By Sydney Hintz
Image by Sean Longmore (@seanlongmore)
The lights dim and your chair slowly reclines, a bucket of popcorn at your feet and wonder in your eyes. It is the rebirth of the movie theater; what seemed to be the end credits of this popular pastime fade into a sequel as seeing movies in person is made mainstream once more.
The cultural phenomenon known as “Barbenheimer,” or watching Barbie and Oppenheimer back-to-back, has taken the country by storm; Barbie grossed $162 million and Oppenheimer $82 million their opening weekend in the U.S., surpassing all projections. The internet rallied around the two films, creating a frenzy of content about the irony of their simultaneous release given their vastly different plot points, with the audience being set to see dolls and atomic warfare all in one day. Part of the appeal of Barbenheimer lies in the juxtaposition of the films, but upon closer examination, there is one dire commonality between the two: anti-environmentalist sentiment.
As soon as the first Barbie trailer dropped, I knew I had to watch the film. Eager to view a childhood favorite in a different light, I couldn’t wait to see what the director had in store. When I heard that Oppenheimer was going to drop the same day, my excitement doubled. I have long been a history buff and love bio-pics, so Barbenheimer seemed like a dream come true. Barbie’s marketing was everywhere you looked, with countless new product collaborations, and Oppenheimer content was all over the internet. Like many others, I even made a day of seeing Barbie with my friends, where we got brunch and dressed in all pink. After viewing the two films, however, I could feel something unsettling brewing within me. The directing, acting, and set design were incredible in both films, with Barbie boasting an 88% and Oppenheimer a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet something didn’t feel right. After driving home from the theater, it dawned on me. Barbie and Oppenheimer aren’t all that different; the films both uphold environmentally harmful messages.
Oppenheimer is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his work leading the Manhattan Project, where the creation of the nuclear bomb deployed against Japan during World War II took place. It explores the moral complexities of nuclear warfare and the detrimental impacts of nuclear energy on humanity, specifically the nuclear bomb. One of the key points of the movie is to highlight the damage that the nuclear bomb caused and question whether or not it was necessary to win the war, causing the audience to question the ethics of nuclear weapons and, whether it be intentional or not, reigniting the fear of nuclear power. But what exactly is nuclear power’s impact on the environment?
Nuclear power plants use fission - or splitting atoms of unstable isotopes, such as Uranium 235 - to produce energy as heat. These reactions take place surrounded by water to create steam, which spins turbines to produce electricity. This carbon-free form of electricity takes up a small amount of space and is reliable, which is useful as backup energy for less consistent forms of carbon-free energy such as solar and wind. Nuclear power accounts for nearly 20% of all energy in the United States and causes far less damage on the environment compared to fossil fuels, but it does come with its drawbacks.
Nuclear power plants have very high upfront costs and produce toxic nuclear waste that is difficult to dispose of. There are other forms of clean energy on the market that cost far less and do not pose the potential safety risks associated with nuclear. However, the reliability and high energy output of nuclear power make it an important resource in the transition away from fossil fuel energy. It is the lack of political support and a poor reputation that stand in nuclear power’s way.
Although the film does not go into nuclear power and the ethics surrounding it, that doesn’t stop the powerful imagery of pain and distress from spilling over. Oppenheimer paints a negative picture of nuclear as a whole, and one of nuclear power’s biggest obstacles has been shifting the public perception.
The effects of public opinion on nuclear power can be seen through Germany. Germany has long been a leader in nuclear energy, with this being the main source of electricity for decades. However, the gradual decommissioning of plants began after public opinion shifted with the nuclear meltdowns in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, with the Fukushima meltdown being the final nail in the coffin. Despite the long standing infrastructure, low-carbon emissions, and secure energy source that nuclear provided for Germany for decades, the final three power plants were decommissioned in April of 2023. The impact that public perception has on government decision making is strong, and the media plays a large role in that. So the question remains, how might Oppenheimer affect U.S. sentiment around nuclear power?
Although Barbie does not include any nuclear reactions, its impacts on the environment remain damaging. Barbie is all about learning what it means to be human and trying to get back to “Barbie Land” to prevent the Ken’s from taking over. While Barbie grows dissatisfied with the plastic perfection of Barbie Land once she experiences the real world, its picturesque scenery is hard not to admire, with the set design of the fictitious locale being one of the most impressive parts of the movie.
With a film centered around plastic and consumerism, it is easy to see where the problems may lie. Starting with the production of the film, which caused a world shortage of fluorescent pink paint, extensive amounts of harmful chemicals and materials were being generated. According to the Washington Post, Mattel locked in over 100 brand collaborations as an advertising strategy to promote the release of the film and included brand placement within the film itself, encouraging consumers to buy more items that pollute the environment that they might not have otherwise. Mattel even went as far as creating an extensive merchandise line for the movie featuring 70 unique products. In Barbie’s world, the more the merrier, and that sentiment is reinforced to the audience.
More than eight hundred billion pounds of plastic are produced annually worldwide, with toys being highly plastic-intensive. Plastic pollution poses many threats, specifically to wildlife and ecosystems. Microplastics can degrade the digestive tracts of marine life and lead to premature death. But the problem extends beyond the animal that consumes microplastic, with predators higher in the food chain consuming the plastic within their prey. Plastics don’t degrade, so bioaccumulation begins to take place and top predators end up with mass amounts of plastic within their bodies from the countless prey they eat that have been intaking plastic. The serious effects of plastic stretch to humans as well. “In fact, it is now clear that children are feeding on microplastics even before they can eat. In 2021, researchers from Italy announced that they had found microplastics in human placentas,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert, renowned reporter and author, in The New Yorker. While Mattel claims that sustainability efforts are being made and that they will be virgin plastic free by 2030, their current progress is underwhelming. The products they make release plastic into the biosphere, with toys themselves hardly ever being recycled.
Perhaps more troubling than the products generated as a result of Barbie is the message it sends. Barbie glorifies consumerism and embraces materialism as a means of happiness. The countless outfit changes, dreamhouses, and convertibles pop on screen, but the impacts that they have on the environment are anything but bright and happy. The catchphrase “life in plastic is fantastic” can be heard across the globe, with moviegoers singing the happy tune as they enter theaters. Altering the public image surrounding plastic and overconsumption to be more positive exacerbates the plastic problem and reverses the years of work done by activists to bring plastic pollution into the limelight.
The impact that media has on public perception can stretch so far as to shape politics and ways of living, even if it is subconscious or unintentional. Take the panic over sharks after the debut of one of the most notable films in cinema history, Jaws. The reputation of the villain of the story, the great white shark, has forever been smeared by the film’s depiction of it and painted as a “man-eater,” despite the hugely disproportionate effects that man has on sharks and not vice versa.
The release of the cultural phenomenon Barbenheimer is sure to spark changes in public perceptions and consumer behavior. While it is too soon to evaluate the extent of the films’ effects now, it is important to remember that they are not set in stone. We have the power to make our own decisions and formulate our own opinions, regardless of the content we are being fed. Remaining cognizant of the subliminal messages the media sends is imperative in tackling the climate crisis.
Although the emotional association of fear tied to nuclear power in Oppenheimer cannot be erased, it is important to continue to research nuclear power and its strengths and weaknesses instead of letting the emotions evoked by the movie dictate our opinions. The materialist and consumption-centric themes of Barbie should also be acknowledged, and we should remain aware of how that messaging impacts our thought processes and actively work to recognize its influence. This is not to label these movies or their curators as “good” or “bad,” but rather address the challenges that they present, whether they be intentional or not. No film is perfect, and Barbenheimer is no different. It is about what we do after the end credits roll that matters.