In a shocking twist, the recently released Barbie movie not only captivates audiences with its vibrant visuals and engaging storyline but also offers a scathing critique of the intricate connection between capitalism and gender identity, particularly focusing on the character of Ken.
As the narrative unfolds, Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie and her real-world friends make a startling discovery upon returning to Barbie Land – the iconic Dream House has been replaced by Ken’s whimsically named “Mojo Dojo Casa House.” The excessive terminology and symbols scattered throughout the house are not just for show, but rather, they reflect Ken’s desperate attempt to conform to a narrow definition of masculinity imposed by the patriarchal system.
The film highlights how Ken, and other Kens in Barbie Land, have internalized the oppressive nature of patriarchy from the real world. In their pursuit of a skewed version of masculinity, the Barbies abandon their diverse careers for stereotypical outfits, while the Kens surround themselves with symbols like protein powder, cowboy hats, and boxing gear. Even their choice of music, playing Matchbox 20 songs about spousal abuse, underscores the toxic aspects of the masculinity they aspire to.
However, beneath the façade of bravado, the film exposes Ken’s internal conflict. When challenged by Sasha and Gloria about his excessive language, a subtle fear and desperation emerge in Ken’s eyes, hinting at the discomfort he feels in his self-imposed role. Ryan Gosling’s nuanced portrayal brings to light the idea that patriarchy oppresses not only women but also men who fail to fit its rigid mould.
A pivotal moment in the movie occurs when Ken, in a comedic yet poignant scene, explains the importance of the real world to Barbie. Gosling skilfully blends Ken’s usual doofus energy with a touch of pathos, expressing Ken’s genuine longing for recognition outside the artificial confines of Barbie Land. The film cleverly underscores Ken’s need for identity and validation, emphasizing that these desires are not exclusive to any gender.
The film also delves into the theme of consumerism and its connection to identity, especially in the Barbie universe where “stuff equals identity.” The script, crafted by director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach, skilfully critiques the idea that corporations can dictate femininity. The inclusion of a trans actress and the emphasis on the power of play encourage children to define toys for themselves rather than conforming to pre-set narratives.
Ken’s attempt to find identity through material possessions is humorously portrayed when he flaunts three watches as a solution to regain the respect he experienced in the real world. The film invites the audience to laugh not at Ken’s genuine desire for recognition but at his misguided belief that buying things can fulfil that need.
The narrative takes a deeper dive into the exploration of masculinity when Ken experiences the real world. The film cleverly splices stock footage of stereotypical male activities with close-ups of currency and celebrity images, highlighting the societal symbols that Ken learns to emulate for recognition and respect.
The standout sequence, the “I’m Just Ken” song and dance number, brilliantly combines Ken’s genuine emotions with his misunderstanding of masculine imagery. Amid chaos and comical scenes on Malibu Beach, the Kens express their true feelings through lyrics, revealing a desire for love and respect that goes beyond superficial symbols.
Ken’s journey culminates at the Dream House, with the restoration of Barbie Land’s constitution. In a radical turn, Ken admits his disinterest in patriarchy, marking a significant departure from the traditional narrative. Barbie, too, undergoes character development, refusing to succumb to societal expectations as she rejects Ken’s plea for a consolatory kiss, asserting that identity goes beyond relationships and material possessions.
The film concludes with a powerful message, challenging the notion that specific stuff and signifiers define masculinity. Ken is portrayed as a man simply because he identifies as one, dismantling the idea that clothes, products, or gestures are prerequisites for male identity. The final scene, with Ken wearing a shirt that reads “I am Kenough,” serves as a reminder that true freedom lies in accepting oneself without the need for external validation.
In a world where gender norms are continually evolving, the Barbie movie stands out as a thought-provoking exploration of identity, critiquing societal expectations and offering a refreshing perspective on the complexities of masculinity.