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Did Ken Steal Barbie’s Show?

Remnants of our original Barbies that my granddaughters also used

After seeing Barbie with my daughter and granddaughter, my daughter expressed disappointment that even though Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Barbie was spot-on and funny, and director Greta Gerwig’s feminist message delivered by America Ferrara hit home, Ken stole the show. She objected to Ken dominating the middle third of the film, even though she had to admit that Ryan Gosling was a pretty talented singer and dancer, and his hit song “I’m Just Ken” was hilarious. Still, he was supposed to be “Just Ken.”

Many of my generation kept Barbie dolls out of their homes, but I let my daughters play with them. After all, how was this different from the paper dolls I adored cutting out and dressing? They were glamorous women with amazing wardrobes. I devoted a lot of time to this, most likely at the same pre-teen age my girls became obsessed with collecting Barbies. As an aside, my daughters and I became woke women despite this influence.

My girls spent hours playing with their Barbies that started out as Stereotypical Barbies (Margot Robbie), although I don’t recall any of them having professions. Maybe that came later. There were always over a dozen Barbies as, for some reason, their usually mild-mannered older brother often decapitated them. Some were able to continue to function with much shorter necks while others had to be replaced. All of them ended up with disastrous haircuts, and mostly resembled Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) in short order.

Here’s the part I’m embarrassed to confess. The plot of my daughters’ Barbie dramas mirrored the soap opera Days of our Lives, which my older daughter first viewed at a friend’s house and introduced to her younger sister at ours. The story line required three Kens and a rejected 6 Million Dollar Man doll my son had abandoned, who also became a Ken. Whatever the Kens were wearing when we acquired them, their upkeep was minimal and they were usually reduced to wearing a bathing suit. The Barbies were always wearing fancy outfits, but the shoes and earrings were usually lost soon after they entered our house. We did own the Dream House, complete with swimming pool. The basic storyline was that two or three Barbies would be vying for a Ken, hatching devious plans to make him their boyfriend.

We all laughed at the first part of the Barbie movie, which took place in an idealized “Barbieland” reminiscent of the Barbie play we remembered. When Barbie becomes anxious, sad, and worried about death, the movie plot contrives a trip to the real world for Barbie and Ken. While Barbie explores the real world and meets America Ferrara (Gloria) and her daughter, along with Will Ferrell as CEO of Mattel and Rhea Pearlman playing Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, Ken discovers “The Patriarchy” and usurps the humor from a suddenly serious Barbie. Gloria’s speech about feminism, is a spot on and unfunny assessment of women in the world outside of “Barbieland”:

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow, we're always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin… You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood… You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line… I'm just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff and can’t compete with the antics of the Kens when they discover what they think being a man in the real world is all about. Their choices of “manly” clothing, beer, horses, Mojo Dojo Casa Houses, and battling each other are pretty funny. When Ryan Gosling belts out “I’m Just Ken,” we laughed until tears were in our eyes:

'Cause I'm just Ken Anywhere else I'd be a ten Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde fragility? I'm just Ken Where I see love, she sees a friend What will it take for her to see the man behind the tan and fight for me? Gosling satirizes masculinity through his musical and dance skills, and this song is apparently a huge hit. One of my granddaughters already knows not only the lyrics but all of the dance moves. It reminds me of the Let it Go craze from Frozen. So, while Barbie and Gloria are busy delivering feminist messages, Ken does steal the show. The question is, how fair is it to allow this to happen in a movie that is making a pretty serious statement about women’s role in contemporary society?

While my daughter saw this as a major flaw in the film, I didn’t care because Ken was hilarious and he kept the movie funny and entertaining, rather than becoming a diatribe, and still made Gerwig’s point. These are tough times to be a woman, but sometimes I have to laugh because the alternative is to give up and cry. I can’t believe I still have to fight battles that I thought were settled when I was a young woman, but that’s our new reality. Barbie’s journey is one way to make a statement, but Ken’s antics as he tries to embrace “The Patriarchy” reinforce the movie’s theme, even if he steals a bit of Barbie’s thunder.


by Laurie Levy
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