“I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.”
—Seneca, Of a Happy Life, XX
Last week Todd C. Ream and Willem P. Van De Merwe reviewed and analyzed a set of J. Robert Oppenheimer biographies in conjunction with the release of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer. Although this movie generated a large amount of hype, as do most of Nolan’s films, it was not the only one that brought in large crowds this past weekend. We, of course, are referring to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, based on the Mattel doll of the same name.
These films’ shared release date gave rise to a cultural phenomenon that swept corners of the internet: Barbenheimer. People took to social media to outline their plans for watching the movies back-to-back (or at least on the same day), to debate which of the two was more apropos to view first (the most common consensus was a viewing of Oppenheimer followed by Barbie), and to share pictures of t-shirts with hot pink mushroom clouds or mash-up movie posters.1
This fascination with Oppenheimer’s dark, somber intensity and its dichotomous pairing with the vivacious pink of Barbie is not a meaningless happenstance. It has become a trend because it speaks to some aspects of Millennial and Gen Z culture on which it is worth reflecting. So, what does the Barbenheimer trend tell us about current culture among our generation (the authors are all Millennials) and the generation of our students (with whom the authors currently work or have worked with in student affairs roles), and how do we think theologically about the culture behind this practice of juxtaposing the dark and somber with the seemingly absurd and comical?
A Cultural Diagnosis
Toward the end of the films’ opening weekend, an article from NBC pointed to two reasons for the popularity of the Barbenheimer phenomenon. The first proposition was that those who were not initially planning to see both movies did not want to miss out once they noticed their friends talking about a double feature; the other reason was that “organic social media buzz that developed around both films, amplified by their combined star power, created an unprecedented box office event as well as a cultural moment unlike any other.”2 Although these options were potentially contributing factors, we don’t think either of them was the root of Barbenheimer.
A potentially more revealing source of this trend was illustrated in a 2019 opinion piece in the University of Illinois student newspaper:
Generally nihilism is regarded as a bad thing but there is, ironically, a bright side to it. We are waking up to our own misery. Our ironic nihilism is a product of our environment. We were born in the shadow of 9/11, grew up in a recession and have come to age knowing our political system is insane. We also are carrying loads of college debt for a degree in which we’ve been told we need to get a job, all while under the looming thought that we might all burn up because of climate change. While our parents firmly believed that America was the dominant global power, the rise of China seems to be eclipsing us. Humor is our coping mechanism. What many people of the older generations take to be glib irreverence is just a way of processing an incomprehensible world.3
This sentiment is not an isolated data point. In her book, iGen, Jean Twenge identified that those born in the mid–late-90s grew up in times where they were continuously exposed to uncertainties of various kinds.4
These films also capture different aspects of the lives of Millennials and Gen Zers: Barbie depicts a history with which we’re familiar. We’ve grown up with her, and this provides a sense of security and a reminder of something in which we had an imaginative shaping power. On the other hand, Oppenheimer represents a history in which we have no say and have only lived with its consequences. In fact, Oppenheimer’s invention could be considered a contributor to some of the current nihilistic roots that the University of Illinois student labeled as part of our environment.
Through these lenses, then, the Millennial/Gen Z culture is so inundated with news of misfortune that we make light of it as a coping mechanism: comedic or ironic nihilism. Barbenheimer could be a progression—in some ways a deformed maturation—of our culture’s comedic nihilism. Typically, the dark or heavy topics we engage with have the humor built in (e.g., SNL, Rick and Morty, I Think You Should Leave, almost anything by John Mulaney, etc.), but since Oppenheimer offers very little, Barbie is expected to proxy humor, which allows us to engage in the timeless tradition of “laughing to keep from crying.”
What is interesting, as well, is that the Barbenheimer phenomenon has been built up not from what the movies actually are, but what has been picked up from theatrical trailers. Before its release, the trailers for Barbie had not given a strong sense of its plot or what potential existential themes might be included. Of course, for those more familiar with Greta Gerwig’s directing, there seemed to be little to no question that big topics such as personhood and feminism would be addressed. However, for those who simply watched the trailer and saw the extensive use of pink, it comes across as the perfect way to get in some laughs to shake off the unsettling emotions generated by Oppenheimer.
