Barbie: Ken's Journey May Be The Movie's Real Message

Learning to be "Kenough" may be the most important takeaway from Barbie.

The Barbie movie has been in theaters for more than a month and to say the film has been a massive cultural moment would be something of an understatement. Not only is the film a huge box office success, grossing more than $1.34 billion at the box office to become the highest-grossing film in Warner Bros. studio history, but it's also been part of a larger "Year of the Girl", with the film highlighting the audience's appetite for female-centric entertainment on a large scale. The film has also been the topic of some less-than-pleasant discourse as well, drawing some backlash from certain audiences for how it deals with its male characters and its feminist themes. However, several weeks out from the film's debut and as Barbie's star continues to rise, it's worth taking a step back to look at the film and its messages and in doing so realize that while the film is very much true to Barbie being everything, Ken is just Ken — but his journey could very well be the real message of the film.

In Barbie, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) unexpectedly discovers her perfect life in Barbieland starting to go awry and finds out that the malfunctions are due to something being wrong with the little girl in the Real World who is playing with the doll counterpart to her. To fix things, Barbie has to voyage to the Real World to set things right. Ken (Ryan Gosling) invites himself along with her and, through the course of the adventure, Ken discovers that the Real World is very different than Barbieland, bringing back patriarchal ideals and overthrowing the feminist-based Barbieland society, prompting Barbie — along with the humans Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), and the other Barbies — to take Barbieland back, with Barbie making some major discoveries about herself in the process.

On its face, Barbie is definitely Barbie's story. Viewers go with her on the full journey of her existential crisis and experience with her the discovery of the harsh realities of the Real World as well as the complex and brutal double standards of being a woman. There's also no disputing that much of Ken's journey — his lovesick unrequited near obsession with Barbie, his wide-eyed discovery of the male-dominated Real World, and his attempt to bring patriarchy to Barbieland — is largely played for humor. There is a lot of camp in this film, in nearly every aspect. However, just because it is played for humor, we can't dismiss its importance. Humor is often an effective vehicle for relaying meaningful stories and that is exactly what is at play here with Ken, so much so that Barbie's story does not work without his.

When we first meet Barbie she is just going along in her routine until it's upset and then she finds herself adrift and, arguably, she finds herself adrift until the very end of the movie when, after helping to empower everyone else, she has to empower herself and makes the leap into the Real World in order to continue the quest for meaning and purpose. Ken's journey is almost the opposite of that. He doesn't really have a purpose at the beginning of the film except to be Barbie's boyfriend, but quickly finds one after his adventure in the real world only to discover by the film's end that it doesn't truly fit. His efforts to create a Kendom, to build this version of patriarchy, to be the one with the stuff and the power, doesn't actually give him anything. The same insecurities are there — specifically his tension with Simu Liu's Ken — and the inability to process his own insecurities and feelings is what leads to his frustrating defeat. It's when he's given space to sit with his feelings — as well as a genuine acknowledgement that his feelings have been repeatedly invalidated by Barbie — that Ken is finally able to come into himself and find his real power. In fact, each of the Kens start to find their own voice once Ken embraces his "Kenergy" and realizes that he is "Kenough" — no Mojo Dojo Casa House needed.

While addressing Barbie's — and by extension, women's — plight is a major focus of the film, it's actually Ken's story that has the most gravity. Going into the Barbie movie, audiences already are aware of how the Real World works and that it is a "man's world". But how that actually functions and the pressure and harm it can place on men is sometimes harder to recognize. It's a "seeing the forest for the trees" sort of situation because it's difficult to observe a situation while in it. Ken comes to this scenario blank. Because of that, we're able to see how he learns the wrong lessons from the Real World and while those lessons temporarily bring satisfaction, they don't fully address his emotional needs and lead to a reckoning, one that requires everyone's participation in in order to begin the healing process. Barbie has to acknowledge her own failings and her own needs in order to not only move forward but to help Ken do the same, and the same is true for Ken. It's not something that either of them would have been able to do at the start of the film, and in some respects, is not something Barbie would be able to do if it weren't for Ken.

And it's that aspect of Ken's journey that makes the whole thing so significant, but also very serious. Examining how old, rigid framework about how people — men or women — are supposed to feel and act and interact with the world is difficult work. By wrapping it in humor, it's not only easier to approach, but it's also easier to understand. The film's funniest moments come from Gosling's performance of Ken trying to figure out how the Real World functions and the struggle he faces trying to bend not just Barbieland but himself to fit into this idea he has about how maybe it should all work. Those moments are also the ones that have the most humanity in that they let the viewer see not just the story, but the struggle and, in turn, start to sympathize with Ken — not so much that you want the Kendom to win, but that you want there to be a place for Ken in all of this when the glitter, the dust, and the pink all settle down again.

Barbie is everything. He's just Ken. It's the "just Ken" part that is incredibly powerful and might just be the most important message of the film. It is "Kenough".

Barbie is in theaters now.