In the broader Barbie cinematic universe, Ken’s depiction is far from the submissive, secondary character he gets presented as in the movie Barbie. His portrayal in that movie significantly diverges from his more autonomous roles, where he and Barbie get incorporated into the narrative with different names. Examples include Prince Aidan in Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, Linden in Barbie: Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow, and Wes Rivers in Barbie in Princess Power. Ken is a complex, fully-realized character with individualistic narratives in these roles, demonstrating he is not merely an accessory to Barbie but an equal partner with personal motivations and struggles.
For instance, in Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, Aidan showcases survival skills, using nets to catch food, and helps Annika build the Wand of Light, primarily driven by financial motivations rather than a desire to please Annika. Linden, in Barbie: Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow, welcomes Elina to Fairy School, a school he attended long before her arrival, and he courageously defends her integrity against others’ skepticism. In Barbie in Princess Power, Wes Rivers challenges his relationship with Princess Kara by revealing her identity as Super Sparkle on his blog, What’s Up Wes.
Contrastingly, in Barbie, the narrator suggests, “Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.” The question then arises: What branding is this from? If Ken, as an advertised doll, has always existed as a submissive companion, then this rhetorical criticism stands withdrawn. However, suppose this script is a consequence not of a logical exploration of the Mattel Barbie and Ken dyad but an ideological propagation. In that case, a problem warrants addressing, and my critique stands.
Introduced by Mattel in 1961, the Ken doll, initially marketed as Barbie’s boyfriend, had a distinct identity and was not solely dependent on Barbie. Ken was an individual character with his outfits, accessories, and even careers, providing children with more scenarios and creative storylines during their play. This movie script, however, seems to suggest that Ken’s existence solely relies on Barbie’s gaze, portraying Ken’s character as fundamentally dependent.
While the movie successfully portrays Barbie as a feminist icon, it falls short in balancing gender representation.
Another example that highlights this ideological undertone is the narrator’s brief fourth wall break and discussion of Margot Robbie getting cast as Barbie. While the narrator herself attempts to critique unrealistic beauty standards via Robbie’s casting as Barbie, given that it is Robbie as Barbie who complains about unrealistic beauty standards in the movie, the narrator never provides such a deliberate intrusion in regards to equity, gender bias, representation, and the reinforcement of male stereotypes.
Greta Gerwig's Barbie makes significant decisions about portraying male characters, potentially influencing its young audience’s perceptions of gender roles. With Ken’s diminished role and mistreatment, young boys might question whether they want to identify with him or other male characters in the movie. The movie’s emphasis on female characters’ strength and agency at the expense of male characters might unintentionally deter boys from identifying with male characters. However, also, it might deter boys from identifying with female characters. Any representation in this movie for young boys is a confusing terrain.
Ken’s portrayal in the movie is notable. He is smitten with Barbie, constantly vying for her attention and acceptance, often at the cost of his dignity. For example, Ken attempts to show his affection for Barbie in the film, only to be rebuffed with a statement emphasizing her autonomy and ownership of the Barbie Dream House and that every night is girls’ night. Despite Ken’s acknowledgment of her harsh treatment, he deepens his love for her at that moment. That is problematic. It appears to convey a harmful message that enduring adverse treatment is acceptable, even praiseworthy, in expressing love, which risks normalizing and endorsing abusive dynamics in relationships.
Eventually, Ken becomes aware of the concept of patriarchy and introduces it to Barbie’s world. However, the Barbies cleverly manipulate the situation by feigning interest in the Kens. Then one Barbie after another shows interest with multiple Kens to sow discord among the Kens to allow the Barbies to reclaim their power near the film’s conclusion.
Unquestionably, Ken’s attempt to introduce patriarchy into Barbie’s world is hostile and fraught with power imbalance and oppression. Nevertheless, Barbie’s world is a matriarchy, which is equally disconcerting. This depiction is unusual for a children’s brand and may inadvertently alienate its young male audience, challenging the inclusivity the brand ideally should aim to cultivate. Indeed, the movie is so about gender-based conceptions of power that it is not a children’s movie.
Gerwig attempts to fix the power imbalance by having Barbie acknowledges her egotism from earlier in the movie by saying that perhaps not every night is girls’ night, and that there is space for caring relationships with Kens, but only after Ken has capitulated and dismissed the importance of patriarchy. Ken attempts to kiss Barbie, which she rejects and responds with a slap.
Now, Barbie did made clear her boundaries and lack of romantic reciprocation to Ken throughout the movie, and the slap and overall scenario, while problematic for a children’s brand, was an assertion and defense of those boundaries. The problem exists not in Barbie's autonomy, which is a positive dimension of the movie, but rather in how the Ken and Kens matter gets resolved.
Even after Ken realizes that he needs to accept Barbie’s autonomy and that she does not want to be with him romantically, his final self-realization, “Ken is me” and his sweatshirt that reads, "I am Kenough," feels patronizing and diminishes his individuality, especially since the movie ends with a matriarchy where Kens beg for some semblance of power, painting a stark contrast to Ken’s earlier autonomous roles.
Barbie is not some time capsule brand given a final send-off through a movie like Battleship or Rampage. The brand is widely consumed by children of various genders, with movies, games, video games, clothing, and other products supplementing the primary toy line. It often becomes a resource for parents discussing gender exploration—a boy playing with Barbies is a commonly cited example. Therefore, the movie’s portrayal of Ken and other male characters may discourage boys from identifying with them, potentially influencing their understanding of gender roles and identities.
Other male characters like Allen, the fictional CEO of Mattel, his associates, and the husband of the adult woman and teenager who accompanies Barbie are all denigrated or sidelined.
This lopsided representation calls into question Mattel’s allowance of such a weak depiction of Ken. Perhaps the goal was to underline Barbie’s independence and leadership, a response to past criticisms that the brand perpetuates traditional gender roles. However, this seems to have inadvertently diminished Ken’s character, suggesting he can exist only as a submissive or secondary figure to a dominant, independent female character. This character portrayal may unintentionally reinforce an alternate set of gender stereotypes, painting an unnecessarily binary picture of gender dynamics.
Thus, it is clear that empowering girls should not disempower boys or oversimplify their characters. Depth, complexity, and individuality should be given to all characters, providing children with a spectrum of personas to identify with and learn from. By ensuring one’s empowerment does not limit another, we foster an environment where children, regardless of gender, can see themselves in diverse, nuanced, and aspirational characters.
In conclusion, the portrayal of Ken and other male characters in the Barbie movie seems to be an ideologically driven decision that, unfortunately, creates an imbalance in gender representation. The movie inadvertently simplifies the complexity and individuality of male characters while highlighting Barbie’s independence, potentially influencing children’s perceptions of gender roles and identity. This movie suggests a need for more conscious narrative choices in children’s media, equipping all characters, irrespective of gender, with depth, complexity, and the ability to stand as individuals.
The Barbie brand has the potential to play a significant role in shaping a healthier, more balanced understanding of gender for the children who interact with its products. It would be beneficial to see this potential recognized and implemented in future Barbie movies, games, and toys. After all, we must strive for a media environment that empowers all children to see themselves as diverse, nuanced, and capable individuals.