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Taking it for Granted: What Barbie Says About Us

Positive Masculinity Contributor – Maxwell Hayden

Content Writer | Politics, Philosophy & Economics Student

When people think back on the year 2023 and all that it has to offer, there’s no doubt one of the first things that will jump to mind for most is the 17th highest-grossing movie ever at time of writing and an international phenomenon both in and out of theaters, Barbie. In my opinion, it’s an experience worthy of all the hype— the time and effort put into the sets, musical numbers, and comedy are enough of a spectacle on their own to keep people compelled. Above all else, Barbie is a movie about gender and how it influences the ways people move through the world. The concept of Barbie dolls has always been a politically charged one, both in its presentation and by virtue of the fact that it’s about women; its film counterpart is no different. Director Greta Gerwig bites off a lot with some of the topic matter the story tackles, and I think it's worth taking a closer look at her approach, because whether or not you agree with the messaging of Barbie (as we’ll explore, I feel quite conflicted) it’s important to understand the cultural phenomena that underpin it.

What makes Barbie such a difficult movie to try and deconstruct is its multi-level allegories. Stereotypical Barbie is, on one hand, a woman, dealing with the ramifications of that label when she visits the real world. On the other hand, she and the other Barbies move about Barbie Land the same way that men move about Earth, taking on a traditionally masculine role and turning the societal narrative on the Kens in a way that intentionally made some male viewers uncomfortable. There’s some tension present in her characterization as a result, and it’s this tension that, for me, disqualifies criticism of Barbie that boils down to “It’s too feminist!”. Gerwig is simultaneously acknowledging that women are justified in feeling like they should be able to have Barbie Land for themselves while asserting that such a desire is, in and of itself, problematic. It is, in my opinion, quite well done.

You have navigated yourself to, however, and though Stereotypical Barbie is certainly interesting in her own right, her Ken provides both more direct commentary about what it means to be masculine and more challenging questions about Barbie’s broader message. Stereotypical Ken has the same thing going on that his Barbie does, in that he is both literally a man and metaphorically filling a feminine societal role in Barbie Land, but with a third, trickier level in the mix: He is also a doll. “Well, duh. Aren’t they all?” Yes, reader, they are, but the Barbies aren’t narratively impacted by that detail the way that Kens are, because Barbie, as the movie establishes on multiple occasions, is an idea more than she is a doll, and Ken doesn’t have that freedom. The opening scene of the movie establishes Barbie as representing all of the things that a girl could one day aspire to be, moving beyond the traditional boundaries of motherhood to a wide variety of different careers and identities that capture the imagination of the children who play with them. In this light, Ken means very little to girls playing with their Barbies; he is a side piece that doesn’t exist unless a boy is necessary to the plot of their story, which doesn’t happen often for kids not yet interested in relationships. As such, the ways in which Ken is ignored goes beyond the gender-role-swap allegory. This is, I think, the point most lost on men watching Barbie— I know it was lost on me before multiple women talked me through it— but it’s an exceptionally important one.

The campfire scene is one that I believe illustrates this issue perfectly. For those who haven’t seen the movie or need a refresher, the Barbies are trying to take control of Barbie Land back from the Kens, and decide that the most effective way to do so is to make them jealous of one another. To do so, each Barbie lets their Ken play & sing them a song that they otherwise would never sit through before leaving them to join a different Ken and listen to their song. This is played mostly for laughs, save one important detail: the song the Kens are singing. Any Matchbox Twenty fans will tell you that their hit song “Push” tells the story of a man who’s being emotionally abused by his girlfriend, who had previously been a victim of abuse herself. This scene can now be read in a plethora of different ways. You could say that Ken takes on the singer’s role, a victim of the Barbies, having been kept in the edges of society and being “led on” by his Barbie, and debate whether or not such a claim is valid. But it would be just as easy to claim that Ken is the woman the song is about, having at one point been abused by Barbie but now taking on the very role that had initially created so much pain for him. You may also walk away thinking that Ken is ultimately so unimportant to Barbie’s story that this can just be a funny scene. The song choice may be a red herring, or there for people to think about should they be so inclined.

Theoretically, I could spend another four blogs going over these options for a number of different scenes until we arrive at the most satisfying interpretation. Instead I’m going to argue for a slight variation on the third option. People across the political spectrum are quick to make the case for the interpretation of Barbie that makes sense according to their predispositions, which is why you have some folks angrily storming out of theaters and others believing it to be a feminist masterpiece. But how could you possibly make any definitive claim to your interpretation with so many options to choose from?

Finally, we arrive at my claim: I think it’s more likely that Barbie actually has nothing to say about men than that Gerwig is attempting to make some grand statement about gender roles. It should serve as an opportunity to examine your reactions to certain moments, and assess from there.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with one particular interpretation of Barbie or another. Especially for the men who left the theater upset or confused, though, it’s important to take advantage of the chance to ask yourself why. Were the moments in which Ken got laughed off screen hitting too close to home? What made the exaggerated girl-power of Barbie Land too much to sit through? Ultimately, the goal of exploring what positive masculinity means is to be able to speak to how being a man shapes the ways you move through the world, and how you can take that experience and cultivate a better world, whatever that means to you. That means taking inventory of your biases, needs, and traumas when you’re presented with one that catches you off guard. Having a growth mindset means always looking for the areas in which you can improve and taking the necessary steps to make that improvement happen.

If there’s one thing I would implore you to take away from Barbie, it’s that having an opinion cannot be helped, but whether or not you question and improve those opinions is up to you. Taking on a growth mindset is critical for staying aware of yourself and your surroundings so that you can do justice by yourself and the people around you. The endless cycle of discourse won’t be going away anytime soon— before you find yourself wandering back into its inviting hellscape, make sure you’ve given yourself enough rope to escape with.

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