Harmon: How “Barbie” can teach its male viewers that they are “Kenough”

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"Some men have made claims that Barbie is an 'anti-man' or 'man-hating' film that dehumanizes or even 'emasculates' its male characters, particularly Gosling's character Ken. - Graphics Editor / Julia Quennessen

We dressed in pink during the month of July. When the “Barbie” movie eventually opened in theaters on July 21st, women and girls all around the country swept the internet and theaters by storm. It was simple to observe the enthusiasm, eagerness and commitment that individuals had for the film. You probably noticed groups of teenage and young adult girls out and about on the weekends. As well as groups at the movies, all wearing pink and you could readily anticipate what movie they were going to see. 

“Barbie,” the must-see movie of summer 2023, has audiences spellbound with its vivid and vulnerable representation of the legendary Mattel figure. The movie’s ability to establish a strong brand identity without blatantly endorsing Mattel is credited with its success. In contrast to Ryan Gosling’s flawless portrayal of Ken, Margot Robbie gives an equally strong performance as Barbie. 

After the film’s premiere, Greta Gerwig’s most recent masterwork was widely and in-depth discussed online. I won’t go over all the talking points about the movie’s portrayal of feminism, women’s empowerment, etc. There are numerous podcasts, videos, and other media that cover this subject in great detail and do it much better than I ever could. I, for one, want to have a discussion that many aren’t really interested in having but it’s probably one of the most important things that needs to be talked about.

Anne Bitsch (Ph.D.), who studied far-right extremism, gender and sexuality, has curated studies and articles on the rise of “digital misogyny.” According to Bitsch, online communities are experiencing a rise in misogyny due to the influence of far-right extremism. These ideologies perpetuate harmful beliefs about gender roles and relations, leading to radicalization among men. 

The anonymity and echo chambers of the internet amplify these extreme viewpoints, normalizing misogyny and fostering a toxic online environment. When you get on a website or platform (like X, formerly known as Twitter) where extremism like this runs rampant, you will see the reaction to the Barbie movie to be very different. 

Some men have made claims that Barbie is an “anti-man” or “man-hating” film that dehumanizes or even “emasculates” its male characters, particularly Gosling’s character Ken. These talking points can be seen all over the internet. To be very honest, this is to be anticipated. Even “Barbie” can’t hide from the deep political rift in America and right-leaning pundits will stop at nothing to win the cultural war — even criticizing a movie about a doll.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative political pundit, author, and American columnist, made a remarkable statement about this fad when he wrote on X, “My producers dragged me to see ‘Barbie’ and it was one of the most woke movies I have ever seen.” The image of him standing next to the “Barbie” poster while dressed entirely as Ken (though I’m not sure he intended to cosplay as a Ken doll), was linked to the tweet. 

Shapiro didn’t stop there. He later went on to “criticize” the film in a 43-minute YouTube video by highlighting all the “anti-man” and “woke” elements it attempted to promote. He reacted to a large portion of the backlash that he and many other male “critics” had received in a larger video that he posted two days later, lasting well over an hour. He basically says in the video that you can’t criticize the “Barbie” film because it’s “woke” and all about feminism, therefore protected from all critique.

I don’t think I need to tell you that Shapiro is obviously not acting in good faith with the movie and is probably not the best person to give criticism on almost anything. Besides what he may think, “Barbie, “like other pieces of art, is, of course, open to criticism. I myself have many critiques of the movie. But, to put it bluntly: the Barbie movie isn’t “anti-man,” as some conservative pundits like Shapiro have claimed. 

There is a crucial distinction between Barbie and Ken that is made by the narrator of the film in the beginning. In the film we witness Ken’s face light up as Barbie recognizes him or simply acknowledges his existence. Ken, however, slumps dejectedly in what appears to be tremendous humiliation and self-loathing when she doesn’t look his way — or when it appears that she prefers friends or other things to him. 

In the first few scenes of the film, it is established that in Barbie Land, Barbie and all of her various versions and equivalents rule supremely, while Kens… are just Kens, whose sole purpose in life is to worship their ideal Barbie. Call it a reverse patriarchy.

But when Ken, who always looked like he was on the verge of tears every time Barbie so much as glances away from him, enters a world where men have a majority of power, both politically and socially. The “Kens” of this world don’t live in a society where they are treated as second-class citizens; rather, they are the ones who make the decisions and shape the culture. In a patriarchal society, he swiftly finds himself switching roles from idolizer to idolized.

Ken starts to grasp the tenets of the average male experience in our world, such as their gruff character, stoicism, sports, strange infatuation with Sylvester Stallone, and fur coats for some reason. 

After seeing how men are treated in our world he realizes how much he is missing and how good it feels to be on the receiving end of idolization. So when he returns to Barbie Land he is convinced that he has discovered how things should be done and completely reverses the power dynamic of Barbie Land. But what Shapiro and other guys misunderstand about Ken’s narrative and arc is that the movie doesn’t intend to degrade or “emasculate” men. 

Instead, it’s intended to reflect the path that many men take after becoming aware of the very real male-dominated culture themselves. Men mature and as they do they become more conscious of their environment. They transition from naïve innocence to the belief that they should act a specific way or have a certain interest, even if they don’t really want to.

What makes the “Barbie” movie special is that it puts forth the notion that men, like women, can benefit from modern feminism in their own particular way. Even if they are among those who can be harmed by rigid and antiquated patriarchal systems that allow a select few men to dominate society, while allowing average men to assume fictitious roles of “dominating” other areas of their lives, such as their homes and workplaces. 

They are doing this while being oblivious to the fact that they are cutting themselves off from their emotions, their friends, and their families. Feminists like bell hooks were the ones who originally proposed this complex concept, that patriarchy affects us in different ways, both positive and negative.

Ken can help men realize that they don’t have to conform to society’s ideals of masculinity. The fact that they are individuals who were born with male genitalia need not be the focus of their interests, hobbies, or moral convictions. “Barbie” can help them realize the damaging expectations that society will place on them so that they can confront and deal with those harmful expectations head-on — rather than find ways to denigrate women for those societal expectations or even ignore them. Men are capable of developing into something more than simply a doll that society plays with, something more like a genuine human with real sentiments. 

With the rise of men being pushed to far-right extremist beliefs on the internet, it warms my heart every time a sister takes her brother to see the “Barbie” movie or even a girl who dragged her boyfriend along, a mother who brought her son, not just her daughter or even a father forced to watch by his daughter. 

The perception that “Barbie” is a “girls’ movie” is, in my opinion, a wrong one. The opposite is true, as you can see. The movie “Barbie” is for everybody who is eager to learn and grow. It is a sentiment to Ruth Handler’s vision in creating the Barbie line, that we can be whoever we want to be. And after all, the one major takeaway for all men, is that they are “Kenough”… and that patriarchy gets a lot less fun when you realize it’s not just horses and Sylvester Stallone.

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