On the Peculiar Convergence of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Barbie In Movie Theaters
"No one notices the customs slip away"

A Bit More About Those Two Movies

I don't know what I thought the actual content of a Barbie movie might be. Well, that's a little misleading right off the bat, because I didn't think about it at all. If I had, I suppose I would have expected a sort of Barbie cartoon, with a negligible story, no more substantial than an episode of The Smurfs. And that the feminists and other media women writing about it were just using the movie as an occasion to muse, positively or negatively, about the significance of the famous doll, musings that would have about as much substance as the little mannequin itself. 

But then I started coming across commentaries from serious-minded women who were finding some significance in the movie. Clearly there's more to it than just a lot of glib pop culture fluff and/or feminist cliches. I linked to several of these in comments on the previous post, but they deserve more attention than that, so here are links and a few quotes.

From Amy Welborn at Catholic World Report:

What emerges is that the actual world of actual women is difficult. The hints begin when Stereotypical Barbie—[played by Margot] Robbie—begins to experience limits and flaws, culminating in a startling admission that she’s starting to think about…dying. Off she goes, guided by the advice from Weird Barbie (the one whose chopped hair and markered-up face points to other ways Barbies are played with)—that she must find the girl who plays with her, whose angst is clearly filtering down into her up-to-now light-filled life....

Barbie might have begun her life inspiring little girls to reject real life and their unique way of being in the world, but at the end of this part of the journey, Barbie embraces that same way of being, of womanhood that is definitely not plastic, definitely not smooth and definitely not without mystery and pain—and embraces it with joy.

From Nina Power at Compact:

Gerwig’s Barbie points instead to a dialectical exit: Women can be mothers or not; they can take up any number of roles, or none; they can conform to femininity or look weird. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. But there are limits: We are past the moment of the free-floating signifier, of womanhood as a mere “identity.” The doll is born into suffering. To have a male or female body is to suffer and feel in different ways: We forget this if we reduce each other to mere signs. To be human is also to have to choose—an existential Barbie can hide this possibility from herself for a while, but facing every maiden is death, behind every Barbie, an Oppenheimer.

From Helen Andrews at The American Conservative:

Barbie is a symbol of youth, beauty, and possibility. She can be anything, and everyone is drawn to her. But it’s all meaningless because the reason she’s so beautiful and perfect is that nothing has ever happened to Barbie. All the meaning in life comes from the things that give you wrinkles.

When she comes to the real world, Barbie finds herself on a bench at a bus stop next to a grandmotherly looking old lady. She has never seen an elderly woman before. No one ages in Barbie Land. Barbie gazes at her face and says, “You’re so beautiful.” The woman smiles and says, “I know it.”

According to Gerwig, studio executives wanted her to cut the scene, because it doesn’t move the plot along. She told them, “If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.”

I like the last line of that first paragraph.

From Carmel Richardson, also at The American Conservative:

The world [Barbie creator Ruth] Handler envisioned is, in many ways, the world we live in today. Like Barbie, American women have achieved high-level career success, especially in higher education, where their performance has notably surpassed that of American men. Like Barbie, American girls from a very young age have learned to flaunt their bodies and to call this empowerment. And like Barbie, Ken is only an accessory to female success today....

Unfortunately for those women who have followed the Barbie model, many now find themselves childless and unsatisfied. Emasculated men, apparently, don’t father many children.

Apart from commentary on the movie itself, these remarks revealed to me that I had a completely mistaken idea about how the Barbie doll came to be and what it meant. I had always assumed that it was the creation of a man or men. That was mainly because of the ridiculous and anatomically impossible (I think) physique. I imagined a male thought process something like Babies are boring. Let's make a sexy doll. And give her fun things to do. And I was always a little bit surprised that women put up with it--the sexy part, at least. 

Wrong. Well, that description of the thought process is more or less accurate, but Barbie was the creation of a woman, a proto-feminist and a pretty hard-headed businesswoman who wanted her daughter Barbie to have a doll that would give her aspirations to a more exciting life than that of a mother and homemaker. Now the whole Barbie phenomenon--the doll, not the movie--makes sense in a way that it didn't before. Especially the role played by very consciously and skillfully contrived marketing. (The physique of the doll, however, did begin in the imagination of a man: it was suggested by a sex doll.) 

Another thing I've learned over the past few days is how much my wife hates Barbie. I knew she had never played with or wanted a Barbie doll when she was little, but I had not realized that the feeling went far beyond indifference. Every time I've brought this movie up to her with remarks along the lines of what I've posted here--"You know, actually this movie sounds kind of interesting"--the response has been brief: "I hate Barbie." And that's pretty much that. 


