This post contains spoilers for Barbie
The Dream (House) is dead. That’s the revelation that Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie must face midway through Barbie, when she and her friends from the real world return to Barbie Land and visit her home. In place of the Dream House, a pink paradise that served as the stage for all-night dance parties and splendid breakfasts in the morning, stands what Ken has termed “the Mojo Dojo Casa House.”
“You don’t have to say ‘dojo’ and ‘house’,” Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) responds.
“And ‘casa’,” continues Gloria (America Ferrera).
But Ken (Ryan Gosling) isn’t having it. “But you do, because it feels good,” he insists. “Try it.”
It’s not just excessive terminology that makes Ken think that he feels good. It’s the excessive stuff, the excessive symbols that he uses that tell him that he’s a man – even if he doesn’t actually like the idea of manhood very much. After all these are symbols for patriarchy, which isn’t exactly what Ken wants.
It’s easy to see why Ken Where he and the other Kens lived lives of subordination in Barbie Land (“Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him,” Helen Mirren’s narrator tells us), Ken learned about patriarchy in the real world and brought it back to his home. Under patriarchy, the Barbies ditch their lawyering and doctoring and Nobel laureating to don cheerleader and French maid outfits. The Kens surround themselves with signifiers of masculinity, cluttering their homes with protein powder, cowboy hats, and boxing gear. They even play Matchbox 20 songs about spousal abuse on their guitars.
And yet, audiences can tell that Ken doth protest too much. When Sasha and Gloria challenge his wording, a look of fear and desperation seeps into his eyes. His hands wave on either side, leaving their relaxed position on top of the Kendom Saloon Doors, as if groping the air for something to steady him during this attack on his fundamental assumptions. Gosling’s body language makes clear what his words cannot admit. It doesn’t feel good to say “Mojo Dojo Casa House.” It feels even worse to live in it.
More than just a showcase for Gosling’s comedy talents, the Ken arc in Barbie reminds viewers that patriarchy oppresses most men as well, limiting the overwhelming majority of men who don’t fit its narrow definition of masculinity.
Studs Going Shopping
One of the best jokes in Barbie occurs outside the Mojo Dojo Casa House, when Ken explains to Barbie the importance of the real world. Throughout most of the explanation, Gosling maintains the doofus energy and pitiful swagger of Ken’s post-patriarchy self, inviting the viewers to laugh at the character’s short-sighted dreams. But Gosling tempers his performance for a moment, adding a level of pathos to Ken’s explanation of his feelings in the real world.
“Out there I was somebody,” he enthuses. “When I walked down the street, people respected me just for who I am.” Although the scene takes place in the aggressively artificial world of Barbie Land, and Ken’s speech builds to another goofy joke, Gosling plays it straight. In a reverse shot, Robbie lets the realization gradually take hold of Barbie. Ken’s air-headed bluster may be ridiculous, but the movie acknowledges the validity of his need.
That acknowledgment makes the joke at the end of the speech all the more powerful. “One lady… she even asked me for the time,” Ken says. The reaction shot from rival Ken (Simu Liu) and Doctor Barbie (Hari Nef) draws some gentle laughs, but it’s even then, Ken’s not the butt of the joke. Like the gentle piano tones of the score by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, the reactions underscore the importance of that small moment to Ken. He likes having information and helping people. That gives him a sense of identity.
Rather, the point of the joke occurs when Ken shows off his plan for getting that feeling again. Ken strikes a triumphant pose, pumping two fists in the air and flexing his muscles. The sleeves of his feather coat slide down, revealing not one, not two, but three watches on his wrists.
Then, we can laugh. Not at Ken feeling moved by helping someone, but by his belief that buying stuff can provide that feeling.
That would be a strange joke in any movie about a product and funded by a toy company. But even more so than, say, Battleship or the Transformers films, Barbie is about the relationship between shopping and identity. The difference between the Barbie Careers Farmer doll and the Barbie Careers Baby Doctor Doll is not in any function or make of the toy, but rather in the clothes and accessories it has. For Barbies, stuff equals identity.
To its credit, the Barbie script by director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach acknowledges this part of the toy line and still manages a thoughtful critique. It rejects the idea that Mattel or any other company can determine femininity, by casting trans actress Nef and emphasizing the power of play, suggesting that kids can define toys for themselves and don’t need to follow the narratives companies put forward.
But because the Barbie line doesn’t really cater to males (Ken is, after all, “totally superfluous,” Gloria reminds us), Gerwig can be more direct in satirizing the relationship between shopping and identity formation.
The Ken-controlled vision of Barbie Land gets a lot of laughs out of cluttering the space with excessive stuff. Against the orderly and neat version of Babie Land in the movie’s first half, production designer Sarah Greenwood litters the world with all sorts of manly objects. Two guys play a foosball table on the lawn. Stetsons line the walls. Over the top of a satellite dish, we can see a Ken working on a motorcycle in front of a flatscreen TV.
