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When two touted pop-culture events happen on the same day, people—consumers, the media, even the artists themselves—tend to frame it as a showdown. Think Kanye West vs. 50 Cent, Blade Runner vs. The Thing, Nevermind vs. Blood Sugar Sex Magik. That’s not happening with Barbie and Oppenheimer, both of which hit theaters today. To the contrary: The term “Barbenheimer” has swept into the pop lexicon to describe turning this cinematic synchronicity into a double feature. Yes, reader, that means four hours and 54 minutes of big-screen immersion.

As for why this has happened, your guess is as good as ours. It helps, of course, that both films are the product of acclaimed and accomplished directors (Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, respectively); it also helps that the two movies are so tonally disparate that they act as natural complements. But there’s also a very real joy, after three years of pandemic-fueled box-office stagnation and in this age of superhero fatigue and endless media conglomeration, at having two smart non-sequels in theaters at the same time.

But there’s one other very important thing to point out about Barbenheimer: From our standpoint, this is maybe the most Longreads-friendly meme since TikTok’s New Journalism Icons as Zodiac Signs Challenge. (Or it would be, if that existed.) Barbie and J. Robert Oppenheimer have each been the subject of numerous critical and journalistic examinations over the years, and they cast long cultural shadows well before they became central characters in $100 million films. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite reads about the weirdest dynamic duo of 2023, presented as a quartet of Barbenheimer-style doubleheaders. See you when Didion and Talese get greenlit!

The Ken Doll Reboot: Beefy, Cornrowed, and Pan-Racial

Caity Weaver | GQ | June 20, 2017 | 4,033 words

The new lineup of Ken Dolls—seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base)—landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQgot to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it.

When he debuted in 1961, Ken (legal name: Ken Carson) was a spindly, anemic fan of casual swimwear. Over the years, he has blossomed into a sculpted, perma-tanned icon of American masculinity. Even if you never played with Ken, his tiny footfall has reverberated through your life; he charges in early in the formative years of the fairer sex, setting an impossible standard for males against which you will be judged forever. Ken is the first man—or, technically, eunuch—many little girls will ever see nude. Consequently, he teaches young ladies that men are meant to have bodies like Olympic water-polo players. He’ll teach girls precisely how much taller than women men should be and (sort of) about the different ways men use the bathroom; Barbie’s Dreamhouse, a one-woman mega-mansion, features a single but quintessential nod to Ken’s existence: a toilet seat that lifts up. “That’s very important for Ken from a girl’s perspective,” says Michael Shore, Mattel’s head of global consumer insights (it means he watches kids play with dolls). “Because guys use toilets different from girls.”

Over time, Ken has been depicted as a rapping rocker (Rappin’ Rockin’ Ken), a doctor (Dr. Ken), and a sovereign of the Crystal Caves (King of the Crystal Caves Ken), but that is what he is reduced to: someone who uses the toilet in a mysterious way.

A Profile of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Lincoln Barnett | LIFE | October 10, 1949

Four years after America dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, writer Lincoln Barnett went to Princeton to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer. Barnett found a noticeably relieved Oppenheimer, deep into new research—a “revival of physics”—after years spent building a weapon that to his mind was “merely a gadget, a technological artifact that exploited principles well known before the war.” This remarkable profile, available via Google Books in its original print format, includes one of the earliest descriptions of Oppenheimer’s famous observation upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb test.

Los Alamos took its toll of his physical energies, for in the final phases of the work he slept but four hours a night. By the pre-dawn of July 16, 1945, when the first bomb was raised to the test tower at Alamogordo, his weight had fallen from its normal 145 to 115 pounds. Above and beyond the fatigue he felt as he peered across the darkened desert that morning, he was beset by two complementary anxieties: he feared first that the bomb would not work; second he feared what would happen to the world if it did. And then when the great ball of fire rolled upward to the blinded stars, fragments of the Bhagavad-Gita flashed into his mind: “If the radiance of a thousands suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One…. I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” And as the shock waves and sound waves hurled themselves furiously against the distant mountains, Oppenheimer knew that he and his co-workers had acquired a promethean burden they could never shed. “In some crude sense,” he observed later, “which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” These sentiments were no sudden by-product of the explosion’s terror and fury. The moral problem adduced by their work had been debated by the Los Alamos scientists incessantly from the beginning. Oppenheimer once analyzed their ethical position in these words: “We thought that since atomic weapons could be realized they must be realized for the world to see, because they were the best argument that science would make for a new and more reasonable idea of relations between nations.” Although Oppenheimer represented the idealist wing, who thought development of the bomb might lead to some good end, many of the physicists justified their work on purely empirical grounds. This “operational” standpoint was expressed bluntly by Oppenheimer’s former teacher, Dr. Bridgman of Harvard, who pooh-poohed his famous student’s feelings of guilt, declaring, “Scientists aren’t responsible for the facts that are in nature. It’s their job to find the facts. There’s no sin connected with it—no morals. If anyone should have a sense of sin, it’s God. He put the facts there.”

