23rd July 2023 – (Los Angeles) At the premiere of the Barbie movie dubbed “Barbie Blowout Party,” an ocean of pink-clad attendees painted the theatre. Pink was the new black, with pink heart-shaped sunglasses, pink skirts, pink power suits, and even a few men succumbing to the Barbie mania with pink polos. In the theatre’s parking lot, a group of young men emerged from a Jeep, their dark shirts and cargo shorts against the pink tide. Many found themselves wishing they too were part of the screening because, despite the overwhelming femininity that Barbie embodies, the film is truly about Ken and his evolving role in our modern world.
The movie is a playful exploration of multiple Kens cohabitating in a parallel dollhouse universe, ruled by the Barbies you’d typically encounter in a toy store aisle: President Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Journalist Barbie, and so on. Margot Robbie‘s portrayal of “Stereotypical Barbie,” a blonde like the original, is just one example. The Barbies, although entertaining, are as diverse and modern as the market necessitates. They highlight the paradox of the girl-boss feminism movement and the increased expectations on girls and women to be not only aesthetically perfect but also remarkably accomplished. The film hints at the need for an “Ordinary Barbie,” a character who grapples with the day-to-day struggles.
Barbie’s journey to self-discovery is not surprising or revolutionary. Rather, it’s the Kens who tread the path of real discovery. Barbie was conceived in the 1950s, an era when women’s and men’s roles were distinctly separate. As Barbie’s role expanded, so did Ken’s, and as Barbie grew more competent and confident, the film suggests that Ken lost some of his. This is a reflection of the post-women’s liberation era, where the fear of men’s diminishing competence and confidence is influencing real-world politics.
Barbie Land, as depicted in the movie, is an exaggerated utopia of female empowerment. The Barbies hold all the high-ranking positions in society, including an all-Barbie Supreme Court. In contrast, the Kens spend their days aimlessly, tanned, buffed, and without purpose beside the plastic surf. Ryan Gosling’s Ken amusingly explains that his job is simply to “beach.” This portrayal is a clever inversion of 1950s gender norms, with Margot Robbie’s Barbie treating Gosling’s Ken as an accessory for fashion shows and occasional companionship, much like how a young girl might treat her Ken doll in reality.
When Barbie and Ken cross over to the “Real World,” Ken stumbles upon the concept of patriarchy. This sends him on a journey of self-exaltation and entitlement, leading to a humorous exploration of every stereotype of masculinity. The most delightful scene is a musical number where the power-thirsty Kens, clad in black, dance in coordinated routines. Gosling’s genuine smile seems to break the fourth wall as he fully embraces the humour of the situation.
The film underscores the Barbies’ ability to work collectively, while the Kens are more self-centred and competitive. In the film’s portrayal of the Real World, the male executives at Mattel, dressed in identical dark suits, appear as incompetent man-children. They clumsily chase Barbie around the Mattel headquarters, attempting to return her to her box, unable to overcome a security gate that Barbie easily leaps over.
The film’s critique of patriarchy and portrayal of male incompetence have sparked some backlash. However, it’s essential to remember that this is a movie about dolls, with a heightened and exaggerated representation of reality, much like children’s make-believe. In today’s world, women do hold positions of power, and men can find supportive roles within that dynamic. Yet, the movie also highlights a reality where men’s power is undeniably present and is often displayed in overly masculine ways, fueling the discourse around the reclamation of lost power.
In the real world, men still hold much of the power, with all but one of Mattel’s current executive officers being male. This fact casts a shadow over the film’s comedic self-deprecation. The Barbie movie, despite its success and marketing genius, still reflects the male-dominated world that determines what girls and women consume.
In the end, the film suggests that Ken’s true defeat comes not from Barbie but from his own inability to handle leadership. The fantasy is not that men don’t want power, but that they can’t manage it. And perhaps, that’s the Ken that Mattel wants to present to girls: a Ken who is comfortable without the power, a Ken who is more human and less the symbol of masculinity.