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Paunch-free zone: why the Barbie movie’s body diversity message shortchanges Ken | Barbie

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The Barbie movie’s great triumph is its heroine’s makeover. After a difficult history setting, and maintaining, unrealistic beauty standards, she has been reinvented as a feminist icon. But there’s a problem – one that shortchanges half the potential audience and jeopardises the overall empowerment message. It’s the Kens.

Ken has, of course, long been portrayed as a pretty boy, the canonical boyfriend throughout the decades. Consequently, he hasn’t formed as tangible a personality as the more contemporary Barbie dolls we see today, with Mattel focusing on humanising their lead figure in all her varying manifestations.

Although Ken has always played second fiddle to his girlfriend, some of director Greta Gerwig’s decisions over how to portray them in her film weakens the patriarchal deconstruction she’s aiming for. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Kens’ appearance. While there are at least two plus-sized Barbies, and one in a wheelchair, none of the Kens are anything other than svelte. Even those who lack a six-pack certainly don’t have a paunch.

Ken becomes like the Barbies of the past: generic, carbon copies of quaffed hair and muscles. They’re manufactured so only their looks matter, their worth beholden to their desirability; those who don’t quite fit the mould, like Allan, become outcasts. Then, like the Allan dolls, these outcasts are quickly discounted because they have no place in Barbieland.

That Barbie is allowed to be any size, despite the societal constructs that originally shaped her creation, feels unfair if Ken is trapped in a slim body. Plus-size men are denied a film in which they are represented, unlike female viewers in this case. One could argue that men don’t require such breadth of representation – after all, this film is not aimed at them, right? But that’s surely not the outcome Gerwig – or Mattel – were after.

Barbie’s journey of self-discovery is rooted in a challenge to the patriarchy. Although that patriarchy protects the Kens, the film shows how it also damages them, and leads them to turn Barbieland into a mecca for toxic masculinity. While the type of man being portrayed is one many people may have encountered, confining the Kens to that one type prevents them from escaping the very patriarchal system the Barbies are attempting to break down.

Barbie. Photograph: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In the end, the Barbies adhere to the same standards. Rather than becoming a matriarchy, which seeks to find power from within as opposed to exerting it over others, the Barbies end up holding absolute power over the Kens. No one is freed from Ken’s coup; it simply gets a fabulously pink makeover.

A general critical consensus has formed on the foundation that it’s OK to dilute the Kens down to a parody of themselves because they’re only suffering the same humiliation women have endured. However, having the Barbies act like real-world men ultimately continues the long legacy of male influence, as opposed to quelling it.

Ryan Gosling’s Ken is on a journey alongside Barbie, too: he’s trying to learn who he is without Barbie, and finds himself left wanting. Even as the film ends, and Barbie is able to venture into the real world as a real woman, Ken is simply “Kenough”; he has no ending. His singing about his “blond fragility” is met with laughter, yet the joke conceals depths. Ken might be played as a repetitive one-note character, but he has complexities: he’s insecure and self-conscious, and bombastic in his attempts to mask his feelings of inadequacy. Compared to Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, Ken is in fact significantly multifaceted.

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Given how the narrative unfolds, Ken is unequivocally central to the plot. Without him, there is no Barbie movie – but there is no closure for his story. As viewers, we’re left with an uncomfortable punchline: that people are either superior or inferior, and that one group has to lose in order for the other to win.

Does this mean Barbie is a write-off, failing to live up to the hype? Not at all. But its powerful message of empowerment is skewered to only empower in one direction. Men have been retained their empowered position over millennia, but it still feels like a grey area to elevate Barbie by shortchanging the Kens. If Barbie is a feminist icon, the message should be equality for all, and not at the expense of someone else.


The Barbie movie’s great triumph is its heroine’s makeover. After a difficult history setting, and maintaining, unrealistic beauty standards, she has been reinvented as a feminist icon. But there’s a problem – one that shortchanges half the potential audience and jeopardises the overall empowerment message. It’s the Kens.

Ken has, of course, long been portrayed as a pretty boy, the canonical boyfriend throughout the decades. Consequently, he hasn’t formed as tangible a personality as the more contemporary Barbie dolls we see today, with Mattel focusing on humanising their lead figure in all her varying manifestations.

Although Ken has always played second fiddle to his girlfriend, some of director Greta Gerwig’s decisions over how to portray them in her film weakens the patriarchal deconstruction she’s aiming for. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Kens’ appearance. While there are at least two plus-sized Barbies, and one in a wheelchair, none of the Kens are anything other than svelte. Even those who lack a six-pack certainly don’t have a paunch.

Ken becomes like the Barbies of the past: generic, carbon copies of quaffed hair and muscles. They’re manufactured so only their looks matter, their worth beholden to their desirability; those who don’t quite fit the mould, like Allan, become outcasts. Then, like the Allan dolls, these outcasts are quickly discounted because they have no place in Barbieland.

That Barbie is allowed to be any size, despite the societal constructs that originally shaped her creation, feels unfair if Ken is trapped in a slim body. Plus-size men are denied a film in which they are represented, unlike female viewers in this case. One could argue that men don’t require such breadth of representation – after all, this film is not aimed at them, right? But that’s surely not the outcome Gerwig – or Mattel – were after.

Barbie’s journey of self-discovery is rooted in a challenge to the patriarchy. Although that patriarchy protects the Kens, the film shows how it also damages them, and leads them to turn Barbieland into a mecca for toxic masculinity. While the type of man being portrayed is one many people may have encountered, confining the Kens to that one type prevents them from escaping the very patriarchal system the Barbies are attempting to break down.

Barbie.
Barbie. Photograph: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In the end, the Barbies adhere to the same standards. Rather than becoming a matriarchy, which seeks to find power from within as opposed to exerting it over others, the Barbies end up holding absolute power over the Kens. No one is freed from Ken’s coup; it simply gets a fabulously pink makeover.

A general critical consensus has formed on the foundation that it’s OK to dilute the Kens down to a parody of themselves because they’re only suffering the same humiliation women have endured. However, having the Barbies act like real-world men ultimately continues the long legacy of male influence, as opposed to quelling it.

Ryan Gosling’s Ken is on a journey alongside Barbie, too: he’s trying to learn who he is without Barbie, and finds himself left wanting. Even as the film ends, and Barbie is able to venture into the real world as a real woman, Ken is simply “Kenough”; he has no ending. His singing about his “blond fragility” is met with laughter, yet the joke conceals depths. Ken might be played as a repetitive one-note character, but he has complexities: he’s insecure and self-conscious, and bombastic in his attempts to mask his feelings of inadequacy. Compared to Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie, Ken is in fact significantly multifaceted.

skip past newsletter promotion

Given how the narrative unfolds, Ken is unequivocally central to the plot. Without him, there is no Barbie movie – but there is no closure for his story. As viewers, we’re left with an uncomfortable punchline: that people are either superior or inferior, and that one group has to lose in order for the other to win.

Does this mean Barbie is a write-off, failing to live up to the hype? Not at all. But its powerful message of empowerment is skewered to only empower in one direction. Men have been retained their empowered position over millennia, but it still feels like a grey area to elevate Barbie by shortchanging the Kens. If Barbie is a feminist icon, the message should be equality for all, and not at the expense of someone else.

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