I don’t know why more people writing about the Barbie and Oppenheimer double feature don’t mention Aristotle.
That probably sounds pretentious. However, since the New York Times just featured an op ed criticizing the new football kickoff rules by invoking the Greek sensation of ataraxia (sublime contentedness), I probably have license to Go Greek in my little blog post. (Plus I ranted about it the other day, and my people said “go for it!”) I saw Oppenheimer last week, and all I could think about was Aristotle: Pity and Terror, the essence of tragedy. Barbie is about the world turned upside-down in a different way, where the absurd takes center stage, and the Lord of Misrule becomes in charge: comedy at its core.
So let’s go back to high school, basic Aristotle, basic Shakespeare, too, and talk about these movies in terms of how they fit the definitions. Plus, this is a double-movie review. A twofer!
Quantum Storytelling from Christopher Nolen
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of this tale of pity and terror, was the physicist whose pioneering research at Berkeley led him to be chosen to spearhead the Manhattan Project that developed of the atomic bomb. After World War II, he parted ways with some of his colleagues on whether to use atomic power and diplomacy or whether to develop the hydrogen bomb. He ended up losing his security clearance during the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, in part, because of political maneuvering by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. Strauss was later turned down for a cabinet post. That’s the history; that’s the story.
I’ve been futzing about for a few days, trying to decide whether to write a post that centers on Aristotle, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” My big hang-up is frankly … audience. How much are y’all going to balk if you read the word Aristotle in the first sentence? And yet I can’t write my film review without mentioning him. So I’ve been stuck between the urge to get these ideas out and the knowledge that we’re living in a time of anti-intellectualism.
It’s like a seesaw effect. We don’t even know what we think about smarts. There are constant little tests nestled in among Corgi pictures on the interwebs that tell you to “solve this puzzle and your IQ is 180.” Which anybody with some kind of education knows is patently false because that’s not how IQ works and nobody has IQs over 170 except that little kid they found in Nepal once. (OK, I checked the Internet; there are a few people now with IQs over 170. But not because they can do some little puzzle.)
Meanwhile, we don’t even care if people learn how to write anymore because we have ChatGPT and other tools coming that will just write stuff for us. As if Chat knows. I think of ChatGPT as like a rather stupid, random World Book Encyclopedia. If you happen to go to the right page and copy the right bits word for word (or verbatim–we used to use that word in a business context until we were told people didn’t know what it meant, so we had to replace it with “word for word” because people can’t learn what words mean anymore)… If you go to the right page and plagiarize it, you might just get away with it. But what if you have to combine things? And if you’re not learning because all you ever do is copy things other people wrote, then you just wander through school and come out as dumb as you started.
After watching the finale of Succession on Sunday, I fell asleep thinking of Shiv Roy and Elizabeth of York.
Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the finale of the TV show “Succession,” then you may wish to stop before I comment on the ending, at length. Or, it may provide perspective on your watching, who knows? If you’re not a fan of the show, you might still appreciate the commentary. I’ve never seen “The Squid Game” or “This Is Us,” but I have read insightful commentary on these shows.
It just so happens that this very week I finished uploading a video of a presentation I did on Medieval Women and Wealth called “Nevertheless, She Persisted”. Yes, this is a shameless plug, but it is free! If you’ve got a little time and you’re interested in history, take a look here. This talk is about barriers that women in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages encountered in managing their financial affairs as well as the ways they got around those barriers. I was gobsmacked to realize how closely this topic fit what happened on Succession.
Having Primogeniture and Feme Covert on the brain is probably what makes me think about them in the context of the show. Succession is all about primogeniture, certainly about what the inheritance “rule” ought to be. Whoever was going to rise to the top role, one thing was clear from the first episode: the girl gets nothing. There have been many takes on the ending of this show, but I will wager that this may be the only one to explain it in terms of Feme Covert and medieval gendered practices.
For those who don’t know the show or the ending but are still intrigued by my medieval angle, here is a brief recap. An aging owner of a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate dangles the position of his replacement in front of his children, snatching it away whenever anyone close. The company is also in financial trouble, so there are perpetual outside entities trying to merge, buy, or destroy it. His three sons are candidates but each has personal faults too massive to ignore. Connor is a hapless dingbat (naturally, he runs for president), Kendall is an energetic executive whose narcissism tosses him between drug addiction and suicide, and Roman is a misanthropic tech genius who just will not stop sending dick pictures out to people, accidentally hitting “reply all.” Shiv, the daughter, has the problem of being never taken seriously and choosing failed candidates; Exhibit A is her oily toady of a husband, Tom.
For three seasons, it’s a fight among the scorpion and red ants until the founder dies, and the series speeds to the ultimate choice: who will own the company? There is an offer by a Swedish tech giant that the brothers engineer but balk at, not wanting to give their “family business” away. Shiv sides with the Swede because he promises her the top job, then learns that he doesn’t plan to fulfill the promise, so she changes sides and promises to vote with the family. She then finds out that it’s her nonentity, toady husband Tom, who will lead the new company. At the key board meeting, after scrambling for votes, the count is tied with Shiv left. After confronting her brothers, she changes her mind and votes to the sell the company, betray the family, and put her husband in charge.
I once wrote that this villainy was too mesmerizing to ignore, a train wreck, a Richard III experience. But the writing and acting have raised this above mere villainy. This is a tragedy which evokes fear and pity. We can be afraid that there are such people in the world devoid of human decency and compassion, but by the end we pity their upbringing.
So what’s the medieval angle here?
The essence of primogeniture, say in 14th century Northern Europe, is that the eldest son inherits. If he dies in battle, then the next eldest, and the next or the grandson or the brother or the distant cousin–anybody, ANYBODY but the daughter–and if they have to find someone overseas who speaks another language, they’ll do it.