Is Barbenheimer Camp?

Barbenheimer: The Clash of Camp Aesthetics in Cinema’s Epic Showdown 

In a delightful convergence of cinematic brilliance, the anticipation surrounding Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has ignited an Internet phenomenon like no other. What was once merely a release date has now transformed into a cultural extravaganza of epic proportions, captivating movie enthusiasts around the globe. As fans eagerly await these two highly anticipated cinematic marvels, the concept of a double-feature Friday has emerged as the ultimate way to immerse oneself in an unforgettable movie experience. But why have these two films become the highlight of every film lover’s calendar, what do they mean for queer people, and, most importantly, are they the camp event of the century? 

The anticipation surrounding these two films has sparked a magnificent frenzy, as fans around the world prepare for an unprecedented movie event. Thanks to the power of an Internet meme-generated phenomenon, the fusion of these contrasting works has been playfully dubbed Barbenheimer, igniting the curiosity and excitement of film enthusiasts everywhere. With fans eagerly sharing their imaginative mashups, fan theories, and speculations online, this convergence of cinematic brilliance has transcended mere releases, becoming a fully established cultural event.  

As anticipation builds, many cinephiles have already decided to indulge in a double-feature Friday, a testament to the profound impact these two films have had on the collective imagination. Whether it’s a lighthearted journey with Barbie or a thought-provoking exploration of Oppenheimer’s legacy, Barbenheimer has captured the hearts and minds of movie enthusiasts, solidifying its place as a must-see cinematic phenomenon. 

It’s essential to note that the impact of Barbie on the queer community may continue to evolve over time as society progresses and as Mattel continues to adapt its brand to reflect changing cultural attitudes and values. However, Barbie’s influence on the queer community has primarily been through its evolving representations of gender and inclusion, as well as the empowering messages it conveys through play. 

In the vast world of cinema, clashes between blockbuster movies are not uncommon. The excitement of two highly anticipated films releasing on the same day can create an exhilarating buzz, leading to heated debates and passionate discussions among moviegoers. However, when it comes to the clash between two non-sequel movies, the battle lines seem to blur, leaving people divided and the meme community in a state of uproar. 

The battleground is set: two formidable contenders, each with their loyal supporters, are ready to captivate audiences and dominate the box office. But amidst the anticipation, a crucial question looms large—Are the two movies truly at war, or is it a harmonious coexistence? 

For some, this cinematic duel becomes a matter of unwavering allegiance. Fervent supporters of one movie form a fervid fan base, promoting their favorite film with unyielding dedication. On the other hand, there are those who find joy in the sheer abundance of quality content. For them, the clash represents an embarrassment of riches, a delightful dilemma of choosing between two enticing offerings. 

Amidst this clash of opinions, an unexpected player enters the arena—the meme community. Known for their humor, wit, and relentless creativity, meme-makers refuse to reach a consensus. Instead, they take delight in turning the rivalry into a playful battlefield of memes and gifs. The virtual world becomes an amusement park, where satire reigns supreme, poking fun at the seriousness of the situation and reveling in the camaraderie that comes with shared laughter. These memes play on the sheer clash of colours between the two contenders, turning each camp into an aesthetic to pick rather than simply a film to watch. Barbenheimer has turned the Internet into an audacious realm of kitsch artificiality, making it a deliciously fun place to be this month. 

In an interview on her ‘official Barbie watchlist’, Greta Gerwig mentions this obsession with artificiality. The world of Barbie never pretends to be anything other than a sound stage – it is, as Gerwig says, ‘authentically artificial’. In her watchlist, Gerwig notes historically important queer films as references to this over-the-top aesthetic, with the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Jacques Demy musicals taken shot-for-shot in many of Barbie’s sequences. It is because of this that Barbie feels so personal to us already. Many queer people have grown up idolising American musical stars, obsessing over the lavish sets of the dance sequences in classics like Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris. 

 This collage of familiar aesthetics works well with the film’s other, more obvious, camp element. Barbie herself is one of the most widely recognised symbols of the century. Within this brand, however, aesthetics is broadened yet again. The film pays tribute to all of the different versions of Barbie that have graced the world since the company was founded in the 1950s, marking with it the ways in which the image of Barbie has adapted to the changing world. All the characters in the film are based on these ‘real’ Barbies of the past, moving beyond the femme, white, thin ‘stereotypical Barbie’. Gerwig peoples her Barbieland with a remarkably diverse population – 1980s Barbie, camper Barbie, posh Barbie, and many more – all contributing to the idea that we can all be Barbie in 2023. There is a Barbie for all aesthetics, whether Y2K or cottagecore or dark academia. 

