The portmanteau “Barbenheimer” arose to internet fame with the release of two blockbuster films that, on the surface, appeared to be extreme opposites. Yet the histories of nuclear energy as a World War II product and Barbie as a postwar creation are inextricably linked.

If you had asked Americans to name a famous bombshell following WWII, a fair number would have named one of the atomic bombs. Others would have named the actress Jean Harlow, who starred in the 1933 movie “The Bombshell,” a film that contributed to the term’s subsequent use in reference to an attractive woman.

In truth, gender, like manpower or ammunition, was an undeniable part of the arsenal of democracy. The two nuclear weapons of decision the U.S. dropped on Japan were male, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” Incidentally, the third canceled bomb was to be called “Thin Man.” The B-29 that dropped “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, was named after the pilot’s mother.

Throughout the war, bomber crews suffered such tremendous casualties that those who survived multiple missions often drew portraits of attractive women as nose art — believing that having such depictions at one’s side brought good luck.

Inspired in postwar Western Germany by the likes of Jean Harlow and the art adorning WWII aircraft, comic artist Reinhard Beuthien sketched a sassy postwar gold-digger for a Tabloid newspaper called “Bild.” He named his comic relief Lilli.

Lilli became so popular among West German men and American GIs that eventually Bild Lilli dolls were created to hand out at stag parties. The most important consumer of a Bild Lilly doll was Ruth Handler, who took the doll home, made some modifications to it, and eventually marketed it directly to children through Mattel’s sponsorship of the Mickey Mouse Club.

Thus, Barbie was born from the kind of bombshell drawn on the sides of U.S. bombers. Having originated from the male gaze, Barbie absolutely represented a capitalistic triumph of beauty mores. However, to market her, over time, she was also provided accessories enough to hold 200 different jobs, different cars to drive, and houses of all sizes to play in. She was not tied down by a husband, nor provided parents to give her context.

For many young girls, the doll acted as a writing prompt to the script that became their lives. Hers was the complexity of capitalism, reinforcing beauty and femininity while nevertheless subtly and slowly complicating visions of domesticity.

And yet, the Cold War hid far deeper complexities. As the U.S., its allies, and the Soviet Union used nuclear firepower to jockey for global position, every aspect of their respective societies, to include gender, was weaponized to undermine the other.

A key component of America’s “othering” was to identify the Soviets as godless and unnatural. Certain U.S. political figures identified and attacked “others” in U.S. society during the 1950s Red Scare — including a “lavender scare” that targeted those with deviant sexual and gender mores — which actively purged unapproved political and gender persuasions from federal bureaucracy. This included the U.S. military.

The goal, in many cases, was to exorcise the punished to the fringes of U.S. society. Oppenheimer himself suffered this very fate.

In 1959, as Barbie was first released to market, and as the U.S. discovered — downwind of nuclear tests — nuclear byproducts in wheat and milk, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev met at the American National Exhibition in Sokolnik Park in Moscow. There, they used a kitchen exhibit to debate their respective systems’ promise to aid women, while nevertheless wrestling with each society’s notions of gender and “othering” them in the process.

The contrast between their visions of gender was striking. Nixon proposed the U.S. kitchen preserved femininity and professional domesticity. It afforded U.S. housewives time to quickly and efficiently make nutritious meals and raise children.

Insinuating that Americans had made slaves of their women, Khruschev countered that Soviet kitchens and new appliances were only of value to their women if it freed them to spend more time outside the home, where he stated women shared in the important work of society.

Confident that each had preserved and suitably advanced their societal notions of gender, both retired for the evening. Nixon returned to the Spaso house, where special agents James Golden and John Sherwood detected radioactive instruments emitting ionizing radiation from an atomic battery that Soviet intelligence used to power radio transmitters to spy on U.S. dignitaries.

As the kitchen debates indicate, gender, like nuclear energy, had been unleashed onto an interpretative world.

Oppenheimer and Ruth Handler’s ideas exploded with an energy that neither creator could ever hope to contain, much less understand.

As such, we live in a world inexorably defined by the power of a bombshell.

Michael Doidge is the director of history at the U.S. Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He holds a PhD in U.S. history with a specialty in the history of military medicine.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Observation Post is the Military Times one-stop shop for all things off-duty. Stories may reflect author observations.
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