in the way, until the ‘race’ was won. At which point, as the film powerfully drives home, it is far too late.

Christopher Nolan also chooses to give us a glimpse of Oppenheimer’s personal life, where again there is a hint of narcissism. His marriage to Kitty Puening, played in the film by Emily Blunt, had its controversy. He had an affair with her while she was married, which led to her divorce, after which she married Oppenheimer. We are also shown that Oppenheimer continued his on-off affair with Communist activist Jean Tatlock, even after his marriage to Kitty. Jean Tatlock suffered from depression and died by suicide in 1944.

We also see Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer being given the option of choosing pacifism more than once before and during the start of the Manhattan Project that he headed in Los Alamos. But for the greater good, and perhaps for personal glory, he pressed on. And he ensured that his hand-picked all-star scientists’ team stayed in line too, despite many of them questioning the motives of the project, and having several episodes of self-doubt. We see an Oppenheimer proud of winning the ‘atomic race’, applauding his team even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped out, and seemingly savouring his status as ‘father of the atomic bomb’, and seeing his face on the cover of TIME magazine.

The Destroyer Of Worlds

Was the world then run and ruined by a boys’ club? Is war a by-product of patriarchy? Was the nuclear weapons arms race and the cold war among the crudest examples of toxic masculinity taken to its extremes? There are many who would argue, yes. Of course, there have always been other forces at play. Also, in the decades that have followed, we have had a few women leaders, and some of them have shown almost the same appetite for violence and destruction. So, no one is pedaling the old argument about how women ‘nurture’, while men ‘destroy’. That’s too simplistic.   


(A film still from Oppenheimer)

But what can perhaps be said, is that both films, Barbie as a key message, and Oppenheimer as additional food for thought, remind us that gender equality is central to our lives, for us as individuals, and as a society. A ‘Barbie-dom’ kind of world is not emancipating. It’s a Xerox of patriarchy, but in reverse. And an ‘Oppenheimer-dom’ lays bare the self-destructive endgame of a male-led world – in this case a senseless contest of building atomic bombs and nuclear warheads that could destroy the world many times over.

What this world needs to be, is neither Barbie’s nor Oppenheimer’s. It needs to be genuinely respectful of, and driven by, every gender.  

(Rohit Khanna is a journalist, commentator and video storyteller. He has been Managing Editor at The Quint, Executive Producer of Investigations & Special Projects at CNN-IBN, and is a 2-time Ramnath Goenka award winner)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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