The Media Today

The “Barbenheimer” media bonanza

July 24, 2023
A woman walks past advertisements for the films "Oppenheimer," from left, and "Barbie," on Thursday, July 20, 2023, at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

On April 15 last year, Matt Neglia, the editor in chief of Next Best Picture, a site that covers movie award seasons, tweeted a new word, “Barbenheimer.” According to Know Your Meme, Neglia’s was the first recorded usage of the term, which he posted in response to a slew of casting announcements for two forthcoming movies with a shared release date: Oppenheimer, about the enigmatic father of the atomic bomb, and Barbie, about Barbie. Neglia told NBC News recently that he didn’t even remember his tweet, and that he certainly “never meant to start a hashtag or anything like that.” Whatever his role, “Barbenheimer” soon blew up as an online meme, first as a joke about the contemporaneous movies’ radically different subject matter and aesthetics—dark and brooding v. pink and fizzy—then as an increasingly sophisticated series of graphics and existential questions. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, two hundred thousand people saw the movies back to back as they opened this past weekend.

As is often the case with viral social-media bandwagons, the traditional media quickly scrambled to jump on—and, as Barbenheimer Day neared, the two films and the cultural phenomenon they had spawned became ubiquitous in the mainstream press. A reporter at Axios predicted which United States senator would see what movie; reporters from NBC and Politico asked them. (“For Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), it’s a no-brainer. She’s a ‘Barbie’ girl in a Capitol Hill world,” Politico reported. “A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined to comment.”) Peter Suderman, who writes a Substack newsletter about cocktails, mixed a Barbenheimer tipple of “rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, coffee concentrate, Campari, and tonic water.” Scientific American went all in, as did the New York Times, whose reams of Barbenheimer coverage included both a playlist and a quiz. (The latter advised me, based on my answers, to go see Oppenheimer; I promptly booked Barbie tickets for Thursday night.) When I checked this morning, the words “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” or “Barbenheimer” appeared seven times on the homepages of the Times and the Wall Street Journal, and fourteen times on those of the Washington Post, the Associated Press, NBC News, and the LA Times

All this attention naturally doubled as perfect free advertising for the two films’ distributors (both of which, incidentally, are part of conglomerates that also own massive traditional media companies), adding to an already-unavoidable avalanche of commercial advertising, especially in Barbie’s case. (If you don’t believe me, type “Barbie” into Google and get ready to bathe in pink.) Indeed, many of the Barbenheimer stories on this morning’s homepages were about the weekend that the movies had at the box office, which enjoyed a sharp departure from its COVID- and streaming-era doldrums: Oppenheimer took eighty million dollars in the US and Canada while Barbie took nearly twice that; both films smashed expectations and between them, by one count, drove the fourth strongest opening weekend ever in US cinemas. Reporters interviewed industry analysts, who threw around the word “unprecedented,” and movie-goers, who sounded utterly enchanted. “A lot of streaming can lead people away from the cinema and we lose the valuable communal experience of going to the movies,” Bronson Aznavorian told NBC at a theater in LA, while decked out in a t-shirt that depicted Barbie walking toward a pink atom bomb. “So if it’s a big social thing like this, it’s something I do want to be a part of.”  

Coverage also reflected on the movies, individually and in tandem, as cultural artifacts—perhaps particularly so in the case of Barbie, told in a satirical feminist reimagining by the indie filmmaker Greta Gerwig. Barbie “is a film of the politics of culture and, by extension, of the need for a creative rebellion to reëstrange the familiar for the sake of social change,” The New Yorker wrote. The New York Review of Books and others weighed in on Oppenheimer’s faithfulness to history. The New Statesman had Slavoj Žižek assess the movies together.

In some respects, all this coverage was not so unusual. Both movies are a big deal on their own merits, and would have inspired ample takes without their shared release date and the amplifying effect of the Barbenheimer meme. And in some sense, the latter phenomenon was rooted in nostalgia, both for a distant past—both films tackle mid-twentieth-century events and themes, as well as recalling the days when it was common to go see a “double feature” (and to go to the movies, period)—and a more recent one. It has put me in mind of a time when wholesome memes could spread joyously across social media before spilling into the real world, with digital media on hand to mine the whole thing for clicks.

