This summer, two of the biggest movies of the season hit theaters on the same day, so naturally, pop culture needed a name for it. Going to see Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” on the same day became known as “Barbenheimer.” Despite their many differences, both films highlight the way that our world is wrestling with important questions.
On the surface at least, the two films could not be more different. Barbie is brightly colored and has a sort of intentional, plastic stiffness to match the source material. Oppenheimer is a story that sprawls across decades and is made of mostly muted colors and cerebral dialogue. Barbie’s world is not just highly fictionalized, it’s exaggerated and chaotic. Oppenheimer, while uniquely crafted, is still, essentially, a biopic. Nothing about the immediate experience of watching these two films is similar — except, perhaps, that both of them ask you to hold a lot of ideas and themes at once. After some time digesting both, the hidden similarities between them begin to emerge. Both movies are fundamentally engaging with the relationship between man and woman in a way that begs but also paves the way for St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Both highlight the destructive capacity that the brokenness of this relationship can bring but also point, if somewhat desperately, in the direction of hope.
In Barbie, this theme is evident in the swinging back and forth between the extremes of caricatured versions of matriarchy and patriarchy. While the driving force of the plot has more to do with what it means to be human and a woman, this theme of the relationship between men and women is substantial and more thoughtful than the bright colors might suggest. This subplot raises the question: how can men and women work together in a way that allows both to flourish?
In Oppenheimer, the theme plays out in two of his romantic relationships and is placed in juxtaposition with his work on the atomic bomb. The relationship that displays his womanizing tendencies is shown as an agent of destruction in both of their lives and its first (jarring and explicit) bedroom scene is the setting for a line that is a poetic shorthand for his life’s work: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” His relationship with his wife is also shown to be broken and even destructive, but ultimately as moving in the direction of fidelity and hope. These threads mingle with the driving reality that all of his intelligence and creativity were directed into the making of the atomic bomb and its imaginable destruction. One of the questions this narrative poses is: how does the brokenness of our relationships impact the outcome of what we make and the power we wield?
Both of these questions are easy to copy and paste into hot-button topics of our culture today. In fact, the parallels between the atomic bomb and our current AI dilemmas are so strong that the Center for Humane Technology hosted a screening of Oppenheimer for a group of people working on the development of artificial intelligence as a springboard for discussion. While that topic could easily supply hours of fascinating conversation, I am more interested here in paying attention to the fact our culture is asking profound and important questions.
There is no shortage of material expounding the very real problems with our society and our world. What I rarely hear discussed is that the vast majority of people are still earnestly trying to be good and that the questions they are asking are important. I chose “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” for their recent prominence but there is no shortage of pop culture examples of profound questions being posed.
When faced with a world of often frightening brokenness, it is tempting to turn back to our safe Catholic bubbles and ride out the storm. It is part of being human to need community, and it is a huge and important gift to have a healthy Catholic community to lean on. As the laity, we are called to be the salt and the light for the world. This requires a constant balance in our lives between active and contemplative, interior and exterior, loving and being loved. Without the discipline of living both halves of our call, our Catholic communities can easily become the bushel basket of the parable, under which the lamp is hidden.
When faced with a world full of brokenness, it is an easy and even understandable response to either treat the people around us as the enemy or to abandon them altogether. However, it is desperately important that we, as Catholics, resist both temptations. It is not on us to fix the whole mess of everything wrong with the world. When there are people around us who are asking questions like the ones raised by “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer,” we are called to reach out in love and walk with them in ordinary life. While it will not fall to us to have the kind of impact on the world that St. John Paul II had, we can still follow his example to: “Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid.”