Oppenheimer similarly focuses on over-the-top visuals, its aesthetic radically different. For three hours, the viewer is kept alert at all times through a constantly moving camera and Nolan’s signature swelling orchestral soundtrack. The film is a dark academia dream, from candlelit hallways at Cambridge University and various Ivy League schools to excessive smoking (especially during a dramatic revelation), dapper suits, cocktails, and blackboards filled with unintelligible scribbles. The characters communicate through witty one-liners, and we are made to follow the fast-paced brain of one of the most famous physicists of all time throughout his process of designing the first atomic bomb.  

The film idolises Oppenheimer’s sheer genius-status in a way that draws back to the cult classic TV series Sherlock and its audience are strongly encouraged to follow suit, marveling at the visual prowess of the film’s slick, larger-than-life editing style. Every bit as much ‘Old Hollywood’ as Barbie, Oppenheimer stands as a visual experience more than just a film. 

Try as you might to distinguish between the two camps of the Barbenheimer phenomenon, as the slew of memes and merch surrounding the release of the films which prod you to choose between team Barbie and team Oppenheimer want you to, the two films are staggeringly similar. Sure, they play on different aesthetics, but the ways in which they play with aesthetic draws interesting parallels. Oppenheimer is as ‘authentically artificial’ as Barbie. If you take Susan Sontag’s pillars of camp – a reliance on visual style, letting the image speak for itself, and taking this absurd, over-the-top aesthetic seriously – then both Barbie and Oppenheimer, as well as Barbenheimer itself, is the very definition of camp. By committing so intensely to world-building through one single, defined, aesthetic line, both films (and the memes that accompany them) draw the viewer into a possibility of what they could be, an identity of sorts. By shouting the obvious, the films draw in an audience that can relate to them completely, extending an arm out with the promise of a community. And what is Sontag’s camp, for queer people, if not this promise of community, drawn together by shared aesthetics?  

The protagonists of both films present the ways in which we, in the age of mass culture, latch onto aesthetics as a means of making sense of the world. Barbie’s (literally) rose-tinted glasses represent, for her, a world which she loves, one in which women can be doctors, presidents, or stay-at-home mums. One of the film’s most heart-warming qualities is this ability to draw its characters into a supportive community through this visual, unspoken pact of their shared aesthetic. Robert Oppenheimer similarly builds his world out of his aesthetic. Initially a lone wolf, unable to integrate into society because of his academically driven mind, Oppenheimer spends most of his life in a dual search for community and purpose. In dimly lit rooms clouded by cigarette smoke, he can only see himself as a tortured genius, made a martyr by his intelligence which directly clashes with his moral views. He is, as the opening credits famously label him, a modern Prometheus who changed the modern world forever with his discovery of the atomic bomb. A self-fulfilling prophecy, his aesthetic seeps into his way of viewing the world, and thus changing it.  

Whilst neither film is inherently ‘queer’ in terms of themes and narratives, this process of shaping the world through your own lens of aesthetic, the very core of camp, undoubtedly provides food for thought for queer viewers living in an age that is driven by aesthetic.  

Sontag’s camp looks different in 2023. It looks very much like Barbenheimer. Its meme-generated battle of aesthetics is never meant to be seriously violent; it is utterly joyous, and so fun. It carries on an important mechanism for queer community building, its core lying in the over-the-top performance. It shows that we can all shape our identities to be what we want them to be and find a community to accept us. Barbenheimer promises expression through aesthetics, a deeply rooted queer phenomenon in today’s world. 

So, are you picking sides? Or will you enjoy both, hoping for a double feature like Tom Cruise? Sit back and let the memes guide you.


Article by Ciprian Ciobanu and Miruna Tiberiu. 

Miruna Tiberiu is the Managing Editor of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu is currently long-listed for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023. 

Ciprian Ciobanu is the Senior Editor of GAY45. He is ending his MA at the University of Timisoara, majoring in painting and working in mixed media. Ciobanu is researching the mechanism of the relationship between art and the trends of a given time from music, fashion and popular stories. Ciprian Ciobanu is a nominee for Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Media 2024.  

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