About Oppenheimer: not surprisingly, it has kicked off a new round of arguments about the morality of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or rather, as far as what I've seen is concerned, a new round of justifications for it. Oppenheimer developed grave reservations about what he had done, and I gather the movie is sympathetic to those reservations. Moreover, he and many others with similar reservations were leftists, which tends to make those on the right suspicious and skeptical toward their ethical arguments. 

At any rate, whenever the question comes up, American conservatives can be counted on to defend the morality of the bombing. A post by Rich Lowry at National Review, occasioned by the film, is pretty typical. The headline:  

Oppenheimer Had Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

The subhead:

Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right call. 

There's no need to go into detail about the text. It's the justification that's always used: that the use of the bomb was necessary to end the war and in fact saved millions of lives. That's a reasonable argument, and if I'd been in Truman's place I might have done the same thing. (As is also usual, Lowry notes that the atomic bomb was really no worse than the fire bombing of cities--which is probably true, but is a bizarre line of reasoning: "It's ok that we killed these civilians, because we had already killed those other ones.")

What it doesn't address, though, is the moral principle, if formulated in an elemental way, without reference to the particular situation: is it morally permissible to deliberately kill innocent people? 

If the answer to that is yes, then it's a pragmatic, utilitarian matter. It's purely a cost-benefit analysis. X people will die if we do this. X+Y people will die if we don't. Therefore we do it.

If the answer is no, then the bombings were objectively wrong, however powerful the reasons for resorting to them were. 

What most conservatives, including most of those who oppose abortion, don't see is that if the answer is yes, then there is no argument against abortion (and many other things) in principle

In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the practical calculation is very powerful, and I don't see any reason to doubt that it's correct as far as the number of casualties and the general horror are concerned. I don't dismiss it. Under the right threat we would probably all accede to things that we know to be wrong. But when, in the cold light of day, we say that it is, in principle, permissible to deliberately kill the innocent, we make a grave error. There's no good excuse for Catholics to make that mistake, because the Catechism is perfectly clear:

"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation." A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes. (2314)

I wrote about this at more length back in 2005: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory. One of my better efforts, I think, and one that I considered worth including in my book.

Ivan to Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”

“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said softly.


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How I wish Elizabeth Anscombe were alive today to respond to Rich Lowry et al.

From her "“Mr. Truman’s Degree,” a pamphlet she distributed when Oxford granted Harry Truman an honorary degree:

"In 1939, on the outbreak of war, the President of the United States asked for assurances from the belligerent nations that civil populations would not be attacked.

In 1945, when the Japanese enemy was known by him to have made two attempts towards a negotiated peace, the President of the United States gave the order for dropping an atom bomb on a Japanese city; three days later a second bomb, of a different type, was dropped on another city. No ultimatum was delivered before the second bomb was dropped.

Set side by side, these events provide enough of a contrast to provoke enquiry. Evidently development has taken place; one would like to see its course plotted. It is not, I think, difficult to give an intelligible account: [...]

For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions….

When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one's ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of the innocent". I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end. And a very large number of them, all at once, without warning, without the interstices of escape or the chance to take shelter, which existed even in the 'area bombings' of the German cities.

I have long been puzzled by the common cant about President Truman's courage in making this decision. Of course, I know that you can be cowardly without having reason to think you are in danger. But how can you be courageous? Light has come to me lately: the term is an acknowledgement of the truth. Mr Truman was brave because, and only because, what he did was so bad. But I think the judgement unsound. Given the right circumstances (for example that no one whose opinion matters will disapprove), a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive. "


Wow. I've always heard that Anscombe had spoken forcefully about this but never seen her actual words. Thanks for posting this.

By the way, I was pleased to see several commenters on that Lowry piece making these points. They were outnumbered but I really didn't expect any at all. Usually when I see arguments made against the standard justification it's also utilitarian: it was unnecessary because Japan wanted to surrender anyway, and so forth.

Three cheers for Anscombe. I knew she was critical of the bombings but I too had never seen her argument. Strong stuff.

I made some of these points on Dreher's substack and surprisingly got no responses from the pro-bombing commenters who had posted there. I was expecting some pushback.

Probably not a lot if any people talking about the Catholic Church's stance on Social Justice back in the 1940s in our government. That said, I imagine the group there would seem particularly enlightened compared to now. Good posts, Mac and Marianne.