And yet coverage of the Barbenheimer phenomenon has also been firmly rooted in this particular moment, and its myriad anxieties. Again, this has been true of the movies separately and together: Oppenheimer resonates right now for reasons that are both obvious (the specter of war and nuclear apocalypse) and less so (The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel noted last week that “a certain type of AI researcher” has recently taken interest in Oppenheimer’s life as historical warning); Barbie has, predictably, become grist for right-wing culture-warring around “wokeness” and gender. (The conservative commentator Ben Shapiro filmed himself setting fire to a Barbie doll and uploaded the footage to the internet.) A film critic at the Associated Press argues that in “in a much-divided America, ‘Barbenheimer’ has been the great pop-culture unifier of 2023. There is harmony in contrast.” But an environmental studies professor writing in the Post sees Barbenheimer, much less positively, as “a window into the creation of the Anthropocene”—an age of human-caused mass destruction and rampant consumerism; of “nukes and plastic.”

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Then there’s the backdrop of labor unrest, a society-wide phenomenon that recently culminated in a dual Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strike which not only curtailed the media publicity tour for the movies (and others), but itself evokes both nostalgia—the two trades last walked out simultaneously in 1960, when the actors’ union was led by Ronald Reagan—and dystopia, given the centrality of AI, and its burgeoning creative power, to the unions’ grievances. (As Hamilton Nolan wrote in The Guardian last week, Hollywood workers are, in this sense, on the frontlines of a battle over the future of all our workplaces, not least those of journalists; indeed, some writers and content creators have expressed fears that merely participating in the Barbenheimer craze is to cross a virtual picket line.) On the social-media front, Barbenheimer has united users just as the ways in which we talk to each other online seem definitively to be splintering; as I scrolled Twitter yesterday, Barbenheimer content jostled for my attention with reactions to the app rebranding itself as “X,” its latest step toward self-inflicted irrelevance. Digital media outlets may have feasted on Barbenheimer, but are otherwise in sharp decline.

To  my mind, Barbenheimer itself embodies a sort of zeitgeist. The absurd duality of the original Barbenheimer meme succinctly captures this historical moment and the ways in which we experience it through news coverage, with daily headlines juxtaposing the very silly, the very serious, and things that are both very silly and very serious (as I wrote following the Chinese spy balloon panic earlier this year). Already, I can picture weighty cultural histories—of the Rick Perlstein variety, say—devoting whole chapters to Barbenheimer as they seek to explain 2023. 

At the same time, of course, the phenomenon, as with all good movies and memes, offers a joyful escape from such considerations. Barbenheimer is everything. It’s also just fun.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, the Texas Tribune reported on a hiring controversy at Texas A&M University, which offered a tenured role reviving its journalism program to Kathleen McElroy, a former editor at the Times who then led the University of Texas at Austin’s journalism school, only to downgrade its offer following a conservative backlash to the fact that, as one Texas A&M official put it to McElroy, “you’re a Black woman who worked at the New York Times.” Late last week, with McElroy’s treatment increasingly attracting national media attention, M. Katherine Banks, the president of Texas A&M, resigned. The Tribune notes that her decision-making had been repeatedly questioned even prior to the McElroy incident, including after she moved to scrap a student newspaper’s print edition.
  • Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, of the Times, report on the state of the rival Washington Post, finding that Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper a decade ago, has gotten more involved since Sally Buzbee, the top editor, complained to him about low newsroom morale stemming from business missteps made by Fred Ryan, the publisher, who has since departed. Amid other nuggets, Mullin and Robertson report that the Post is on track to lose around a hundred million dollars this year (a source said that Bezos sees this as a “year for investment”) and is working on new projects in its Style and opinion sections, the latter of which will allow readers to submit their own commentary.
  • In May, FBI agents searched the home of Timothy Burke, a journalist and media consultant based in Florida, as it investigated the publication of embarrassing unaired footage from shows on Fox News; the agents also seized Burke’s electronic devices, but they never charged him with any crime. Now Burke and his lawyers are speaking out, claiming that he obtained the footage legally and demanding the return of his devices; on Friday, prosecutors allowed Burke to transfer banking and social-media access to a new phone, but are hanging on to his devices for now. The Tampa Bay Times has more.
  • Also on Friday, authorities in Russia detained Igor Girkin—a former military commander and separatist militia leader in eastern Ukraine who became an influential hawkish blogger under the pen name “Strelkov”—after he criticized Vladimir Putin’s management of the war; his arrest could signal a clampdown on criticism of Putin from the right that had previously been tolerated. Meanwhile, Rostislav Zhuravlev, a war reporter for a Russian state news agency, was killed while covering fighting in southeastern Ukraine.
  • And George Alagiah, formerly a prominent reporter and news anchor at the BBC in the UK, has died nine years after he was first diagnosed with bowel cancer. He was sixty-seven. “Empathy was his great strength. He radiated it,” Allan Little, a friend and former colleague of Alagiah, writes. “In George’s reporting there was an outstretched hand—the outstretched hand of a shared humanity, of solidarity.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.