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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

You Are Kenough: How Barbie Reflects the Struggle of Evolving Gender Roles


Ken sings "I'm Just Ken"

Disclaimer: I’m writing about stereotypes. There are plenty of men who pull off safe manly strength with incredible self-awareness and vulnerability. I also recognize there are lots of women who really suck. There are others who don’t identify with the gender of their birth or either of the binary options our culture has handed them. I’m reflecting on our culture as a whole, so I ask that you reflect on the overall rather than taking personal offence.


Also, there are spoilers to the Barbie movie in this article.


I had little interest in the Barbie movie before seeing comments and reviews on social media. There are lovers. There are haters. But not too many in between.


One post from digital creator Jared Guynes emphasized how inappropriate the movie was for kids, reminding parents that it’s rated PG-13. The reasons are the “many adult topics [explored] through the creative lens of Barbie.” The list he gives includes genitals, sex, sexual harassment, sexual innuendos, sexual jokes and puns, cussing (they use mother-f* with a bleep once and used the words “crap” and “oh my God”)[1], mention of a gynecologist and discussions about consumerism. He ends the review with a surprise by saying that “this movie is amazing, like, shockingly good.” The post currently has 11K shares on Facebook.


While I agree, this movie was made for adults, the idea that it’s inappropriate for kids is just silly. Much to my disappointment there is no sex and no kissing. When Ken asks to stay over, Barbie explains that every night is girls night and what would they even do if he stayed? Does that qualify as an innuendo?


The fight scenes are equally shocking, but apparently conservatives protecting their children from proper anatomical names for genitals don’t object to violence. By shocking, I mean they culminate in a spectacular dance routine performed by the Kens.



I read several comments that suggested the Kens talking about a “beach-off” really meant “beat off.”[2] Maybe I’m too sheltered to draw that meaning for myself? An equal number of folks inferred a beach-off is like a dance-off or bake-off. It’s beach because that’s what the Kens do.


Criticisms that Barbie is an adult film or somehow inappropriate for children are simply a distraction from the conversation that Barbie is intentionally diving into. Although I don’t think most young children would be able to follow all the nuances, it’s exactly the conversation we need to have.

 

Our culture continues the struggle to navigate these questions about gender identity and how we live in community together. The feminist movement has certainly evolved over the last half century. I’m thinking of the Women’s Liberation Movement (or 2nd wave feminism) of the 1970s and 80s. Women believed that they had to choose, work or family. You could be an ambitious career woman or a homemaker. Not surprisingly, birth rates dropped dramatically between 1965 and 1980—I see you Gen X.


Somewhere along the way this false dichotomy broke and women began to think they could do it all. Empowered arguably beyond our means, we decided it was within reason to take on the corporate world and be supermom all while looking like a Barbie doll. It’s no wonder so many women are exhausted, filled with anxiety and searching for a lifeline.


Feminism looks different today than it has in the past. There’s a focus on personal growth and acknowledging that we are good enough. Everywhere I look inspiring women are reading and writing personal development books, going to therapy and learning to be better human beings. Despite our imperfect bodies, messy homes and ok jobs, we have value, just by being ourselves.


That’s the conversation that Barbie wants to have. Hannah Anderson explores this topic in her article for Christianity Today by saying, “Rather than offering a blind affirmation of feminism or a critique of patriarchy, the movie explores how we use ideology to bypass the messier work of growing as humans. The gender wars are not the plot so much as the setting. They shape the world in which Barbie and Ken pursue maturity.”[3] Barbie’s quest isn’t to upend society and institute a new matriarchy. Rather, she’s looking inward to find her identity and purpose.

 

Right wing commentators and politicians like Ben Shapiro and Matt Gaetz have been quick to call for a boycott of the Barbie movie saying it’s anti-man and promotes toxic femininity. I’m not saying women are perfect and feminism is always right, but toxic femininity isn’t a thing. This also perfectly illustrates a major point of the movie.


Barbieland is the place where women do everything and hold all of the power. It’s meant to be a reflection of patriarchy and intended to make you feel a certain kind of way depending on your perspective.

In Barbieland Ken is an accessory. The narrator says, “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” Ken doesn’t have his own money, house or job. When Ken gets a glimpse of the real world his eyes are opened. He feels seen and respected. Ken thinks he can capture that feeling by instituting the patriarchy and transforming Barbieland into Kendom.


In the end Ken realizes that all of the posturing to make himself look tough and “manly” is exhausting. In so many ways this mirrors the current struggle of men in our culture. The traditional view of manliness is no longer socially acceptable. But what do we put in its place?

 

A couple generations ago men were valued for their ability to provide for their family and not much else. Now that women are also able to earn a living, where does that leave men? Much like Ken, many feel as though they have lost their sense of purpose and identity as a man.


Christine Emba wrote an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post about this very topic. Here’s part of what she said:


Today’s problems are real and well documented. Deindustrialization, automation, free trade and peacetime have shifted the labor market dramatically, and not in men’s favor — the need for physical labor has declined, while soft skills and academic credentials are increasingly rewarded. Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market, with the biggest drop in employment among men ages 25 to 34. For those in a job, wages have stagnated everywhere except the top.


Meanwhile, women are surging ahead in school and in the workplace, putting a further dent in the “provider” model that has long been ingrained in our conception of masculinity. Men now receive about 74 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 awarded to women, and men account for more than 70 percent of the decline in college enrollment overall. In 2020, nearly half of women reported in a TD Ameritrade survey that they out-earn or make the same amount as their husbands or partners — a huge jump from fewer than 4 percent of women in 1960.