FWIW, I recently read a review of a memoir by the woman who designed a lot of Barbie's clothes. She said that the tiny waist was necessary for Barbie to look right when clothed, because waist seams involve four layers of fabric so they were bulky in comparison to the rest of the outfit.

Heh. That's interesting. I guess fabric thickness doesn't scale when you're one foot tall. :-)

Finally got to see Oppenheimer this afternoon. Outstanding all the way around. Three hours and I never lost interest for a minute, mostly due to a fantastic performance by Cillian Murphy and Nolan's creative direction. Robert Downey Jr. is also great in a prominent supporting role. I didn't read about the casting beforehand, so was pleasantly surprised when a few unexpected faces popped up. And the score is wonderful.

Should not be missed and well worth seeing on the big screen.

I don't have any good reason not to see it, except inertia and reluctance to spend half a day doing it. Maybe....

Fwiw, the portrayal of some of the people who wanted to declare Oppenheimer a security risk is disputed by some who knew them.

I wondered about some of that aspect of the film. Will have to follow up.

Saw Oppenheimer over the weekend also. I can only agree with Rob all the way around. Most surprisingly about that 3 hours going by so quickly. Rob, do you think the music had a lot to do with that? I asked Margo that question after, but she did not have much of a reply. I felt that the music continued to propel the viewer forward a little nervously. I would describe it as being "Hitchcockian".
It's hard to imagine Oppenheimer not cleaning up during awards season. The academy already LOVES biopics, so when a really well made and acted one comes along...

I loved the music. It was suspenseful when it needed to be, but also lyrical. At a couple points I thought it even sounded vaguely like Morricone. And yes, it certainly did help propel things along, even though it was not obtrusive.

I'd like to go see it again in a week or two if it's still around in theaters. Of the Nolan films I've seen it's definitely the best in my book.

Previous credits of the composer would not have produced high expectations of the score for me:


You mention Morricone. This guy did the music for The Mandalorian, which includes some obviously very deliberate attempts to sound like Morricone's Westerns. The whole thing in fact is a sort of Eastwood-Morricone-Western knockoff. Or homage, if you like. I don't know which was intended. The title character's voice and delivery are obviously Eastwood copies.

I'd never heard of him prior to this film, and even then I only knew that he had worked on Nolan's last movie, Tenet, which I didn't see.

There's nothing in the list of his earlier films that I'd be interested in watching, so I see your point.

I wanted to read the book, American Prometheus, to see how it squared with the movie, so I started reading, but was having trouble getting into it, so I started listening to it. I listened while I washed dishes. I listened while I folded the laundry. I listened while I drove the car many, many miles. I listened while I worked in the garden. For over a week. I still wasn't halfway through. I just couldn't listen anymore.

I would really suggest seeing it in the theater. I won't have as much impact at home.


I don't think the book is particularly well-written. It seemed to me like there were several places where the author repeated almost verbatim something he had said earlier in the book, like he had forgotten that he had already written them.

There is some difference in nuance about some situations.


I'm hoping to see it again next week. This week must be the last week of its initial run in our area, because as of tomorrow it is leaving some cinemas and starting in others, and there aren't as many showtimes. Still will be easy to find, however.

One of the interesting previews that showed with it was for a biopic of Bob Marley. It appears to me to be one of those movies that could either be pretty good or really bad. I like Marley, and reggae music in general, so I'd consider seeing it, but the preview wasn't convincing.

Janet, a counterpoint to that is the Barbie book is exceptionally well written and fun! No, that is just a joke. We do have a copy of American Prometheus in the college library and I had considered checking it out, but it now seems like that would not get me anywhere so thanks for your comments. Even if very well written it likely would have just sat on my bedside table for several weeks until I took it back. Oppenheimer was definitely one to be seen at the theater!

I doubt it will be a surprise to any of you to learn that there are Barbie books. Most of them are readers for little girls but there's also a special edition of People magazine about the movie.

Finally got to watch 'Living,' the British remake of Kurosawa's 'Ikiru.' I was a bit nervous, because the original is an unquestioned classic and an all-time favorite film of mine. But I need not have feared; the remake is excellent -- top notch all the way around. Bill Nighy is perfect in the lead (got Oscar, Golden Globe, and Bafta noms), the supporting cast is marvelous, and the script (Kazuo Ishiguro), the music, and the cinematography are all wonderful. If you know the original you won't be disappointed, and if you don't, I think you can appreciate 'Living' regardless. It's that rare remake of a good film that comes very close to capturing the magic of the original.

