The Barbenheimer Phenomenon Proves Female & Queer Content Is For Straight Men Too — & Hollywood Should Take Notice

Pigeonholing people into women & LGBTQ+ versus everyone else doesn't hold the water it used to.

Margot Robbie in Barbie, Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer, and memes from the Barbenheimer phenomenon Stefano Chiacchiarini '74, Fred Duval / Shutterstock; @thattallginger, @stevereevesart / Twitter

Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" and Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" made their long-awaited July 21st premiere, and the movies' merged fanbases — the "Barbenheimer" set — sold movie theaters all over the country.

But what does it actually mean that these two films that are supposed to be at odds have converged as a single pop-cultural event?

The Barbenheimer phenomenon shows that the old model of pigeonholing movies for certain demographics no longer exactly fits — and it's time for Hollywood to take notice.

From the moment "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer's" releases were set for July 21, 2023, the movie pair's premieres were framed as an epic battle. In one corner, the candy-colored "Barbie" romp for the gals and the gays; in the other corner, "Oppenheimer's" thrillingly intellectual deep-dive into the history of the atom bomb for the dudes and the cinephiles.


These not-so-subtly gendered, sexist and queerphobic narratives have also taken on explicitly political overtones when it comes to right-wing media, which has positioned "Barbie," directed by Greta Gerwig, as pro-LGBTQ+ liberal propaganda, while "Oppenheimer," directed by Christopher Nolan, is supposedly for more sensible-minded conservatives.



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Fans, however, have been so excited for both 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' that they have merged into one singular, 'Barbenheimer'-themed event.

For months, the internet has been full of Barbenheimer memes, from silly memes to retooled versions of the films' trailers meant to look as if they're actually a single cinematic entity.

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Meanwhile, the movie theater industry has responded quite literally in kind — cinemas all over the country booked double-features of the two films so that fans can come see both back-to-back on the same day without having to deal with sell-outs of one or the other, or the impulse to just sneak into the second movie without a ticket. (Not that any of us would, of course.)


Clearly, the movie theaters have done the math: moviegoers don't seem to care who either movie is supposedly for, nor do they seem to have bought into the sexist narrative that Gerwig, known for female-centric films like "Lady Bird" and "Little Women," is for women, and Nolan, of "The Dark Knight" and "Inception" fame, is for dudes and cinéastes.

Moviegoers don't seem bothered. They want them both — so much so that they've made an event and a cultural touchstone out of it. And that's something Hollywood needs to make note of if it wants to have a future.

So far, 'Barbie' is winning the box office battle when it comes to the Barbenheimer phenomenon, showing that female- and queer-oriented content can be and is for straight men, too. 

Whether "Barbie" or "Oppenheimer" will end up on top in the final analysis of box office receipts weeks or months from now remains to be seen. But so far, "Barbie" is winning the race, racking up nearly double "Oppenheimer's" opening box office so far. Both are breaking records overseas.

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In a world where market forces and the still-looming anxiety of the pandemic has meant that Hollywood can barely open a movie period anymore, you don't get that kind of box office unless a little bit of everyone is showing up. That includes the straight men who are supposedly not the demographic for — or even being attacked by, to hear the triggered right-wing tell it — Gerwig and Margot Robbie's "Barbie" opus.

Even if the two were tied, though, or "Oppenheimer" were in the lead, the furor over both movies by the same groups of moviegoers shows that Hollywood's long-held instincts to segment people into discrete demographics doesn't hold the water it used to.


Just like how the blockbuster successes of movies like "Black Panther" and Jordan Peele's slate of race-themed horror movies have proved that the notion of "Black movies" vs. "white movies" isn't the hard-and-fast, sacrosanct division everyone used to think, the Barbenheimer phenomenon shows that pitting women and LGBTQ+ people against... well, basically everyone else might need to be a thing of the past.

In the end, it seems the demographics for "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are just people who like good movies, and the lesson is that if you make good movies — whether prestigious and thrilling or feminine and queer or anything in between — people who love good movies will show up. In droves. Period.

And in a time when the entertainment industry is being rocked by strikes while studios and streamers are seeing their businesses beginning to crater? Well, Hollywood would do well to take notice.


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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.