Introducing: Promethean Barbie
Do we deserve the gift of fire?
Garrett Kincaid — September 30, 2023
Barbenheiemer — what an unbearable juxtaposition! What a terrible thing for cinema, that its future hangs on the success of a marketing gimmick! What could the origin story of the atomic bomb and a fictional world full of Mojo Dojo Casa Houses have in common? More than you might think.
I saw Oppenheimer and Barbie on back-to-back weekends, and during Act III of Barbie, I had a realization.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an epic biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Father of the Atomic Bomb. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a comic fantasy about the cultural significance of Mattel’s Barbie doll (and the most creative use of existing IP since Spaceballs). In their own (completely different) ways, both films explore ethical and existential questions that hit at the core of what it means to be human. And what does this cinematic power-couple reveal about the nature of humanity? Barbie and Oppenheimer have the same thesis: life is a Promethean struggle.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man.
For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.
In Greek mythology, the Olympic Gods gained control of the heavens after a decade-long war against the Titans. The Titans were cast into the abyss of Tartarus, but two brothers were spared and tasked with creating life on Earth: Prometheus and Epimetheus. Epimetheus started by endowing the animals with useful characteristics, like strength, swiftness, fur, fangs, and wings. Prometheus was responsible for the creation of man, but by the time he began, his brother had already used up all the good qualities for the animals. There was nothing left to endow man.
Prometheus created us so that we would stand upright on two legs, like the gods, and he gave us the gift of fire by lighting a torch from the Sun and bringing the flame down to Earth. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. That divine fire granted us our unique version of consciousness. The fire is symbolic of our ability to reason, create tools, imagine the future, and contemplate death.
For his transgression against the will of Zeus, Prometheus was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity. Every day, a giant eagle would tear Prometheus’s immortal liver from his flesh, only for it to regenerate and be ripped from his body again the next day.
Prometheus’s struggle is all too relatable to us humans. Like him, we are also creators. We bring books, businesses, board games, and babies into existence, yet there’s no way for us to know whether what we create will help or hurt humanity. And there’s no way to know what torture we will endure as a consequence for our creations. Prometheus’s torture was to be devoured by a giant, god-eating eagle every day of his eternal existence, so your torture won’t be as extreme. Maybe the consequence for what you create is social exile, regret, or condemnation. Or maybe it’s fame, fortune, and fulfillment. There’s no way to know.
The Promethean struggle is twofold: you can’t control the outcome of what you create, and there’s no way to predict the consequences you will endure for creating it. Even though you intend to help humanity, your creation may result in the death of thousands. And even if your creation did help humanity, you may still be tortured for it.
We humans have used Prometheus’s gift to create extinction-weapons and body-dysmorphic dolls. So, it’s worth asking: Was Prometheus right to steal the divine fire? Or was Zeus right — that we are undeserving of that gift?
The Dawn of Woman
The first scene of Barbie is a parody of Kubrick’s infamous “Dawn of Man” scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In 2001, apes discover a mysterious monolith, which is a symbol for the spark of human consciousness (analogous to Prometheus’s fire or Eve’s apple). And the first thing the apes do with their new knowledge is to find a tool and use it as a weapon. In a fight with another tribe over a watering hole, an ape picks up a bone and uses it to kill one of his kind. It’s the moment the apes become human.
In Barbie, the monolith is replaced — shot-for-shot — with a foul-pole-sized Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie, the first-ever Barbie doll.
Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls. But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls. Until…
*Queue the triumphant timpani and trumpets of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”*
Before Mattel released Stereotypical Barbie in 1959, little girls could only pretend to be mothers caring for their babies, or pretend that they were babies themselves. The dolls didn’t encourage female agency or help little girls imagine what they could achieve besides becoming mothers. That’s why Ruth Handler created Barbie.
Playing with Barbie, you could pretend to be a model, a fashion designer, a ballerina, or an astronaut — not only a mother. As a mother herself and a successful business woman, Ruth Handler created Barbie, the first adult doll, so that young girls could dream big about who they could be when they grow up.
In that first scene — the “Dawn of Woman” scene — Barbie starts to play with the Promethean myth. Stereotypical Barbie is the equivalent of the divine fire for little girls in America. But just as in the myth of Prometheus, Ruth Handler’s creation came with unpredictable consequences.
Barbie quickly became one of the most successful toys of all time and grossed over a billion dollars in sales — a runaway success. But in the 1970s, Barbie was vilified by the feminist movement, lambasted as a leading cause of body dysmorphia. This backlash was something Handler could have never imagined. It was the opposite of her goal: to empower young women to be whomever they wanted to be.
What her critics failed to acknowledge was Handler’s own struggles with body image and her concerted efforts to help women maintain their femininity and feel comfortable in their bodies.