The primary point of difference between it and 'Ikiru' is length, so to someone who's seen the original 'Living' might seem a bit condensed and therefore slightly less dramatic. It's a very small complaint, however, and if course if you've not seen the original it will make no difference. In some ways the new film's relative brevity even works to its advantage, especially for modern audiences.

I noticed in the credits that both Toho Films, the producer of the original, and the Kurosawa estate cooperated in 'Living's' production, and that Toho secured the rights for the Japanese release. It would be interesting to see how the film was received in Japan.

Anyways, needless to say, I highly recommend it.

I can rent it on Prime for $6. No doubt worth it. But Ikiru is on Criterion and I think I'll watch it first.

I wonder how I watched it. I wouldn't have rented it.

I am glad you liked it, Ron. I did too.


I read today in one of those things that shows up on your phone for some reason, that Oppenheimer is about to become the highest grossing film of any film that was never #1 at the box office. This doesn't surprise me, and I started to think about how the Barbie movie is probably a flash in the pan that will, after a while, live on the Disney chanel, and kids will watch it sometimes, while Oppenheimer is such a well-made film that it could be regarded as a classic for a long time.


"Classic" and "highest grossing" don't usually go together. This must be really something.

I watched Ikiru in two sessions, yesterday and today. It's wonderful. I'll post something about it sometime in the next week. Now I'm eager to see Living.

I haven't seen 'Barbie' but it seems like it might be the type of movie that becomes a cult film for a "knowing" audience -- the sort of people who get the in-jokes and the irony. The other day I overheard two younger servicemen discussing it with their waitress at a restaurant, and they were talking about its intellgence and multi-layered quality. I have heard similar comments from other people who have seen it. It's not the sort of movie I feel that I need to see in the theater, but I'll watch it when the DVD comes out.

Glad you liked 'Ikiru,' Mac. I'm a big Kurosawa fan and I think it's one of his best films, certainly the best of his contemporary dramas.

That's the impression I have of Barbie. Can't say I'm much interested in seeing it but as I said a couple of weeks ago, judging by the conversations about it there seems to be more to it than just a silly merchandising tool. Some conservatives really hate it, others find it interesting.

I went to see Barbie yesterday, now that the furor has died down a little, at least here in Mobile. My chair was very comfortable, and after 20 minutes or so (which I found entertaining) I sort of dozed in and out of consciousness for most of the first half of the movie. Then I was more fully awake and not quite sure what exactly was happening in the plot, so I figured that was enough and simply left. That might say more about me than the movie, which did appear to be quite well made and acted. Probably not my cup of tea, being a male in his 50s. I'm certainly not offended by a female empowerment theme. I am one who is of the mind that men have wrecked most things, so it's time to let the women be in charge. ;-)
I would recommend Oppenheimer for adults, and Barbie for children and others that might be more interested in movies about friendly dolls. Barbie did sort of remind me of The Truman Show in a small way.

Considering that you apparently saw less than half of Barbie, your negative view does not necessarily carry a lot of weight. :-)

However, I saw something earlier today which made me inclined to take back my suggestion that it might actually be worth seeing. Heather Wilhelm at National Review says:

...according to glowing press reports, the shining pinnacle of the film is a monologue in which an actress rants about how terrible it is to be a woman in American society today.

“It is literally impossible to be a woman,” the speech begins...'


That's Just Plain Nuts.


The reason that it's impossible to be a woman is that women refuse to be women.


But if they thought it was possible I'm sure they'd try. :-)

Many of the various groups who are loud about their victimhood say really crazy things. The other day I read some black activist's claim that there is nothing worse in the world than to be a black person in America, or something along those lines.

Heather Wilhelm didn't see the movie, though. I would not necessarily trust "glowing press reports" to assess the pinnacle of a movie about womanhood.
FWIW my 20yo daughter's opinion is that that scene may have been intended as the shining pinnacle, but it missed. She thinks the shining pinnacle is the preceding scene, which is about depression. My 28yo daughter's opinion is that the movie is not about one thing; it's a big mix of ideas, some more serious than others. If that's right, maybe there is no one shining pinnacle moment.

"it's a big mix of ideas, some more serious than others."

That sounds very likely. And the commentary is a sort of blind-men-and-elephant thing. I've figured that the commentary from conservative women who found it interesting in various ways means that it isn't just the simple-minded feminist tract that some are taking it for. Right wing men especially. [eye roll]

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