A Tale Of Two Bikinis (How I Learned To Love Barbenheimer)

Perhaps you have come across the bizarre yet oddly compelling phenomenon called Barbenheimer – a pairing of two extraordinarily different movies that happened to have been released at the same time.  Barbie, a pink-laden, oddly poignant, and very funny riff on an iconic figure and Oppenheimer, an elegiac, thoughtful, and thorough exposition of the life of the man credited with turning theoretical physics into a fearful device for annihilation. The two movies have little, if anything, in common yet are disturbingly tempting to mine for memes and ironic juxtaposition. 

Having undertaken the mission of watching both back to back, one strange intersection occurred to me in a word that I did not hear mentioned directly in either film but was associated with both in a significant way.  Bikini. 

Technically, the swimsuit Barbie wore when she is first seen is not a bikini, but she and the two-piece bathing suit first released in 1946 share a certain aesthetic. What may be less known is how the bikini got its name and what it has to do with the second movie in the double feature. 

Bikini Atoll is a ring of islands in the Pacific that was cleared of its indigenous inhabitants to become the site of US nuclear tests (including the first Hydrogen bomb) after World War II.  Four days after the first such test, a French designer decided to harness some of the attention being given to the event by naming his somewhat less momentous invention after the test site. In other words, less than two years after tens of thousands of Japanese civilians became an offering by fire to end one war and announce supremacy in the Cold War to come, the heat of a new detonation was translated immediately into a product for women to wear on the beach. 

The post-war creation of the bikini captures our ability to melt war into consumerism and fuse violence with sex. The unintentional pairing of these movies connects an imaginary world threatened by an idea to our own world, threatened by something very real. 

Both movies I saw today were excellent and, in their own way, each tackled a significant subject and in a way reinforced their flaws.  Barbie went beyond expectations and sought to tackle questions of gender and power even as it became what is sure to be a delivery system for a massive payload of renewed interest in the very brand that knowingly lampooned its own consumerism and sexism. 

Oppenheimer provided haunting reminders of the horrors unleashed by weaponizing the atom while drawing our attention and sympathy away from those who most suffered and toward the complex man who brought the weapon to fruition.  

Whether in hues of pink or dour black and white, we tell stories to highlight the absurdity of our world or put the unthinkable into context,  but we know they only touch the surface of what is unthinkable and absurd.

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