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Ken is a bell hooks critique come to life in ‘Barbie’

The movie offers us a humorous, and very pink, critique on the patriarchy and the performativity of gender.

“Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him,” the narrator, voiced by Helen Mirren, says in the beginning of “Barbie.” It is one of the most iconic and searing lines of the film because of the painful truth it contains: Men are raised to understand their own value as being inextricably bound with their sexuality. 

The uproarious laughter in the movie theater where I watched "Barbie" was a good indicator that the film wrestles with some uncomfortable truths.

Much like the rest of the film, which both plays into and subverts gendered stereotypes, the line operates on multiple levels: It places the central male character under the female gaze, inverting the status quo, and it speaks to a larger truth. The uproarious laughter in the movie theater where I watched "Barbie" was a good indicator that the film wrestles with some uncomfortable truths. And this is precisely why it’s provoked the ire of critics on the right, many of whom rabidly object to the film without having seen it. (“Barbie is Nuclear Level Feminist Nonsense That HATES Men & Pushes Gender Ideologies Onto Children,” one YouTuber, who railed against the film he had not seen, named his video review. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, joined a long list of Republicans who’ve tried to make “Barbie” the enemy of the state.)

The feminist blockbuster with its record-breaking $155-million opening weekend — a cultural phenomenon even before it had been released, thanks to its near-unhinged levels of marketing — offers us a humorous, and very pink, critique on the patriarchy and the performativity of gender. It adeptly and accessibly explores the crisis that is masculinity. It is not so much that there is a crisis of masculinity as it is that masculinity is itself a crisis. And, much to the shock and delight of my anti-Barbie doll, feminist, queer heart, the film offers many of the same critiques on masculinity that feminist cultural critic bell hooks offered us. 

In her pioneering book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” hooks unpacks a number of ideas we see explored in the film, specifically in Ken’s (played by Ryan Gosling) narrative arc.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.) The film begins with Ken pining for Barbie’s attention in Barbie’s matriarchal world, before following Barbie into the real world, where he discovers patriarchy (uh oh). This becomes an outlet for all the pain, anguish, and rage associated with his masculinity, which he quickly exports back into Barbie’s world, transforming it into an absurdist version of the real world, before the Barbies are able to band together to put an end to it. 

During patriarchy’s dystopian reign in Barbie’s world, the Kens convert all the Barbie dream houses into man caves, replete with saloon-style doors, leather sofas, and flatscreen TVs with horses on them, repudiating all that is aesthetically feminine. As hooks writes in “The Will to Change,” “A man who is unabashedly and unequivocally committed to patriarchal masculinity will both fear and hate all that the culture deems feminine and womanly.”

Ken’s vengefulness, which masks his rage, shame, and insecurities, is largely a byproduct of Barbie’s lack of sexual-romantic interest in him. Ken is the prototypical patriarchal man, who is raised to believe his identity and worth are explicitly tied to his sexuality and ability to sexually dominate women. “[T]he underlying message boys receive about sexual acts is that they will be destroyed if they are not in control, exercising power,” hooks reflects. Later in the book, she adds: “To take the inherent positive sexuality of males and turn it into violence is the patriarchal crime that is perpetuated against the male body … Men know what is happening, they have simply been taught not to speak the truth of their bodies, the truth of their sexualities.”

What’s more, sex (or, in Ken’s case, simply spending the night with Barbie because neither he nor Barbie has genitals, nor do they fully grasp what sex is) becomes an outlet for all the anxieties associated with his masculinity. “Sex, then, becomes a way of self-solacing,” hooks writes. “It is not about connecting to someone else but rather about releasing their own pain.” hooks describes how this dynamic, whereby sex offers a brief reprieve from the strictures of patriarchal masculinity, often creates an addictive relationship with sex. “The addict is often an individual in acute pain. Patriarchal men have no outlet to express their pain, so they simply release,” she writes.

Ken’s vengefulness, which masks his rage, shame, and insecurities, is largely a byproduct of Barbie’s lack of sexual-romantic interest in him.

In the final scene of “Barbie” — after the Barbie dolls’ successful uprising — Ken completely unravels, to original Barbie (Margot Robbie), spiraling into an existential crisis when he is denied everything he believes defines him and his manhood. Chiefly, this includes Barbie’s sexual-romantic interest, his ability to dominate others, and his attachment to capitalism (nothing quite says “man” like minifridges and Adidas boxing shoes). In other words, he believes his value is defined by the things he can achieve, rather than who he is. “In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth,” hooks writes “They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”

It is precisely this antidote to patriarchal masculinity which Barbie offers Ken: She encourages him to explore who he is, what he likes, not what he thinks he should like, not what he thinks others want him to like. She encourages him to recover his sense of self and assures him that that who is is enough.

Before Ken’s catharsis, guided solely by Barbie (a woman willing to do his emotional labor), we see him repressing his authenticity into oblivion. First, performing a version of himself that he thinks will win Barbie’s attention and affections. Then, performing a version of himself that he thinks the Kens will respect and will allow him to dominate. He is gripped by self-loathing; in attempting to kill off parts of himself, he loses the ability to love both himself and others. According to hooks, this is a form of cultural abuse patriarchal masculinity enacts on men.

At the film’s end, Barbie is confronted with a choice: To remain a doll or become a human. The film’s writers — Greta Gerwig and her husband, Noah Baumbach — enjoy a self-reflexive moment, after two hours of wrestling with some of our most complex and damaging superstructures. “Humans only have one ending,” the ghost of Ruth Handler, Barbie’s inventor, tells Barbie. “Ideas live forever.”

The feminist critique woven into the fabric of the film, albeit limiting and superficial at times (it is, afterall, a Barbie film), gives Handler’s words even more meaning. As Ken’s tie-dye hoodie declares at the end (“I am Kenough”), men, in their humanness, are always kenough — an idea which will hopefully prevail and long outlast the works of hooks and Gerwig, for all of our sakes.