Warning: includes plot spoilers (though this is unlikely to change your viewing experience)
Like several million others, suddenly remembering there was this thing called ‘a cinema’, I went to see the Barbie film.
Why? Partly because it seemed to be a (women’s) flick that I needed to see and have an opinion on – which is just another way of saying that I fell for the marketing. The last time this happened was back in 2010, with Sex & the City 2, which I wrote about here. (It was as bad as you might expect but raised some interesting issues about straight/gay marriage and monogamy.)
But mostly I went to see Barbie because it had a bottle-blond, shredded Ryan Gosling in it, playing Ken, Barbie’s ex- (since 2018, according to his Wiki entry) boyfriend.
I don’t recall ever not enjoying a movie starring Gosling. I even enjoyed La-La Land, and that’s a musical [*crosses himself*]. Probably because I spend most of the time gazing into Ryan’s pretty, (hopefully) empty, slightly-but-endearingly-too-close-together blue eyes with those fluttery, star-shaped lashes. Gosling has the gayest non-gay eyes in the business.
Until I saw this movie.
Don’t get me wrong, Ryan is still very scenic. Now 42, he is more than twice Ken’s theoretical age, but somehow gets away with it. (Margot Robbie who plays Barbie is a decade younger at 32.) He is also impressively shredded: Sporno Ken.
And both Gosling and Robbie put in good, quasi-heroic performances – considering what a flimflamming, pretentious, flabby mess much of the script is. And how often they have to say lines that make no sense. Though in that regard, Barbie is not much different to most of Hollywood’s contemporary output. It is however certainly much more successful than most of Hollywood’s contemporary output, breaking several box office records.
It seems doubtful this is all down to the fiendishly clever marketing campaign. Barbie has tapped into something else in the culture: the problem of love and identity in a post-heterosexual, post-adult world.
Barbieland is a Day-Glo infantile matriarchy where ladies own and run everything and where the men are purely ornamental chattel, spending their days on the beach, waiting to be noticed. Or as the narrator, Helen Mirren says: “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
This is of course an inversion of the traditional but now very dated John Berger-esque notion that men act, and women are looked at. It is also the heart of metrosexuality: the male desire to be desired. And Barbie is, in its confused fashion, in many ways more of a movie about Ken and metrosexuality than it is about Barbie, girl power, or heterosexuality. Which is a relief, because ‘awarenesss-raising’ movies and TV series with messages about ‘female empowerment’ and ‘taking on the patriarchy’ are hardly thin on the ground nowadays.
Barbie is friendly and smiley but not terribly interested in Ken. (Which of course I find hard to understand.) Even stereotypical Barbie – Robbie’s Barbie – is an independent, feisty, strong, modern doll and prefers her Ladies’ Nights and perfect single lifestyle to bumping smooth bits with Ken.
However, a serpent enters the moulded plastic garden of Eden. Barbie begins to have thoughts of death and shows signs of becoming human/mortal/realistic (her feet flatten, and she develops cellulite). She has to travel to the real world to find the source of the problem. Ken, still determined to spend more time with Barbie, joins her by stowing away in her pink Barbie car, much to her annoyance.
Barbie is ostensibly a comedy, and Ken and Barbie get into various ‘hilarious’ scrapes when they arrive in (of course) Venice Beach, LA, but the funniest thing in Barbie by far is the notion that the ‘real world’ – i.e., the contemporary, woke US where the Pentagon flies the Pride Progress flag, where state, media and corporations are constantly telling us how AMAZING women are and how they can do ANYTHING (and how TOXIC men are) – is an out and out woman-hating patriarchy and that everything is run by men, who keep women down.
The board of Mattel is chaired by Will Farrell on comedy villain autopilot, with an army of white yes-men directors in black suits. The only woman employee is a lowly secretary called Gloria (America Ferrara,) with Barbie designs inspired by her own existential crisis caused by recently playing with her daughter’s dolls that the men ignore. It is her crisis that has infected Barbie.
The actual Mattel board, who approved this movie, is currently chaired by a man, but half the ten directors are women. The ‘real world’ is thus even more make-believe than Barbieland so we shall call it Realworld.
In Realword, Barbie experiences objectification and disrespect – and also the wrath of a young feminist (Gloria’s daughter) who see her as an unrealistic and oppressive beauty ideal. Farrell and Mattel, horrified by the potential impact of her new imperfections on their bottom line, try to trick her into getting back into her box (geddit?), so they can send her back for remanufacturing.
