One of my readers reached out to me and asked me to write about Ken. He had strong feelings he couldn't put into words, so I promised try to help.
Ken, of course, is the primary male figure in the Barbie movie. Sometimes writing this blog is fun. Last week, for example, I had fun writing about Barbie and her missing relationships with older women. There is so much rich material about women, feminism, and relationships in the movie that I could have chosen a number of different themes and still enjoyed the writing process.
But Ken? It is hard to find anything to say say about Ken because he is so flat. He is a one-dimensional character with few skills and aspirations that contribute to his society. He is utterly forgettable and meaningless in Barbie’s world.
Don't get me wrong, the Ken actors, especially Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu were fun to watch. The sincerity that infused their characters, especially the song "I'm just Ken" and the "I'm going to Beach you up" scene had me laughing out loud in the movie theater.
From the toy world perspective, it is true that Ken is kind of irrelevant. As the America Ferrera character admitted in the movie, lots of children don’t have a Ken doll, and if they do, they don’t play with Ken. He is an accessory, like a hat or a shoe, for Barbie world. So yeah, de-centering Ken as a character is fully appropriate. The movie is called Barbie for a reason!
Ken Represents Flat Earth Masculinity
But, Ken nibbles around the edges of what I think of as flat earth masculinity—popular versions of masculinity with a single dominant character trait. These dominant traits make the men who adhere to them mostly irrelevant, although perhaps kind of scary people in most women's lives. After all, these are also the kind of men who randomly shoot up grocery stores, religious spaces, and schools.
Most women are strong people. Heterosexual women, in my experience, want genuinely strong men in their lives, not the uni-dimensional strength offered up in these Flat Earth Masculinities. Here are some examples of flat earth masculinities that remind me of Ken.
What is scary is that there is a category of men who are an awful lot like Ken, although less charming, talented, and interesting (if that is even possible).
My best guess is that Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of the Barbie movie, based her version of Ken on the pathetically sad men labeled incels. They are “involuntarily celibate” and believe that women owe them sex and devotion. In some ways, Ken reminds me of these men. He wants Barbie to love him, but she doesn’t, so he stages a revolt and implements patriarchy.
Red Pill Masculinity
In the movie, the Matrix, Neo is given a choice between the red pill and the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill, he can continue to believe the lies about his life. If he takes the red pill, he will know the truth. Neo takes the red pill
This is the premise of Red Pill masculinity. This group of men, largely on Reddit, are misogynistic and sad. They want women to love them, but they don't engage in a way that is particularly lovable.
According to The Guardian, Red pillers are responding to a much more novel and contemporary reality than such biological imperatives: they are responding to women having financial and sexual power over their own lives and bodies. And they haven’t dealt with it yet.
Doesn't this sound like Ken? At one point in the movie, Ken declares "We just took patriarchy and, you know, made it patriarchy." The entire hook of the movie is that because Barbie does not make Ken the center of her world, Ken becomes hostile and angry, forcing the Barbies into subordinate roles. Instead of going out and becoming "Ken" as a richly textured human person, Ken focuses on limiting Barbie's capacity.
Sounds like the Red Pill guys to me.
There has been an interesting array of research suggesting that, for some men, masculinity is very fragile. Apparently, given the catchy lyrics in I'm Just Ken, "Is it my destiny to live and die A life of blond fragility?" Greta Gerwig was specfically thinking about male fragility when she wrote the Barbie Movie.
One of the more interesting studies on male fragility suggests that the more fragile the masculinity, the more destructive and toxic men are in the workplace when their masculinity is threatened.
Uber famously was described as having a “bro culture” that was toxic to women. Bro culture privileges a childish brotherhood over the well being of the larger collective. I can’t even imagine why Uber's founder thought it was a good idea to foster this type of environment.
Ken's focus on horses, the various beach scenes, and the easy sexualization and domination of women, are all takes on the destructive potential of bro culture. The domination and hyper sexualization of women is a necessary feature of this very strange flat earth style masculinity.
Superfluous Ken and Flat Earth Masculinity
No wonder the Barbies ignored the Kens. Bro culture, red pills, incels, male fragility, etc., are all contributors to what I call traumatic masculinity.
Ken represents flat earth masculinity. He is a doll. Does real life masculinity really need to be flat? Is contemporary masculinity a version of Flat Stanley, pulled out for pictures in exotic places and then put away in a plastic bag so that he doesn’t get hurt?
Gads, I hope not. How sad is that?
The men I have the privilege of hanging out with do not adhere to flat earth masculinities. Maybe that is why we hang out. I don't feel the need to be cautious around my male associates. I don't worry that they need to dominate me. I don't have to constantly stroke their fragile egos. Yay. They represent multi-dimensional masculinities with a lot to offer their relationships and the larger world.
How can we shift notions of masculinity so that it better matches the multi-dimensional and complex men in contemporary times?
In the Barbie movie, Matel executives promise the Barbies that things will be back the way they were before. President Barbie says that she does not want it the way it was. Why? Because no Barbie or Ken should be living in the shadows. In Barbie Land, the male dolls live in the shadows. In the real world culture, women live in the shadows. Reversing the polarity does not create gender equity. It just creates a different narrative of oppression.
In the end, Barbie tells Ken he needs to find out who he is without Barbie. That is such a Western World take on the nature of relationships and identity. The idea that we, alone, can decide who we are taps into Western notions of the mythical idealized individual. The reality is, we develop our identities through our relationships with others. Ken needs to discover who he is by developing his own interests, but also by creating positive relationships with men and women (one where he is not constantly threatening to "Beach you off").
In the end, Ken had to be flat so that we could have the Barbie movie. In the real world, flat earth masculinity is scary. Look at the politicians who are elected by advancing a flat earth masculinity. The fact that so many people find that type of masculinity appealing is perplexing. I think it is reasonable to ask men can find more constructive, multidimensional versions of masculinity. That would be awesome--for all of us.
Note from the Farm: It has been really hot and humid this week. The animals are suffering, but, so far, no heat related tragedies.
To become a site member, complete the form that pops up in the comments section below, send me a message via the chat pop up, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can add you to the site. If you are reading this on your phone, here is the WIX code you can use to join my site: 8YPXBP
If you enjoyed this blog, please share with your network.