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The ‘Barbenheimer’ Phenomenon: What Barbie and Oppy can Teach us about Career Woes

How the release of two of the most anticipated films of the year might help us as students navigate the existentialist crisis of career opportunities.

Adapted From @dstoryco on Instagram.

Cinemas were finally revived on July 21st 2023 as people from various age groups swarmed theatres worldwide donned in pink and black.

It was the release of two of the most hyped-up movies of the year, ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’, raking in some of the largest pre-sold tickets since the COVID-19 lockdowns on cinema theatres across the globe.

Charmingly dubbed as ‘Barbenheimer’, their release seemed to rejuvenate the declining film industry for the public masses, especially in Singapore. Large advertising campaigns and marketing activations for Mattel’s Barbies have been seen across the globe, building up the anticipation of a live action version of the Barbie Cinematic universe. This has led to the internet phenomenon comparing both films - mainly accentuating their dramatic aesthetic differences while having the similar concept of featuring iconic cultural and historical figures on screens.

An example of hype for Barbenheimer. Credit: @kelsaywhat on twitter

If you have yet to have watched either films, here is a quick summary of the storyline, themes and characters covered:

Barbie is a fantasy comedy film that follows Barbie (Margot Robbie), the ‘stereotypical’ doll who lives in Barbieland. She travels to the human world with Ken (Ryan Gosling) when she realises she has lost her ‘perfect’ doll qualities. They learn about the stark contrast of the real world with their ‘perfect’ universe, causing them to question their true purpose and identity.

The film covers a wide range of thematic concerns, mainly the jolt of harsh reality that perfection does not exist and the existential crisis one faces when faced with the ugly realities of their job.

Oppenheimer on the other hand is a biographical thriller film that chronicles the life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the American physicist who led the Manhattan Project and developed the first atomic bomb. The film explores his scientific achievements, his personal relationships, his political struggles, and his moral dilemmas.

Similar to Barbie, the film highlights the impacts of underlying socio-political tensions on the human psyche against the backdrop of a war-torn and cutthroat environment.

Watching both these films on release day after finishing a 9-5 day, left me deep in thought for days before I realised they helped me process how I viewed my acclimatisation to the corporate world.

How do these two films actually help or affect us as SMU students, you may ask?

Both films rather perfectly reflect the soul crushing dilemma of deciding our career tracks, and the sense of loss that accompanies it; be it the majors you want to pursue or the industries you want to enter and make your mark in.

Having done internships for 3 years in SMU, I noticed a pattern amongst my peers. We tend to enter a new field or industry with a certain excitement and passion, believing that our contributions would make a difference in our company or line of work. At the very least, we hope to enjoy what we think we want to pursue and never want that dedication to ever change.

There is a scene from Barbie which also reflects this doe-like innocence. She confronts some teen girls who play with dolls like her. She starts off asking for a ‘hug or thank you’ for being their ‘favourite doll of all time to play with’. Her reality check from the teens included harsh comments like , ‘We haven’t played with Barbies since we were 5 years old!’ (reflecting the fear of being obsolete), being called a ‘fascist’, and being accused of ‘making girls feel bad about themselves’. The deep contrast of how Barbie saw her job- empowering and universally loved, against how her consumers perceived her-a patronising and unrealistic ideal for women, leads to her breakdown.

These existentialist career woes can plague us when deciding what we want to do. This also highlights the difficulty of confronting the ‘ugly sides’ of whichever pathway we choose (because there will always be one) and it can psych us out of choosing anything at all. Thinking through every possibility and questioning our abilities adds onto the analysis paralysis every student faces. This is depicted flawlessly through Barbie eventually shutting down and giving up in Barbieland after that encounter.

Credit: IMDB

These career and workplace fears are mirrored in Oppenheimer as well, through the impactful interactions with Albert Einstein in the film. When Oppy (as lovingly nicknamed in the film) approaches Einstein to double check an equation which theorises that starting the nuclear chain reaction could literally destroy the world, their exchange is rather potent:


EINSTEIN: Whose work is this?


EINSTEIN: What do you take it to mean?

OPPENHEIMER: (pensive) ... it might start a chain reaction that destroys the world

EINSTEIN: (smugly) So here we are, lost in your quantum world of probabilities, and needing certainty.

OPPENHEIMER: Can you run the calculations yourself?

EINSTEIN: The only thing you and I have in common is the disdain for mathematics. Who is working on this?


EINSTEIN: He'll get to the truth

OPPENHEIMER: (anxious) and if the truth is catastrophic?

EINSTEIN: Then you stop and you share your findings with the Nazis.

I’ll admit, watching this scene may not show any direct symbolism of a career crisis, but it does better depict the slowly decaying look in Oppenheimer’s face throughout the film.

More importantly, it shows us that even the brightest minds in the world doubt themselves, but having a mentor, a friend or a support system can help ground you to what really matters.

What really spoke to me in the theatre though, was the slow but noticeable change in Oppenheimer’s state of mind as the storyline progressed, reflecting how the controversial career position he decided to take had consumed his consciousness. He became a shell of the man he was by the end of the film, especially when on trial to have his security clearance revoked. I felt that Einstein’s parting words to him perfectly embodied the imposter syndrome I felt in my job - ‘Now it’s your turn to deal with the consequences of your achievements’

To graduate is an achievement, a blessing no one can ever revoke from you. To enter into the real world and deal with the high stakes of the industry feels more like a curse.

Credit: Kino

So what were my main takeaways as I walked out of the cinema hall? Funnily enough, the day I entered the theatre, I was feeling lost and voiceless after an encounter in a boardroom.

I left feeling like I got the better end of the stick than both Barbie and Oppy.

It won’t be the end of the world for you if you cannot decide on what you want now (I mean this is not exactly the case for Oppenheimer, but then we all weren’t working against the Nazis). It’s good to explore, and it’s fine if you despise what you do once in a while. It does not make you unprepared or a bad candidate. If anything, it might even help you to avoid a breakdown at the helm of teenage girls like Barbie.

The best way to conclude the learnings Barbie and Oppy have bestowed upon us is that it is better to try out what you love now and actively reflect whether this is what you want rather than to never question it for years and only to have your epiphany too late.

By the way, if you have not seen these movies, what are you doing here? Go watch them and join the sleepless in Singapore club!

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