Living as a Ken in a Barbie World

I am anticipating seeing the Barbie movie with a mixture of excitement and dread. It’s a Greta Gerwig film, which means it will be a sharp and funny satire of Barbie, Mattel, and our ridiculously consumerist culture. On the other hand, my name is Ken, and this is a movie about . . . Barbie. My nemesis. The name which, unwisely wielded, can move me to violence. My cross to bear.

My mother was Barbara or Barb, and I’ve had good friends named Barb, one of whom sometimes went by Barbie and would deck anyone who mentioned “Ken.” I was one of the lucky few who survived.

I’ve never been comfortable with the whole world of Barbie—her misshapen body and sex toy breasts, her maniacally upbeat attitude, and the relentless marketing to impressionable and vulnerable young girls looking for role models and wanting to fit in. My own daughters played some with Barbies alongside their far more realistic Fischer Price Little People, American Girls, and stuffed animals, and they put away their Barbies with the rest of their childhood toys. They didn’t grow up to be overdone fashion hounds or to chase boys—in fact, they’re both refreshingly practical and grounded, even if one collects too many tchotchkes for her own good.

Still, the material culture surrounding Barbie—attempting to numb the pain of meaninglessness—bothers me. No matter how many idealized role models Mattel and its ilk churn out, it’s all in the service of profit—even the attitude of Mattel executives tolerating a sharply critical movie because they also knew it will make them a shit-ton of money. This is consumerism feeding capitalism, manipulation masquerading as nurture. I’ve spent my life trying to become less attached to things, and Barbie is the ultimate material girl. I suppose it’s good to give young girls positive role models—I just wish they didn’t have permanently pointed toes to fit in those fabulous pumps.

And Ken, that glassy eyed bimbo whose only function is to establish Barbie’s heterosexuality while leaving his own in doubt. Ken, face it. You’d be happier if you just admitted that you were as gay as a maypole. At least your feet look human.

Is there a conclusion to all this? Well, I’ll probably end up plunking down my six bucks to see Barbie (I’ll watch it in an inexpensive neighborhood theater) and wash it down with a chaser of Oppenheimer, so I can feel good about watching serious cinema. And we’ll go on amusing ourselves to death. And Mattel will only get richer and richer until they rule the world. Where’s the hand basket, honey? We’re headed for hell.

Ken Redux

Watched the film—ended up paying eleven bucks, not six, but it was a cool nonprofit theater with all the kinds of people who got the satire. Boy, is Ken a bimbo. All six hundred thirty-seven of him. And poor Alan. America Ferrara (previously Ugly Betty, who wears glasses and isn’t ugly) is a mom who draws flawed Barbies, and Ryan Gosling (previously Lars with the Real Girl) is in love with a doll who becomes a real girl, but he’s still a doll. And plain girls become beautiful when they take off their glasses.

Barbie has an existential crisis and rallies all her incarnations to shake off their brainwashing and fight for their agency. Ken has an existential crisis and . . . he’s still a bimbo. A bimbo with hope for growth but still a bimbo. Without too many spoilers, Ken finds his masculinity. And patriarchy. And horses. Then he learns patriarchy is hard. And it’s not about horses.

The film really does celebrate Barbies in all their campy excess, and it really does savage consumerism and patriarchy, frequently with tongue in cheek, and is even compassionate to bland, accessory Ken and his attempts to find himself and be someone in his own right—all largely what I expected. It goes in so many directions and tackles so many issues in a film about a plastic plaything that I often found myself unsure of what it was trying to say. Perhaps that’s intentional, and it’s really trying to ask questions rather than answer them. It’s definitely more than a piece of fluff to be dismissed in one viewing, and I may watch it again once it comes to streaming, if only for the laughs (there were several genuine lol moments in the theater).

Oppenheimer still calls, and we need to watch that on IMAX for the full, boneshaking, earth-shattering effect. It’s interesting that a film that tackles ostensibly far heavier topics relies so much on visual impact to make its point—maybe calling Barbie just a plastic plaything is akin to calling an atomic bomb just a bunch of metal, wires, and enriched uranium. Should be an experience.

Ken Tryon @ArtGeek