I have history with Barbie. After all, my name is Ken.
I was 11 when Barbie showed up. Not being an idoll worshipper, I didn’t pay much attention at first, but I was appalled when I heard that her male counterpart in dolldom was named Ken. It also surprised me. The only other Ken I knew was my father. I don’t remember any other Kens in my class at school. You’d think that would make me the target of much teasing during my pre-adolescence, so I braced myself for the worst, but it didn’t happen.
Maybe that’s because, in the marketing, Ken was so thoroughly superfluous, secondary and unimportant. Actually, a few jabs from my schoolmates would have been appreciated. At a time in my life when I felt superfluous and secondary, it would have been nice to feel significant enough to be teased.
As it was, I didn’t think much about either Barbie or Ken until I saw the recently released film, which is a delight. Greta Gerwig, the director, is a real talent. She might be the only one who could have pulled this fantasy/fairy tale off. But I was even more surprised to see that Ken (Ryan Gosling among numerous other Kens) played such a significant role in this satirical allegory about matriarchy and patriarchy, with hints of elusive “uniarchy.”
Gerwig and her co-writer (and life partner) Noah Baumbach set the film in the doll facto matriarchy of Barbieland, where the Kens are, as they’ve been since 1963, undefined, subordinate, obligatory, well, playthings. All they really know how to do is surf and “beach.” Later, when someone asks where the Kens sleep at night, Barbie (Margot Robbie among many other Barbies and femme friends) is stumped. “I have no idea,” she admits.
When mysterious thoughts about mortality intrude upon this idollic eternity, Stereotypical Barbie (as she identifies herself) embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery (a blend of Pinocchio and The Truman Show) to find out if she is real. Ken (now inexplicably blonde) stows away in the back of Barbie’s convertible, and they find their way to the real world, where they encounter patriarchy, a world where being a woman is a no-win, extremely complicated, cluster-you-know-what. Barbie is understandably disillusioned but also intrigued after meeting real-world women. Ken, on the other hand, is enthralled and feels liberated (or as Gosling
puts it, Kenergized).
Gerwig and Baumbach turn gender on its head. Ken is the one who rebels, becomes empowered and liberated, and returns to Barbieland to introduce the joys of patriarchy (in stereotypically foolish, narcissistic and, of course, dominant fashion, including wearing a T-shirt that reads “I’m Kenough”). Barbie is the one who needs challenging and whose awareness needs raising. When she describes to Ken that for the first time she feels unimportant and superfluous, Ken tells her, in his one serious moment, “Now you know how it feels.”
Of course, now that they’re in charge, the Kens immediately march off the deep end and go to war with each another, giving the Barbies the chance to re-establish matriarchal rule through — what else? — the vote (ballots over toy bullets!), but this time with a hint of gender equity in the aftermath. There may yet be something in Barbieland for everyone — except for Stereotypical Barbie, who decides to doll down and take her chances in the far more complicated, yet real, world. She tells Ken she likes him but doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to be coupled. Ken gets it and they part as friends.
Sorry for the spoilers if you haven’t seen Barbie yet, but it shouldn’t be a problem because the plot line is the least important part of the movie.
This film is a dollop of very pink sugar to help the message medicine go down. You might think it would be hard for even the Righteous Wing to resist such a well-packaged confection but, reportedly, some are still too threatened by gender (and gender fluidity), have accused the film of idollatry, and started burning Barbies (though probably not Kens). Whatever they can’t understand and/or control, they torch.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, as a real-world Ken, I wholeheartedly support “uniarchy” and freely relinquish any claim to patriarchal dominance. I want the Barbaras of the world to assert their independence and influence by outvoting the Kens until they pull their heads out of the beach and come to their senses.
I also want every girl — and former girl — who sees this film to feel that their time playing with Barbie was well spent, creating an (imaginary) foundation for a genuine gender equity revolution.
And maybe Mattel will create Therapist Barbie to help Stereotypical Barbie come to terms with her body image issues, so she can get off her toes and stand, at last, on her own two feet.