Emba goes on to emphasize the crisis. Men now account for almost 3 of 4 deaths to suicide, alcohol abuse or overdose.[4] We raised boys to be tough, but we didn’t give them the tools to be emotionally resilient. We instilled the need to earn a living, but they are struggling to actually live.


The voices rising up to address this crisis are influencers like Andrew Tate, authors like Jonathan Peterson and politicians like Josh Hawley. Emba points out that the value these right-wing misogynists bring is to validate young men’s experience and provide clear instruction on a path forward. They acknowledge the real challenges of manhood and emphasize traditional strengths. As for advice, it’s basic and straightforward. They tell men to clean their room, go to the gym and talk to a girl in real life rather than watch porn all day. I can certainly see the appeal. Unfortunately good advice quickly turns into a call to hierarchical thinking with “lesser men,” LGBTQ+ folks and women at the bottom.


If the far right wants to reinstate male dominance, the left’s response often seems to encourage men to be more feminine or androgynous. The fact is, most women don’t want to mate with other women. We want men to be soft, but still tough. I can imagine this must feel impossible.

One post on Facebook offered a male parody of America Farrera’s monologue saying, “You’re supposed to be strong and confident for women, but not so strong and confident that they feel oppressed or that you make other men angry at you. You have to be romantic and spontaneous but not naïve and cringeworthy. You have to take the initiative and make a move without being told to, unless of course your attention is unwanted… And you must never, ever complain. Because you are a man, everything is easy for you and everything that goes wrong is your fault.”[5]


What Ken finds in the real world is a weakened, but still real, version of patriarchy. In his quest to find his own identity, his hero’s journey, he puts on the masculine stereotype of a tough, in-charge manly man. When he realizes it doesn’t fit, Barbie leads him to look within himself to find value.


This is the same journey that women have been on for the last half century. Our only identity options used to be wife and mother, but we have learned to be that and so much more. Yet the quest continues, finding our own individual expressions of femininity on our own hero’s journey just like Barbie.

 

This conversation around identity and manhood isn’t new. I write about faith, so here’s my pivot to church stuff…


In 1987 John Piper and several other evangelical leaders formed the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood(CBMW). Their answer to shifting social norms was to resource churches, especially the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church of America, on how to “promote gospel-driven gender roles.”[6]


The CBMW made up a new word: Complementarianism. Central to this idea is that men and women are equal, but men are always in charge. I’m not sure how you make sense of equality meshed with hierarchy, but they’ve been pretty successful at spreading this ideological contradiction across denominational lines.


I can understand the appeal. If men in our culture are looking for identity, purpose and value, taking leadership over ones family as a god-appointed and empowered protector checks all of those boxes. But will this actually solve the problem?

 

My husband, Adam, asked me last night before bed, “Have you heard there’s been a wave of breakups because of the Barbie movie?” No, I had not. “Am I the only one,” he reads one woman’s post, “who walked out of Barbie thinking it’s time to break up with my boyfriend.” I immediately thought if watching a movie is all it takes to end a relationship, it was probably about over anyway.


It echoed a TikTok I heard recently predicting that this is the era of the great divorce.[7] The influencer said that we are going to continue to see a lot of women either opting out of marriage or deciding they want a divorce.


Here’s what I’m hearing from some—a lot of women find their life is a lot easier without a spouse. They work full time jobs. Women still do the majority of the housework (I would like to mention that my husband does more than his fair share, but statistically he is an outlier). They are carrying the mental load of making sure everyone does and has all the things they need. Lots of women spend the majority of their “free” time caring for children. They are looking for a partner but instead, they find themselves parenting their spouse.


Women often feel like they are constantly working to help their male partners regulate their emotions. Unfortunately, our society hasn’t set men up for success in this. They tend to be unskilled at vulnerability, self-awareness and being able to talk through their feelings. Just like Ken, who in his distress looked to Barbie for a physical connection, many men look to sex for comfort. Just like Ken, they find their identity in their romantic partner, and if she’s not available or responding the right way, their sense of value is devastated.[8]


I’m going to take the liberty of speaking for women everywhere.


Men, we love you. We love you deeply and we need you to get your shit together. We realize it can be really hard to be a man these days. We recognize that you have the potential to be all that and a bag of chips. You are our husbands, our fathers, our brothers and sons. We don’t want to live life on our own. We want to be with you! We need you to do the work. We need you to know that you are Kenough!


I’m not sure how all of this will shake out. What will “manliness” look like over the next twenty years. I recognize that it’s not quite so simple as speaking your truth to unlock the bonds of patriarchy or being told that you have value. I’m thankful we are calling for a higher standard. We’re working toward better and I have faith that we can get there together.

 

And now receive this benediction.


We humans are loved by God, men and women equally. Not because we are strong, successful, good looking or able to do all the things. God loves us because that’s who God is and what God does. We were made in the image of the divine. I believe that the same breath that breathed into dust and said, “Let there be life,” is still breathing on us today.


Go in peace.



[1] Common Sense Media Review of Barbie [2] In case you’re like me and didn’t immediately know what “beat off” means Urban Dictionary [3] Hannah Anderson "Barbie and Ken Go East of Eden" from Christianity Today [4]Christine Emba “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness.” [5] Here’s a link to the full post which I do not affirm, but think is an interesting perspective. Facebook [6] CBMW Web Site History Page https://cbmw.org/about/history/ [7]Interesting thoughts from @hope_peddler on the future of cis hetero marriages TikTok [8] This idea came from a very insightful article by Nicholas Balaisis at Psychology Today.

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