‘I Double Dare You’: BARBENHEIMER as Metamodern Pheno-meme-non
Much has been made of the Barbenheimer phenomenon by culture pundits. Today I’m going to make a little more of it, putting forth the claim that Barbenheimer is, overall, a metamodern meme. I’ll explain how the act of grouping the Barbie movie (dir. Greta Gerwig, Warner Bros.) into a double feature with Oppenheimer (dir. Christopher Nolan, Universal Studios) illuminates some of the dominant characteristics of what we call the metamodern sensibility.
[For readers for whom the concept of metamodernism is murky, I recommend the article “Eleven Metamodern Methods in the Arts” by my writing partner, Greg Dember, as a quick primer on how to think with metamodernism in the context of popular culture. Or, have a look at the homepage of our website, What Is Metamodern? where we have some brief definitions and clarifications, along with heaps of examples of metamodern cultural products.]
What’s This Barbenheimer Thing? Why Do We Care?
In case you’ve been on an internet fast for the last several months, the “Barbenheimer” pheno-meme-non is the popularization of the reflexively absurdist idea of watching the Barbie movie and the film, Oppenheimer as a double feature — two products that would seem to have zero in common aside from their having been released on the same date: July 21, 2023. There are a few ways to consider its genesis and significance.
Some who follow the entertainment industry’s deal-making maneuvers focus on the shared release date, attributing the unusual confluence to Nolan playing hardball with Universal, or to his prior studio, Warner Bros., seeking vengeance after Nolan broke up with WB in 2020. In this view, the focus is on the consequences of two film companies in conflict and/or their possibly actively generating that conflict for marketing purposes. (This article will take the intrepid on a deeper dive into those dynamics.)
Alternatively, a few critics have made forays into examining the success of Barbenheimer as evidence of the power of public meme-ing events. In terms of how the meme came to benefit both films, they consider the fact that Oppenheimer is now the highest-grossing biopic ever, even as it chases Barbie, thus far the highest grossing film of 2023, by half a million dollars. As Richard Lawson noted in Vanity Fair, “It was beginning to seem that no non-franchise movie would ever be a blockbuster again. Then along came a living doll and the inventor of the atomic bomb to prove us wrong.” Such bottom-line observations only go so far in terms of illuminating something about the engine behind this meme.
It’s true that the idea of Barbenheimer was generated in snowball fashion a full month ahead of the July 21st release date. It therefore had lots of time to gather speed across social media, which ultimately created a win-win for both rather than a competition between them. As noted by Charles Bramesco in The Guardian, “Oppenheimer may be the first tentpole in history to profit from stiff competition, its informal packaging with Barbie leading not to a standoff but a mutually beneficial centering in the zeitgeist.”
Based on my own perusal of existing commentaries, it seems that culture critics are not evincing a very deep understanding of the memeverse’s influence writ large. Few commentators advance more than vague notions about its relevance to the “current cultural moment” and what that might even mean. Barbenheimer provides a good opportunity for addressing this lacuna, and metamodernism has, to my mind, emerged as one of the most serviceable lenses through which to consider the character of this cultural moment. Addressing the question of why the public so enthusiastically rolled with this meme, and why now, leads us to understand the memeing phenomenon itself as a metamodern one.
The activity of memeing in the sense used in the 21st century –the use of a visual, viral quip existing on the internet — hinges on the grassroots power of audience response — and, in the case of high-profile products such as these mainstream films, on fan cultures, which have allowed fans to exert their influence more decisively and far more directly than ever before. Fan responses function at times almost as co-creators of content. To make a generalization that will surprise no one, the overarching dominance of social media in our lives and the establishment of the economy of likes mean that spontaneous, spirited ideas from the general public (irrespective of whether ill-considered or unresearched) have become one of the most important barometers of the “success” of a given product. Still, though… what exactly made these two films so successful as material for memeing?
The Barbenheimer Dare: Tonal Multivalencies as Goofy-Transgressive Extreme Sport
In extreme sports, in the creative arts, and in other such activities of meaning making, we love our emotional juxtapositions. Somehow there’s more oomph to personal experiences garnered while fun is rubbing right up against fear, right? The idea of viewing these two films side by side — plastic pink next to gritty grim — comes in the flavor of a quirky dare. And it’s a dare supremely well-suited to contemporary people whose brand of thrill is undergoing “cinematic whiplash” (a term gratefully borrowed from Adele Ankers-Range). Put differently, the tonal clash inherent in this pairing begets an oscillative feeling — lighthearted yet transgressive. Busting the usually observed genre boundaries; perhaps even breaking boundaries of good taste.
