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  • Archana Sathiyamoorthy

Just Ken: Barbie and the celebration of masculinity

(Ryan Gosling’s Ken, credit: Elle)

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was the long-awaited blockbuster film of 2023. Starring Margot Robbie as our main Barbie, the film primarily explores the impossibly high standards set for women in today’s world, as Robbie’s Barbie navigates what being a woman–and being a human–means for her. The film spoke to many women in its deconstruction of themes like workforce stresses, beauty standards, and motherhood. Yet, despite being centered around the power and diversity of femininity, the film perhaps inadvertently brings up a paralleled discussion of masculinity, and the different facets of how it is employed in society through the journey of our second lead, Ryan Gosling’s Ken, and his Ken brethren in the Barbie world. 

The world of Barbie, also known as ‘Barbie Land’, is originally structured with the Barbies (women, allegorically) dominating society and the Kens (and Alan–men, allegorically) serving as somewhat of a second class, where according to the film, “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” The idea is to present a matriarchal society where the Barbies hold the power that men do in the real world, while the Kens hold a somewhat similar position to women in the real world. 

While the Kens are certainly secondary to the Barbies in Barbie Land, there is a lightheartedness to how the oppression of the Kens is portrayed, particularly compared to the treatment of women in the real world. They are not allowed in positions of power, don’t have real jobs, and the Barbies aren’t even particularly sure where they live. However, there is simultaneously little real plight depicted among the Kens. Most notably, the Kens do not fear for their lives or safety. While Robbie’s Barbie is consistently objectified and even assaulted by men in the real world, the Kens in Barbie Land do not experience this, and though they live only for the Barbies, there seems to be no distinct expectation by the Barbies for Kens to serve them. The Barbies, contrarily, seem quite disconnected from the Kens and are rarely bothered with them in any context.

Things take a turn when Barbie and Ken come to the real world, and Ken becomes aware of the patriarchal nature of our society. He learns about masculinity in the real world, as well as the misogynistic structures that overwhelmingly place men in positions of power, and this is all referred to under the wide umbrella of ‘the patriarchy’. When Ken takes this knowledge back to Barbie Land, the Kens almost immediately reverse the power structures of their world—and it looks a little too much like our world. In the ‘Kendom’, Barbies are no longer adorned in their pink outfits of choice, and instead wear clothes that archetypically appeal to the male gaze. Now, the Kens are the ones dominating politics, the workforce, and sports, and the Barbies are expected to be subservient to them.

(Simu Liu’s Ken and Margot Robbie’s Barbie, credit: The Movie Library on YouTube)

Notably, there is another side to the Kens’ revolution. The Kens, in this change, also start to develop a sense of self outside of the Barbies. This is made into somewhat of a quip throughout the film; the Kens discover their love of horses, beers, and absurdly in-depth analyses of The Godfather. Instead of the beach clothes Gosling’s Ken originally wore, he is now decked in sunglasses, and a comically large fur coat. They also begin to develop some semblance of brotherhood, demonstrated in Ryan Gosling’s infamous musical number ‘I’m Just Ken’. “I’m just Ken, and so am I,” they sing. “Put that manly hand in mine.”

(Ryan Gosling’s Ken, credit: CNN)

At the end of the film, the Barbies regain control, and for the most part, the status quo of Barbie Land returns. Robbie’s Barbie agrees that she can occasionally spend more time with Gosling’s Ken, but Barbie Land itself does not necessarily become equal at the end of the film. Issa Rae’s President Barbie outright refuses to give the Kens even one representative on their supreme court. 

Though undoubtedly comedic, the portrayal of Barbie Land’s power structures as just inherently better than those of the Kendom raises some interesting questions about the perceived dichotomy between male and female-dominated societies. This is a common thought exercise perpetuated by some feminist rhetoric, in statements such as “women don’t start wars” and “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be free and accessible”. Is oppression simply bound to be less aggressive should women be the ones in power? Is oppression from masculine forces, by nature, more controlling and stifling than hypothetical oppression from feminine forces? Implicit in statements such as these is that femininity is inherently benevolent, and masculinity is inherently oppressive. That the issue is masculinity itself, and not the power structures that have hierarchically placed women in a lower societal position. In extreme cases, this may influence the belief that, for example, sexual violence is inherently less serious when committed by a woman. 

As the world increasingly views gender as a continuum rather than a dichotomy, it becomes increasingly short-sighted to point to masculinity as the root cause of misogyny. This is a rhetorical framework that many trans-exclusionary feminists employ, one that not only sees gender as indicative of morality, but sees gender and biological sex as one in the same, and unchanging. Would we assume, in that case, that transgender men and transmasculine people should be ashamed of their masculinity, as people who have likely also experienced the plight of being born female in a patriarchal society? Or should we take an even more primal view, and see masculinity as both oppressive and exclusive to those born male–and subsequently see transgender women and femmes as malignant and predatory? As dangerous a place as misogyny makes the world, to liken masculinity or being born male to oppression is to polarize and antagonize a wide variety of people who must be part of the solution to gendered power structures. 

Beers could be enjoyed without the need for a woman to serve them. The Godfather could be gratuitously analyzed without the illusion of intellectual superiority over the woman listening. Furs and sunglasses can be worn without the expectation of low-rise shorts or maid costumes on women. There could be brotherhood built on love and acceptance, and not on competition and the propagation of violence. In another world, Ken may have discovered his love of horses, untethered to a hierarchical gender dichotomy.

In a society where women are perpetually the victims of gender-based mistreatment, where women are degraded in their workplaces, where they cannot feel safe walking outside at night, it is difficult not to view men and masculinity as the problem with the world—to view them as inherently evil and oppressive. When masculinity is so frequently attached to disrespect, violence, and objectification, it is difficult to see it in any other light. Nonetheless, perhaps someday, we can come to a place where femininity, masculinity, and everything in between can be celebrated in the same breadth. Where masculinity is no longer cited—by anyone—as a reason for aggression, entitlement, or mistreatment. Perhaps we can hope for a day when, rid of the shadow of power and violence, we can all celebrate who we are.


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