As Ken explains the new status quo to Barbie, the camera follows him moving from one item to the next. First, he grabs a golf club and whacks a potted plant, then he gives the players on the foosball table a spin, and then he plops onto an inflatable pool toy.
Along with Gosling’s comedic bluster, the landscape of useless stuff underscores the emptiness in Ken’s performance of masculinity. He and the other Kens want that feeling of validation he got in the real world. But the only path he can see to getting it is through a narrow version of masculinity, one that he can only obtain by getting more and more manly stuff. And, of course, it makes a mess.
I’ll Deconstruct Semiotic Chains on the Malibu Beach!
Stuff might be the most prominent signifier of masculinity in Barbie, but Gerwig draws attention to others. Ken’s realization of the power of patriarchy involves him mimicking the nods and hand gestures other men exchange, but it builds to a montage of macho signifiers. Gerwig splices stock footage of stock brokers and golfers with close-ups of presidents on dollar bills and pictures of Sylvester Stallone.
More than just another clever gag, these images underscore the lesson that Ken learns during his short stay in the real world. If he wants respect and recognition, the real world offers it to him, provided that he can recognize the symbols and perform them back. And while Ken’s ignorance makes for the movie’s funniest gags, Gerwig also uses him to look at the absurdity of the symbols that we take as givens in the real world. Unlike the businessman who assures the worried Ken that guys in the real world are good at patriarchy, Ken hasn’t sublimated the symbolism yet, and his fumbling underscores their arbitrary nature.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the movie’s standout sequence, the “I’m Just Ken” song and dance number. Leaving aside the fact that the awoken Barbies can easily use the signifiers to fool the Kens and turn them against one another, the sequence combines Ken’s genuine longing and his misunderstanding of masculine imagery.
Over the sound of squealing guitar riffs and thundering drums, the Kens collide on the Malibu Beach. They choose as weapons tennis balls, inflatable rings, and Nerf rockets, everyone reacting to the projectiles as if they were real weapons, even if they all understand they’re not. Gerwig pans her camera across the chaos to highlight the ridiculousness: one Ken desperately gives mouth-to-mouth to a fallen toy horse, another clutches his face after being beaned by an inner tube.
And yet, like any good musical, Ken’s lyrics express his true feelings, something more rich than the chest-bearing and growling he does against his rival. “I wanna know what it’s like to love, to be the real thing,” he cries, a line that carries significant weight given all the play going on around him. And while we rightly laugh at his next line – “Am I not hot when I’m in my feelings?” – it reminds us that he simply wants love and respect. The idea that his feelings matter only to the degree that they make him desirable to women is another bit of symbolism that he learned from the patriarchy, a terrible idea that leads him to think anyone would want to listen to Matchbox 20.
But when the song finishes, we can see the joy and peace on the Kens’ faces as they hold hands and sing, “I’m just Ken and that’s enough.” They walk in nondescript outfits across a landscape with colors and nothing else. The contentment they display shows the audience something that the Kens themselves don’t even realize yet. They don’t need any of the signifiers of masculinity to be happy. They can just be Ken.
Just Ken, and That’s Enough
Fittingly, Ken’s arc comes to a close at the Dream House, returned to its pink glory after the debacle of the Mojo Dojo Casa House. With the Barbie Land constitution restored and the Kens defeated, Ken can finally admit that he didn’t really care about patriarchy at all. “To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses I lost interest,” he confesses.
That realization leads to the most radical part of the Barbie script. Having completed his journey at the same time that Barbie finishes hers, the latter offers him an apology for the way she took him for granted. And, as you’d expect, Ken leans in for a consolatory kiss.
But that’s not the way this story ends. Barbie maintains her boundaries and when Ken pleads that he doesn’t know who he is without her, she puts it plainly.
“You’re not your girlfriend. You’re not your house. You’re not your mink,” she tells him.
“Beach?” asks Ken, ready to let go of the one last signifier he has left.
Barbie answers, “Nope. You’re not even beach. Maybe all the things you thought made you, you, aren’t really…you. Maybe it’s Barbie.…and…it’s Ken.”
Barbie doesn’t have time to show us what just Ken looks like. And the last shot of Ken wearing a shirt that reads “I am Kenough” reminds us that neither he nor the movie is ready to move completely past the conflation of stuff and identity.
But the movie does roundly reject the idea that specific stuff and specific signifiers must be used in order to be properly male. Ken is a man simply because he identifies as a man. He doesn’t need any clothes or products or gestures to make it so, and he certainly doesn’t need attention from Barbie or any other woman to confirm it. The film ends with Ken living in the freedom of simply existing, the peace of being a man in whatever way best suits him.
He’s a man because he says he’s a man. He’s just Ken, and that’s enough.
Barbie is available to stream on Max.