It’s significant that this dare has the felt sense of a homespun idea, like it’s the brainchild of, say, your precocious teenage neighbor, rather than the ploy of an advertising executive. Tracing the origin of interest in this kind of public dare, we can look to this century’s trend in gaming en masse, the one that propels things like those subconsciously silly TikTok tests of physical, emotional, or psychological endurance, or like flash mobs and other staged events that are at once personal and shared. Elsewhere we’ve identified metamodern components in the trend from the previous decade of epic marriage proposal videos, a type of public performance that simultaneously shares moments of heightened vulnerability, emotional bravery, and awkward hubris. So Barbenheimer belongs in a category with these sorts of quirky trends, continuing a subtext that goes something like: Let’s experience togetherness via the sporting romp of being manipulated by pop culture’s onslaught on our senses!
Whether such acts are deemed puerile or socially redemptive is another question. What I’m interested in here is the feeling of inclusivity central to the Barbenheimer dare. The shared-experience component distinguishes it from a more cynical, zero-sum style of public pranking often tagged as a postmodern takedown. In other words, if we only have the oscillative experience of buffeting audiences between a playful, made-up world like Barbie’s (putting aside for a second its social emancipation components, about which more presently) and a crushed-by-history depiction of Oppenheimer, it might look like a page taken from the playbook of postmodern culture. Until, that is, we note that a pop-culture sporting event such as Barbenheimer assumes an added dimension: the potential that holding these seemingly discordant opposites may perform or even produce another substantive something. OK, what might that be?
Together, Up Close, and Personal
Taking a few steps back, let’s first bear in mind that in the 21st century, the double feature itself occurs as an anachronistic concept, one that audiences may therefore engage in an ironic-nostalgic register. The double feature’s revival in this case is self-reflexively participatory, that is, turned back toward its audience. In short, what’s different about this one is that the movie-going public is aware that we are generating the event together.
The oscillative tone of the event avoids acting out a takedown of either side, however. It’s not out to generate an “our team against yours” vibe, or a cynical taking both films down by pitting each against the other (i.e., Barbie challenging the over-seriousness of Oppenheimer; Oppenheimer calling out the shallowness of Barbie). None of that is happening. And the event is also not styled for the purpose of deconstructing anyone’s personally held convictions or beliefs. Again, those sorts of agendas that, generally speaking, reflect more postmodern sensibilities, are not present.
Not absent, though, is the awareness of our collective and independent agency in our role as audience and as consumer. The culture of moviegoing took a huge hit during the pandemic. Therefore, maybe the idea of doubling down (no pun intended) on ideas that get people to the cinemas by any means necessary isn’t felt to be off-puttingly capitalistic. As Dember has commented in his review of the Barbie movie, the film’s sensibility itself “oscillates in its attitude toward the corporate/capitalist/commercial realm, calling attention to the possibility of humanity there, while still maintaining a cautious, critical eye.”
More existentially speaking, Barbenheimer gives us a shared deep dive into several cultural forces that, perhaps for Americans especially, we cannot deny have made us. Let’s face it, the marketing of unnaturally proportioned woman-dolls and the historical-political development and deployment of the atomic bomb are each hugely influential elements to our national makeup. Who we are, Barbenheimer acknowledges, is built on anachronism, paradox. The embrace of all sides is the metamodern part. More unabashed than embarrassed, audiences participated in Barbenheimer cognizant (if unconsciously so?) of the oscillation between two poles: from the delight in the incongruity, the silliness, the audacity, really, of putting these two particular films in proximity, to the sense that the undertaking was in service of something creative, perhaps even socially additive, rather than merely ironic or deconstructive.