In 1970, Handler had her first mastectomy, after fighting breast cancer for years. It hurt her self-image and prevented her from feeling like the woman she dreamed of being:
I had been fighting to be a respected female executive all my life. When I lost my breast, it was as if I had lost my femininity.
To cope, Handler got a breast prosthesis but was unsatisfied with the design. It was uncomfortable and didn’t match the other side of her chest. Why was it defective? Simple — the prosthetic was designed by men. Being the inventor and brilliant business woman she was, Ruth Handler solved the problem by creating another million-dollar product: Nearly Me breast prosthesis — the first prosthetics created by women and the first to actually fit women.
With the billion-dollar Barbie doll, Handler helped little girls dream beyond the narrow roles they’d been cast in society. With Nearly Me, Handler helped breast cancer survivors reclaim their femininity and feel better in their bodies. Yet, how do we remember her? We know Ruth Handler as the Mother of Body Dysmorphia.
From Handler, we learn the first truth of the Promethean struggle: you can’t predict the consequences you will endure for what you create. No matter her intentions or her level of success, there always seemed to be someone to doubt or disapprove of her, like the eagle that keeps returning to feast on Prometheus’s flesh.
In this interview in 1994, nearly 50 years after the release of the first adult doll, Ruth Handler replies to the ongoing criticisms of Barbie.
The obvious connection between Oppenheimer and Prometheus is that Oppenheimer gave literal fire to man by successfully weaponizing nuclear energy. But the more interesting link is about what happens after man receives the gift of fire. Both Prometheus and Oppenheimer are punished in similar ways; they’re forced to be silent and wait for the world to burn.
Prometheus gave fire to man and, by order of the Olympic Gods, was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity. The entire third act of Oppenheimer, which is a flawless three miles of 70mm film, is about how a brilliant, patriotic man was chained to a chair and interrogated for what probably felt like an eternity. Oppenheimer endures unjust trials that end in the government revoking his position on the Atomic Energy Commission, based on loose evidence of his affiliation with the communist party.
Now, there’s a part of the Prometheus myth that I haven’t told you. When Zeus punished Prometheus, he also punished man, by creating Pandora — the first woman. Zeus sent her down to Earth with an insatiable curiosity and a box she was told not to open. Zeus sent Pandora knowing she would unleash the contents of the box: sorrow, greed, disease, vice, violence, and death. It was inevitable. Meanwhile, bound to the side of a mountain, Prometheus had no way to warn the humans of Zeus’s trick or to prevent Pandora from opening the box. The same is true for Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer hoped that his work would “ensure a peace mankind had never seen.” But he was chained to a rock and prevented from helping man use that divine power for good. After the Trinity Test, Oppenheimer completely lost control of his creation. The bomb was out in the world and out of his hands.
There’s a notable moment in the film when General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, is loading up the bombs and about to leave New Mexico for D.C. After working for years on this project together, Oppenheimer and Groves split. Groves leaves with Oppenheimer’s creation and leaves him in the dirt of Los Alamos:
‘Should I come with you to Washington?’ Oppenheimer asks.
‘Why would you?’ Groves responds.
Robert Oppenheimer performed a miracle for the sake of his nation’s security that likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives. And he ushered humanity into the new scientific paradigm of nuclear energy. Yet, how do we remember him? We know Robert Oppenheimer as the Father of Extinction-Weapons.
Before Oppenheimer and his gang pressed the button to loose the strong nuclear force, they grappled with the non-zero chance that the bomb would set fire to the atmosphere and destroy the world. In the final scene of the film, Oppenheimer has an exchange with Albert Einstein, recalling their conversation about the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse:
‘Albert, when I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world…’
‘I remember it well. What of it?’ Einstein replies.
‘I believe we did.’
Oppenheimer harnessed the power of the Sun and gave that power to man. He is “the American Prometheus.” But the film ends by shifting its focus away from Prometheus to Pandora’s Box.
The modern equivalent of Pandora’s Box is the concept of global nuclear war, and opening that box may mean the end of humanity. During that conversation with Einstein, Oppenheimer saw a nuclear apocalypses as inevitable, just as Zeus knew that Pandora would inevitably open the box. The final shot in Oppenheimer is a view of Earth from space. A bomb detonates and sends a fiery ring around the Earth, destroying everything in its wake. It’s a window into the vision Oppenheimer likely had of humanity’s fate: extinction.
Maybe Oppenheimer did start a chain reaction that will destroy the entire wold. There’s no way to know.