Thinking Theologically About Barbenheimer
We suggest there are two distinct approaches to understanding Barbenheimer as a cultural phenomenon, both exploring the nature and use of comedy—one culturally and one theologically. The first is to view Barbie and Oppenheimer as a sort of call and response in which Barbie answers the fallenness represented in Oppenheimer with laughter. Perhaps this laughter is somehow redemptive or restorative, if not in the ultimate sense, at least temporally for viewers. In other words, humor is a coping mechanism—a means of dealing with and responding to that which grieves us with temporary appeals to positive emotion, but such a shallow understanding of the nature of comedy, in this sense, neither provides nor points us to hope. This is comedic nihilism. Moreover, the dichotomous pairing of these two films reminds us of a cultural moment not unlike our own in which a common response to grief was also nihilistic pursuit of temporary pleasure:
12The Lord, the Lord Almighty,
called you on that day
to weep and to wail,
to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.
13But see, there is joy and revelry,
slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
eating of meat and drinking of wine!
“Let us eat and drink,” you say,
“for tomorrow we die!”5
In light of the context our generation has grown up in, the tendency towards nihilism and the desire to cope with things far more joyous is hardly surprising, in fact, it is quite compelling. Yet, as Christians, we must ask if we might offer a theologically informed perspective on the Barbenheimer phenomenon that affords richer insight—maybe even hope—as we seek to understand why the juxtaposition of Oppenheimer and Barbie is so compelling not just from a mainstream cultural perspective of nihilism but a more hopeful Christian perspective.
Taking the latter perspective, we argue there is value in seeking to understand the nature and function of humor (i.e., comedy) in light of the biblical metanarrative. Comedy itself evidences the fallenness of creation, but we maintain that the ability to laugh—an expression of joy—is a gracious gift of God. Consider this: at its base, humor is the consequence of our understanding that all is not as it should be.6 Take the most innocent dad joke for example. We laugh at these corny jokes, often puns, because we recognize a word being used in a way for which we know it was not actually intended. Or take the following joke—a shared favorite amongst our various nephews and nieces:
Again, the humor in the joke emerges due to our knowledge that the interruption disturbed what should have been. Likewise, we find humor in awkward social situations: A friend mispronounces a word, and we all laugh because we agree that “something was just a little off base.” We could go on and on with examples. Even crude humor—we’ll spare you examples—functions this way.
While humor serves as evidence that all is not right—that our current reality is indeed fallen—the laughter and the joy we often experience, even amidst this realization, is a gracious gift from a God who has created us and is working toward final redemption of all things. Despite the influx of dystopian narratives in popular media, our generation has not given itself completely over to nihilism. Surely, nihilism brought to completion is true hopelessness, and we would hardly be able to laugh. Yet, we go see Oppenheimer and then we laugh with Barbie. Perhaps we find this coupling so compelling not because the movies represent opposite extremes but because they actually both heighten our awareness—though in distinct ways—that our current reality is not as it should be.
Though the larger culture may laugh because of the meaninglessness inherent in a nihilistic perspective, we as Christians continue to laugh because of the hope that full meaning will one day be restored, no matter how dark our present circumstances.
As Christian educators, are we prepared to help our students think about their compulsion toward Barbenheimer (and any other apparent comedic dichotomy) not just as a cultural phenomenon but as a deeply spiritual phenomenon? And are we prepared to provide them with insights into the hope that they so desperately crave by helping them understand not just life as it was and as it is, but life as it one day will be?
- Examples of some of these posts can be seen in Mariah Espada, “Why ‘Barbenheimer’ Mania Is Unstoppable,” Time, July 12, 2023, https://time.com/6293844/barbie-oppenheimer-internet-phenomenon/.
- Justine Goode, “’Barbenheimer’ phenomenon brings moviegoers together in major cultural moment,” NBC, July 23, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/movies/barbenheimer-phenomenon-brings-moviegoers-together-major-cultural-mome-rcna95402.
- Joseph Diller, “Ironic nihilism: our generation’s best creation,” The Daily Illini, February 23, 2019, https://dailyillini.com/opinions-stories/2019/02/23/ironic-nihilism-our-generations-best-creation/, para. 13.
- Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) (New York: Atria, 2017).
- Isaiah 22:12–13, ESV.
- Though we argue that humor is connected, in a way, to the fall, we are not arguing that humor or comedy is somehow sinful. It is a human act of creativity for making sense of the already—not yet context in which we exist.