Ken, who suffers from low self-esteem and a sense of pointlessness in Barbieland, loves the fact that men have all the power in Realworld, and how he is treated with respect instead of taken for granted. He decides to engineer a revolution with the other Kens back in Barbieland, wearing a mink coat, shades and headband – looking and sounding a bit Andrew Tate, but not quite so camp. The masculinist revolution will be aestheticised.
The Kens succeed – alarmingly easily – in brainwashing all the women into believing that they just want to wait on and please the men, who occupy the Dreamhouses turning them into pseudo fraternity houses and usurp all positions of power. The revolt implodes quickly however, after the women are de-programmed by Barbie with the help of a long, inspiring Vagina Monologues style monologue from Gloria about the contradictory demands of being a modern woman in the real world.
Now liberated and their own subjects again, they are immediately told to manipulate the men into hating one another by making them jealous.
While the men are fighting on the beach, the cunning ladies reassert their control of Barbieland and complete their re-relegation of the uppity men to accessories. (Though they do ever so kindly allow them a little more responsibility this time.)
The male revolt implodes so easily because Ken of course just wants to be with Barbie. He exists for her. It is Barbie and Ken, after all. Barbie can, did and does exist without Ken. Ken, in a reversal of the Biblical story, was created as Barbie’s companion. (Launched in 1961, two years after Barbie, wearing just a swimsuit and chicken legs.)
Gosling’s Ken may look pretty gay, but he really, really wants to be straight.
However, there is no heterosexual romantic resolution in Barbie. Instead, the resolution is metrosexual. Just at the moment when, in a bygone era, they would have finally kissed made up, and declared their love for one another, Barbie tells Ken, gently, that she doesn’t love him, doesn’t want to be with him, and that he must exist for himself and find his self-worth in his independence.
He must, in other words, take himself as his own love-object. In the way that women have been encouraged to for some time.
This cues up by far the best and funniest scene in the movie, and essentially its climax (despite running for another half an hour), when Ken, having been perma-dumped by Barbie, sings the catchy power ballad “I’m Just Ken” – with all the other Kens acting as a campy chorus line.
It is a coming out moment for Ken and the other male dolls. Liberated from expectations and roles, they can be ‘themselves’. Which is… FABULOUS.
Though none of them will ever be actually gay. Because none of them have penises. And gay men really need penises.
Ken remains safely in Barbieland, where he is a second-class citizen by law, while Barbie who is also unsure of her purpose and identity, decides, after a long, tedious and baffling chat to her deceased creator/mother (and Mattel President for thirty years) Ruth Handler, to return to the real world and become human. Which seems an odd choice, given that the real world is patriarchal hell.
The film ends with Barbie taken by Gloria to her first appointment with a gynaecologist. She has like Ken, learned to love herself (even more) – but unlike Ken, she has escaped perfect, eternal, celibate smoothness, and achieved mortal womanhood and biological sex. Though it is still unclear what she wants to do, if anything, with it. (She also remains an ‘unrealistic body ideal’.)
It’s an ending that may not sit well with gender ideologues who want to abolish sex and replace it with Judith Butler. But it symbolises quite well, if unintentionally, the infantile-adult/adult-infantile nature of Barbie, Ken, Barbie and contemporary culture.
In Barbie there is a brief cameo for Magic Earring Ken and Sugar Daddy Ken (played by Rob Brydon), heavily implying they are a gay couple. And perhaps to suggest that they are the only gays in the Barbie Village.
Earring Magic Ken was launched in 1993 (a year before the metrosexual), as a ‘cooler’ update of Ken, based on market research of what five-year-old girls said they wanted to see on their/Barbie’s plastic playmate. With his purple leather jacket, mesh vest, moussed hair, suggestive pendant and – EARRING!! – he was instantly dubbed by the US media as the ‘gay Ken’ (90s America was hideously conservative, darling).
He became one of the best-selling Kens ever, as he was snapped up by US gay men looking for validation or just a jokey party piece.
In the UK of course, Earring Magic Ken would have been seen as just another member of Take That.
Sugar Daddy Ken was launched in 2010, aimed at adult doll collectors. He had a more mature appearance, and came with a West Highland Terrier puppy attached, called “Sugar”. Hence “Sugar Daddy Ken” – or so Mattel insisted.