From Oppenheimer, we learn the second truth of the Promethean struggle: you can’t control the outcome of what you create. Oppenheimer thought that by creating the atomic bomb, he would advance the field of physics, save American lives, and maybe end war as we know it. Those were his hopes. That was his motivation. Oppenheimer tried to influence policy and change how nuclear power would be used in the world, but he was blocked, silenced at every turn. He was discarded and kept separate from his creation, like Prometheus bound high upon some forsaken mountain. Oppenheimer, like Prometheus, was forced to stand aside and watch and wait for man to open Pandora’s Box.
In this interview from 1965, 20 years after the Trinity Test and in the midst of the Cold War, Robert Oppenheimer answers the question: “Are you optimistic about the future?”
A Divine Gift
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. Since then, we have used his gift to create anatomically inaccurate dolls and to harness the power of the Sun for the sake of killing each other. So, was Zeus right? Are we undeserving of Prometheus’s gift?
If you want to take back Barbies and bombshells, just know that we’d also lose art, science, religion, philosophy, literature, and Kansas City Barbecue. Prometheus’s gift is all-or-nothing. The divine fire, the spark of human consciousness, gave us infinite potential for both good and evil. To wish away that gift is to wish you weren’t human.
The question of whether we are undeserving of this gift is unimportant. What matters is that this is our reality. Life is a Promethean struggle. We have a duty and desire to create, yet we can neither control the outcome of our creations nor predict the consequences we’ll endure for what we create.
In the face of that reality, create anyway. Create what you believe will benefit humanity — be it a book, a business, a board game, or a baby. Then detach from the outcomes and the consequences, for you have done your duty.
Prometheus’s gift, and his struggle, is what makes us human. Without it, we would be devoured by the many mightier animals, those endowed with strength, swiftness, and fangs. So, I say, praise Prometheus, savior of man! Thanks to Prometheus’s gift, we are humans, rather than the gods’ incapable clay dolls. We are dreamers and meaning-makers, free to manifest our will in the world. And as Barbie would tell you, it doesn’t get better than this:
I want to do the imagining, not be the idea. I want to be part of the people that make the meaning, not the thing that is being made.
Barbie chooses to leave a perfect fantasy land and give up immortality to become human, even though she will inevitably develop cellulite and die. So, if you ever get to thinking that the human condition isn’t a divine gift, just think back to those inspiring words from Margot Robbie, Promethean Barbie.
- This is the first line of Oppenheimer. It appears in black text during the opening sequence, and the text is only revealed for its contrast against the fiery storm of a nuclear explosion in the background. This happens 30 seconds into the film, and it brought me to tears. Immediately, the film prompts the question: Do we deserve the gift of fire? Look what we’ve used it for. I’ve always loved the Promethean myth and revered him as an archetype I’d like to emulate. But this single shot at the start of this film made me question that completely. Maybe, for having the gift of fire, we are destined to destroy ourselves. And if that’s our fate, maybe we were never worthy of Prometheus’s gift. ↩
- Sources for the Promethean creation myth: GreekMythology.com and excerpts from Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony ↩
- I’ve embedded the full 1994 interview with CBS’s Connie Chung on “Eye to Eye” below, and if you’re at all curious about Ruth Handler, I recommend watching the whole thing. This profile is an exemplar of great of journalism: rigorous, respectful, and educational. ↩
- Let me know if halfway through this sentence, your inner-monologue said, “By order of the Peeky Fookin’ Blinders!” Shoutout to Killian Murphy for his stratospheric talent and dynamic range. You could mess with Robert Oppenheimer and get away with it, but you wouldn’t want to mess with Thomas Shelby. ↩
- According to this BBC interview, if you were to stretch the IMAX film out in a line, it would run 11 miles. Fun fact from the interviewer: The average time it takes to walk 11 miles is roughly the run-time of the film. So, you could walk Oppenheimer in the same time it’d take to watch it. ↩
- Only Christopher Nolan would choose the Manhattan Project as the subject of a film and then create a three-hour biopic with a narrow, subjective POV that explores the impact of world-altering invention through the life of one man. The overarching narrative is not about the creation and deployment of the atomic bomb but about the course of Oppenheimer’s life and his experience before, during, and after the war. The climax, even, is not the Trinity Test or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The climax of the film is Oppenheimer’s speech celebrating the end of the war, during which we are inside his head and experience the moment he realizes the outcome of his creation: gruesome deaths and unprecedented destruction. ↩
- This is the wisdom that Krishna imparts to Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: detach from the fruits of your actions and do your divine duty (dharma). When reflecting upon the Trinity Test, Oppenheimer shares a quote from the Hindu scripture, which is often misinterpreted: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer is not claiming to become death, and he’s not speaking as the Hindu god. He is assuming the role of Arjuna, witnessing the omnipotent god declare himself. But in Oppenheimer’s case, death, the destroyer of worlds, was the atomic bomb. This infamous quote is what Oppenheimer heard in his head as he witnessed the fiery blaze of the first nuclear explosion. ↩