In 1945, against the dry, sun-drenched backdrop of the American Southwest, two events took place that would alter the course of history. One was Trinity, the world’s first nuclear detonation, and the moment that would prompt Robert Oppenheimer to cite from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The other was the founding of Mattel.
The coincidence of the Oppenheimer–Barbie release dates incited a frenzy amongst the movie-going public precisely because they seem so at odds. And yet, beneath their grit and camp, the two share more than meets the camera. They are, at heart, both stories of America at war—a war defined by the success of Oppenheimer and his colleagues, and which would in turn define the best-selling doll. The world into which Barbie was born, and of which she would become both symbol and soldier, did not exist before that first successful detonation in the early hours of July 16.