Further, I speculate that the work of Barbenheimer as a gestalt is to subvert any univocal moral portraiture of the American psyche. Were you seduced as a child by the power of Mattel into becoming a Barbie fan? (Me: Yes! Though I was not a doll-oriented kid, I inherited a sizable collection of Barbies and their accoutrements from my big sister. With the Barbieverse’s celebrated quality of outfits for every occasion, my adventures had the latitude to swing from girly to tomboyish. Barbie sometimes hitched a ride with my big brother’s GI Joe on important missions in the Jeep. My brother may have been taking Joe to front lines, while Barbie, with her feet ill-suited for combat boots, was dropped off to attend to the humanitarian crisis, but be that as it may…) And did you also grow up in some amount of dread of the unimaginable — the Cold War’s potential to annihilate a lot more than your dream house? (Yep, did.) One doesn’t need to be a Jungian to sense that younger generations had their parents’ nuclear angst passed down via our collective unconscious.
Such speculations aren’t meant to insinuate that the main reason we’re going off to the movies is to work out our cultural fears. I’m sure many people engaged the Barbenheimer dare simply for the sport, as described above. Nevertheless, the act of stepping into Oppenheimer’s story — which is part of our story — for any reason, amounts to a reckoning with the national psyche of the US, and is therefore arguably a courageous act. The metamodern point here is that there are many gates of entry, some silly and some serious, some both at once. They all say something about who we are.So, if the enthusiasm around the way the meme-o-sphere has seized on the staging of this double feature can be partly explained by using metamodernism as a lens, the first thing we see is how the Barbenheimer meme created a way for people to poke fun at the absurdity of this mash-up, initially done in an “OMG are we really doing this??” kind of way. That, in turn, may have helped audiences cope with the conceptual confrontation that Oppenheimer presents — of going up close and personal with one of the most difficult events in the history of the world.
Again, I don’t mean that folks had awareness that some kind of social awakening might occur by enduring this double feature. Audiences may not have had a sense for what sort of meaning the juxtaposition would generate. my guess is that not many were consciously leaning into the meme out of an idea that a transformative, whole-eclipsing-the-sum-of-the-parts effect might be brought about. But, the excitement at leaning into the odd paradox has its basis in the fact that a certain amount of self-reflexivity is now part of our post-postmodern inheritance.
In case my use of this idiom of “wholeness” might lead to misunderstanding, let me be clear that I don’t refer to a triumphalist type of “AHA!” moment engineered to bring all the pieces together. That to me would smell like a return to grand narrative interpretations of the world — more of a return-to-modernism type of move. Rather, I’m saying that the Barbenheimer meme puts the mess of being human right out in front of us, without the necessity (or even the urge) to clean it up or to integrate everything into a universalized or transcendent state (modern) nor to force a foreclosure on such meanings as false or foolish (postmodern). I’m pointing to the “we are all there in the mix” realization about our shared, flawed humanness — something that becomes accessible via the focus on personal interiority. This is one of the central observations defining of the metamodern epistemic sensibility. This is what gave Barbenheimer as a meme its engine.
More Metamodernisms Found in Each of the Films
It’s worth noting that director Nolan could have depicted these pivotal events of history in any number of ways. But the aesthetic choice was made to unfurl the man Oppenheimer’s inner reality — the singular, felt experience of being that guy. Even before the film’s release, what we see in the preview is gripping, though for less obvious reasons (i.e., not the expected mushroom clouds, seared flesh, and decimation). It’s the close-ups of the face of Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer — his oscillation between moral positions, realizations of the terror of carrying out his duty, and of not doing so — in sum, Nolan’s choice to bring the individual viewer into Opp’s felt experience.
Co-star Matt Damon related in an interview that the script was written in the first person. Not “‘Oppenheimer walks into the room’ but ‘I walk in the room.’” That’s just not normally done. Damon says that Nolan told his actors, “The feeling of the movie has got to go through the subjective lens of this character. … It entirely rests on that.” Projects that focus on personal interiority are of course not exclusive to this post-postmodern day and age, but as a trope, felt experience is certainly deployed more prevalently. Indeed, it has become something of an acknowledged marker for metamodern products.
In Barbie, the film’s many metamodern features show up right away. Actually, before butts are even in the seats. There’s simply no other era in which a production about the life of Barbies would have been intended as something other than a children’s movie. The surprise of its mature plot, as has been discussed quite a lot by critics at this point, is in proffering a pointedly feminist social commentary while never losing sight of the Barbieland feeling of fun. Also, the story’s “sorry not sorry” finger-wag moments of lambasting the patriarchy convey another both/and subtext for audiences to imbibe. Something like: When we take in popular culture, we’re at once gleefully absorbed in an act of make-believe, of engaging our imaginations, and also in some sense accountable for the outcomes we perceive from these pretend worlds. Gerwig says as much:
“[Barbie] exists in the both/and, not the either/or. She’s not either good or bad. … Diving into the complexity of it and not running away from it, but looking at all the thorniness and stepping into it, and also looking [at] … the negotiation of what women need to be and how to give them something other than a tightrope to walk on is how it feels feminist to me.”