When Barbie Went to War With Bratz

Jill Lepore | The New Yorker | January 17, 2018 | 4,700 words

Jill Lepore looks at the problem of defining intellectual property when it comes to what young girls should play with: “The feud between Barbie and Bratz occupies the narrow space between thin lines: between fashion and porn, between originals and copies, and between toys for girls and rights for women.”

In 2010, Alex Kozinski, then the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who presided over Mattel v. MGA, wrote in his opinion that most of what makes a fashion doll desirable is not protectable intellectual property, because there are only so many ways to make a female body attractive. “Little girls buy fashion dolls with idealized proportions which means slightly larger heads, eyes and lips; slightly smaller noses and waists; and slightly longer limbs than those that appear routinely in nature,” Kozinski wrote, giving “slightly” a meaning I never knew it had. But only so much exaggeration is possible, he went on. “Make the head too large or the waist too small and the doll becomes freakish.” I’d explain how it is that anyone could look at either a Barbie or a Bratz doll and not find it freakish, except that such an explanation is beyond me. As a pull-string Barbie knockoff once told Lisa Simpson, “Don’t ask me! I’m just a girl!”

Oppenheimer’s Tragedy—and Ours

Robert Jay Lifton | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist | July 17, 2023 | 3,485 words

This is a fascinating dive into both Oppenheimer and the human psyche. Robert Jay Lifton proves himself to be an Oppenheimer commentator who has true knowledge, insight, and understanding, even admitting that “had I been a physicist at the time I would have readily joined that crusade.” A thought-provoking take that goes beyond the narrative into the complexities of humanity.

Underneath Oppenheimer’s promethean capacities was a vulnerable and at times deeply distraught human being. He could be needy and contradictory in his relationships with others and subject to periodic depression. During his early adult life he was at times suicidal and on at least two occasions violent toward others: He poisoned an apple of a Cambridge tutor (we do not know how much poison he used) who insisted that he engage in hated laboratory work, and on another occasion attempted to strangle a friend who told him of love and plans for marriage.

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ Dream Job

Willa Paskin | The New York Times Magazine | July 11, 2023 | 6,671 words

Anyone who grew up with a Barbie (or Ken) doll will be enthralled by this piece. It explores not just the new film, but also Barbie’s history and complicated relationship with feminism. There has been a flood of Barbie content recently, but this reporting has far more depth than most.

“Barbie,” too, is a coming-of-age story; the figure coming of age just happens to be a full-grown piece of plastic. “Little Women” would have been a fine alternate title for it. Same with “Mothers & Daughters,” a working title for “Lady Bird.” For Barbie, as in both those other films, growing up is a matriarchal affair. It is something you do with your mother, your sisters, your aunties. Or, in Barbie’s case, with the women threaded through your product history.

Excerpt From ‘American Prometheus’

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin | Penguin Random House | 2005 | 2,552 words

In this first chapter of American Prometheus, we meet the parents of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic era. Robert’s father Julius was a German-born clothier; his mother Ella, an American artist. Oppenheimer had a privileged upbringing in New York City, in a home filled with piano lessons and paintings by the likes of Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir, and Van Gogh. “Excellence and purpose” were considered words to live by.

It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Because young Robert himself was frequently ill as a child, Ella became overly protective. Fearing germs, she kept Robert apart from other children. He was never allowed to buy food from street vendors, and instead of taking him to get a haircut in a barber shop Ella had a barber come to the apartment.

Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child

James Vlahos | The New York Times | September 16, 2015 | 6,303 words

What happens when you try to program a doll to have a real conversation with a child? A look at the new A.I.-powered Barbie doll hitting the market this Christmas.

This summer, when I visited Mattel’s sprawling campus in El Segundo, a prototype of Hello Barbie stood in the middle of a glass-topped conference table, her blond tresses parted on the right and cascading down to her left shoulder. She looked like your basic Barbie, but Aslan Appleman, a lead product designer, explained that her thighs had been thickened slightly to fit a rechargeable battery in each one; a mini-USB charging port was tucked into the small of her back.

A microphone, concealed inside Barbie’s necklace, could be activated only when a user pushed and held down her belt buckle. Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. Speech-recognition software would then convert the audio signal into a text file, which would be analyzed. The correct response would be chosen from thousands of lines scripted by ToyTalk and Mattel writers and pushed to Hello Barbie for playback — all in less than a second.

‘‘Barbie, what is your full name?’’ Appleman asked the doll as I watched.

‘‘Oh, I thought you knew,’’ Barbie replied. ‘‘My full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.’’

On Albert Einstein

Robert Oppenheimer | The New York Review of Books | March 17, 1966 | 2,409 words

Oppenheimer’s lecture, originally given at UNESCO House in Paris in 1965—and reprinted the following year in NYRB.

Though I knew Einstein for two or three decades, it was only in the last decade of his life that we were close colleagues and something of friends. But I thought that it might be useful, because I am sure that it is not too soon—and for our generation perhaps almost too late—to start to dispel the clouds of myth and to see the great mountain peak that these clouds hide. As always, the myth has its charms; but the truth is far more beautiful.