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  1. The Weekend Essay
22 July 2023

Barbie can’t handle the truth

Barbie and Oppenheimer show us how in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies.

By Slavoj Žižek

Denounced and ridiculed by critics, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – the fifth and final instalment in the franchise – nonetheless confronts one of the central problems of modernity: the separation of fantasy and reality. Set in 1969, the story centres on Jones’s efforts to locate an ancient device – the Dial – believed to grant the power of time travel. Estranged from his wife, Marion, and depressed following the death of their son, Jones is assisted by his goddaughter Helena, as they are pursued by a new generation of Nazis who also seek the Dial. In the film’s climactic scene, Jones and Helena are transported back to the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, where they meet the astronomer Archimedes, who invented the time machine. Believing that he has no life to return to in 1969 America, Jones wants to remain in the past, living amid a great historical moment. But Helena, refusing to give up on him, knocks Jones unconscious and returns with him to the modern world. Waking up in his apartment, Indy is reunited with Marion, and they embrace as Helena walks away smiling. This happy resolution, however, doesn’t quite conceal the bitter implications of the film’s conclusion. Forced out of ancient Greece, the hero-professor now faces a life of arid domesticity.

Many of the reviewers’ most ferocious broadsides have been aimed at the character Helena (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who has been variously presented as weird (measured against classic Hollywood standards of beauty and eroticism) or “woke”, a leading lady who undermines patriarchal clichés of feminine charm. But Helena is neither a sex symbol nor an exemplar of woke attitudes towards gender: she simply introduces an element of everyday opportunism combined with basic goodness – a touch of what might be called actual life. The new Indiana Jones is really about Helena, a person from the real world who is drawn into the fantasy world of Indy’s treasure-hunting adventures.

[See also: Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny: A feeble last crack of the whip]

As a variation on the Matrix theme of “welcome to the desert of the real” – that is, what happens when our protective illusions break down and we face the real world in all its stark brutality – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is part of a recent trend of films – Barbie, Oppenheimer, I’m a Virgo – in which the heroes venture between the real and the imaginary and the imaginary and the real. After being expelled from the utopian Barbie Land for being less-than-perfect dolls, Barbie and Ken embark on a journey of self-discovery to the real world. But what they find there is not some deep revelation of the self but the realisation that actual life is even more riddled with suffocating clichés than their own fantasy world. The doll couple are forced to confront the fact that there isn’t just a brutal reality beyond Barbie Land, but that utopia is part of that brutal reality: without fantasies like Barbie Land, individuals would simply not be able to endure the real world.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer complicates this idea of venturing into reality. Its theme is not just the passage from the haven of academia to the real world of war – from the mind to the munitions dump – but how nuclear weapons (the fruits of science) shatter our perception of reality: a nuclear explosion is something that does not belong to our daily life. Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, led the Manhattan Project, the team established in August 1942 that developed the atomic bomb for the US. In 1954 the authorities subsequently branded him a Communist for his affiliation with groups working to slow nuclear proliferation. While Oppenheimer’s stance was courageous and ethical, he failed to reckon with the existential implications of the device he created. In his essay “Apocalypse without Kingdom”, the philosopher Günther Anders introduced the concept of “naked apocalypse”: “the apocalypse that consists of mere downfall, which doesn’t represent the opening of a new, positive state of affairs (of the ‘kingdom’).” For Anders, a nuclear catastrophe would represent a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom would arise out of it, just the total obliteration of the world.

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Oppenheimer couldn’t accept this nakedness, so he escaped further into Hinduism, which he had been interested in since the early 1930s, when he learned Sanskrit to read the Upanishads in the original. Describing his feelings after the first explosion of the atomic bomb in the Trinity test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna tells Arjuna: “Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While this is the line people most associate with Oppenheimer, he also quoted another passage from Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the mighty one.” The nuclear explosion is thus elevated into a divine experience. No wonder that, after the successful nuclear explosion, according to the physicist Isidor Rabi, Oppenheimer appeared triumphant: “I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car… His walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.”

[See also: Oppenheimer’s tormented soul]

Oppenheimer’s fascination with Gita thus belongs to the long tradition of attempting to ground the metaphysical implications of quantum physics in Oriental traditions. But Nolan’s film fails to show how the evocation of any kind of spiritual depth obfuscated the horror of a new reality created by science. To effectively confront the “naked apocalypse” or cataclysm without redemption, the opposite of spiritual depth is needed: an utterly irreverent comic spirit. One should recall that the best movies about the Holocaust – Pasqualino Settebellezze (1974), Life is Beautiful (1997) – are comedies, not because they trivialise the Holocaust but because they implicitly admit that it is too crazy a crime to be narrated as a “tragic” story.

Is there a movie which dares to do this with the horrors and threats of today? I’m a Virgo (a miniseries by Boots Riley released in 2023) is the story of Cootie, a four-metre tall 19-year-old black man raised by his aunt and uncle in Oakland, California. The two guardians dedicate their lives to making sure that Cootie is safe and sequestered away. But raised on commercials, comics and pop culture, Cootie breaks into the world not as a tabula rasa but already brainwashed by the consumerist mass ideology. He awkwardly manages to make friends, get a job and find love, but soon discovers that the world is more sinister than it appears – Cootie acts as a catalyser, his entrance into our common social reality bringing out all its antagonisms and tensions (racism, consumerism, sexuality…). And how does he do it? As a perspicuous critic for The Wrap noticed: “Don’t let the heavy themes fool you, I’m a Virgo is a comedy full of absolutely bonkers moments.” Riley uses the absurd to point out the obvious in real-life situations. “I’m attracted to large contradictions,” he told Wired. “The contradictions of capitalism – how it works – are going to echo through almost everything we do.”

Therein resides Riley’s genius: the combination of two tragic facts (a giant freak thrown into our world; the basic antagonisms of global capitalism) produces sparkling comedy. The comic effect emerges because ideological fantasies and reality are not opposed: in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies. Perpetrators of horrible crimes are not diabolical monsters who courageously do what they are doing – they are cowards doing it to sustain the fantasy which motivates them. Stalinists killed millions to bring about a new society, and they had to kill millions more to avoid the truth that their Communist project was destined to fail.

Most of us know the culminating moment of Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men (1992) when the lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) cross-examines the Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) and declares, “I want the truth!”, and Jessep shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!” This reply is more ambiguous than it seems: it should not be taken as simply claiming that most of us are too weak to handle the brutal reality of the world. If someone were to ask a witness about the truth of the Holocaust, and the witness were to reply, “You can’t handle the truth!”, this should not be understood as a simple claim that most of us are not able the process the horror of holocaust. At a deeper level, those who were not able to handle the truth were the Nazi perpetrators themselves: they were unable to accept the fact that their society was traversed by the economic and social crises of the 1930s, and to avoid this troubling insight they engaged in a mass murder spree that targeted Jews – as if killing Jews would somehow miraculously re-establish a harmonious social body. And therein resides the final lesson of the stories about venturing from fantasy into reality: we do not only escape into a fantasy to avoid confronting reality, we also escape into reality to avoid the devastating truth about the futility of our fantasies.

[See also: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie: The art of selling out]

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