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Photograph: Warner Bros.

Why it’s okay if Ken is your favourite thing about ‘Barbie’

Here’s why your feelings for Ryan Gosling’s man-doll are Kenough

Helen O’Hara
Written by
Helen O’Hara

Helen O’Hara, author of ‘Women vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film’, on why it’s okay to stop worrying and love Ken in Greta Gerwig’s smash-hit feminist blockbuster.

If you’re the sort of man who genuinely tries to be a feminist (not the sort of man who calls himself a feminist), Barbie may have made you a bit uncomfortable. Maybe you found yourself thinking that Ryan Gosling’s Ken was the best thing in it, and now you’re wondering if you’ve betrayed the sisterhood by not embracing the full potential of this female-led film.

If that’s the case, you adorable try-hard, rest easy: you are not alone. And it’s okay to feel that way. To explain why, a few spoilers for Barbie will follow.

First and foremost, Ken is a creation not only of Ryan Gosling, but also of Gerwig’s direction and Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach’s writing. That means that he is a product of a collaboration between the sexes, something that is entirely feminist whether its end result is presented by a man or a woman. This is an auteur-made film, after all. If we’re going to give Christopher Nolan credit for everything that happens in Oppenheimer, then we should also give Gerwig credit for everything that happens in Barbie. Not to mention that star Margot Robbie, a producer on the film, could have kicked off if she thought he was unbalancing things.

Secondly, and far more important, if you found Gosling funny that’s likely because you realise he’s poking fun at our current gender norms. Ken’s desperate insecurity is funny precisely because it’s so at odds with our understanding of the world. Men who look like Ryan Gosling and walk around with their shirts unbuttoned all day are not usually reduced to desperate attention-seeking in our world, even around people who look like Margot Robbie.

Ken’s embrace of patriarchy is so childlike in its enthusiasm and so inept in execution

His embrace of patriarchy in the real world is also strangely sweet at first: it’s so childlike in its enthusiasm and so inept in execution. As you’d expect of someone from the accessory-focused world of Barbieland, Ken’s enthusiasm is initially expressed through the outward symbols of manhood: big cars, beer, sports, and posters of Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s. And horses, of course – though not as many as he hoped. As a socially conscious person of 2023, you can only wish that the patriarchy were so superficial.

Ken does try to mimic the power of the patriarchy and take away the independence of the Barbies, and there’s an element of horror in how their personalities are wiped away and replaced with strong feelings about Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This is, to be clear, not good. You shouldn’t be in favour of this course of action: the film makes it pretty clear that this is bad behaviour – and moreover that it hasn’t even made Ken happy, because he still can’t win Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie over.

Photograph: Courtesy Warner Bros. PicturesRyan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig delivering on-set Kenergy

But even here, it’s obvious that his bad actions stem from a desperate cry for attention, and that contrary to his obsession with his Barbie, she isn’t what he needs to make him happy. Yes, his attempt to take her power in order to cope with rejection is a very bad dynamic in the real world, but among these dolls Gerwig has the chance to show that there is a better way. Ken’s problem is not Barbie’s preferences; it’s his own issues.

The fact is that Ken is, ultimately, not simply the villain of the film. He’s also the damsel in distress. Look at his miserable life in Barbieland when we meet him: he has no Dream House to call his own – where the Kens live is unclear – and seems to spend all his time on tenterhooks waiting for Barbie to notice him. He lives in a matriarchy (Barbie-archy?) where Kens are second-class citizens. If he ‘won’ Barbie he wouldn’t solve the underlying issue: that he doesn’t really have another purpose in life, or any interests of his own, or any say in his country.

Ken is not simply the villain of the film; he’s also the damsel in distress.

There are a couple of other takeaways here. If you really enjoyed all the Kens here (and Michael Cera’s Allan) and think that they stole scenes, then consider that part of the reason for that is because Gerwig wanted to showcase their talent, and gave them the reaction shots and big dramatic moments to allow that. Then ask yourself whether women actors reliably get as many opportunities to shine from male directors.

Photograph: Warner Bros.Ken hiding the pain in ‘Barbie’

In broad, overly general terms, women are taught to care about men’s egos in a way that men are not always taught to care about women’s self-perception. Perhaps Gerwig felt pressure to make her male cast look good. But look at the result. If even Barbie’s side piece, a guy with no dream house, no car and no job beyond ‘beach’ gets to pass a reverse Bechdel test and to have his own story arc about mistakes and self-discovery, what does that tell us about the male-made films that can’t do the same for their female leads?

If Greta Gerwig cares this much about Ken in a Barbie movie, why doesn’t every female star get the same attention from her male director in an action movie or sci-fi tale? Maybe Ken is just the start of the conversation about equality – and that really does make him Kenough.

10 Barbie Easter eggs you might have missed.

The 10 films to watch now you’ve seen Barbie.

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