It’s so interesting to me how Gerwig’s definition of feminism here approximates a metamodern sensibility. Margot Robbie has commented that the attraction to having Gerwig on the project was that as a director she had the “ability to capture the cultural moment” (there’s that phrase again) that Gerwig had shown in a number of previous films, (Frances Ha and Ladybird in particular are replete with metamodern sensibilities.)
While fictional narratives based around social critiques have existed well prior to metamodernism, Hollywood still seemed to hold up the expectation until recently that such messages not only not take center stage, but that they be snuck in rather covertly. Filmmakers post-#MeToo, however, seem to get away with not bothering to do so much sneaking. Importantly, though, it’s not so much the message itself (that there’s some fucked-up shit in our history that we need to face) that shows reliance on metamodern aesthetic sensibilities. It’s more the manner of presenting this kind of message with tones that are by turns jokey, ironic, earnest, and overall never sacrificing colorfulness.
Whether you think the feminism Gerwig works is effective, obligatory, or offensive (good arguments for all IMO), the social critique aspect is allowed to sit alongside the fun romp through pink-land, rather than having one aspect dominate or negate the other. The metamodern take: both need to exist front and center, because it’s more true to the complexity of contemporary life. Gerwig commented in an interview with ABC News’ Sarah Ferguson, that the negotiation was meant to demonstrate “allowing all the things to exist at once and not shoving [any of] the things down because they don’t fit with some [other] thing.”
The film is a send-up of cherished though frivolous (cherished because frivolous?) symbols of innocence that give us the opportunity to simultaneously poke fun and revisit with sincere reverence our childhood naïveté. In this and many other respects, it’s really a metamodern master class. (For a more detailed, metamodern analysis of the Barbie movie, see Greg Dember’s review, “The Good, the Bad and the Pretty: A metamodern review of the Barbie movie.”)
The metamodern structure of feeling gives us a perspective on the sensibility referred to as “informed naivety” (as coined by Vermeulen and van den Akker in 2010) that allows us to look straight into the 1950s pink world with all of its problems and delights, as well as into the atomic world developed in the decade prior. In at least one respect, the portrayal of Robert Oppenheimer’s struggle echoes a similar reckoning to Barbie’s: world-building is rarely merely theoretical. In the end it comes with really huge consequences. In both films, what’s purely fun or purely theoretical to one person or population may wind up oppressive or even deadly to another.
So, the Barbenheimer pheno-meme-non can be seen as a demonstration of an assumption — maybe even a metamodern form of faith — that some sort of meaning would be made by watching these two films side by side. And that grappling with our flounciest, made-up world right next to our most horrific, real-life nightmare world would illuminate something about the edges of humanity, and what we are capable of as a species.
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Other worthwhile takes on Barbie:
Article: The Nation — “The Muddled Feminism of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie” by Tarpley Hitt This piece grounds itself in a useful history of the emergence of the adult-shaped doll (at first meant as a gag gift; this helps explain the impossible body proportions). Though I think this and a number of other arguments fail when critics base their critiques on first reducing the whole film to a gender criticism piece, and then asserting how it didn’t work as one. In short, they miss the multivalency that’s meant to be present — that a film can call attention to stereotypes and level a critique within the frame of telling a story about characters who are purposely drawn as ignorant of these subtleties. Barbie and all her compatriots are flawed saviors. Suggesting that it’s lame that Gerwig and Baumbach wrote a story in which these made-up characters don’t end up solving the problem of patriarchal domination is a pretty overwrought complaint, not to mention a weird way of viewing storytelling.
Podcast: The Big Picture — “The ‘Barbie’ Deep Dive With Greta Gerwig!” Hosts: Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins
Guests: Greta Gerwig and Joanna Robinson
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Linda C. Ceriello is a scholar in religious studies and popular culture, and is one half of the team that edits the website, What Is Metamodern?