I loved Barbie, but it’s not above reproach. There are honest, good-faith debates to be had about a Mattel film that ultimately defends the company’s iconic toy that some consider problematic. Predictably, though, a lot of criticism has been anything but fair. The movie has led to a deluge of angry essays and videos by people determined to trash it no matter what they saw on screen. It’s an inevitable response that always happens in our hyper partisan modern world with every big budget feminist film. And yet, despite skewering those very same bad-faith critics, Barbie itself is overwhelmingly kind to the people most inclined to hate it. The film not only explores why patriarchy hurts men and women alike, it shows why men don’t need to look for self-worth in a relationship.
The status of Kens in Barbieland is not exactly a subtle analogy. They are second class citizens in the matriarchy. That inversion of gender roles is Greta Gerwig’s way of commenting on our own society. (In case anyone somehow missed that she has a character in our world literally say, “I’m a man with no power. Does that make me a woman?”) But the film flips those roles back to their traditional standing when Ryan Gosling’s character returns to Barbieland. His awareness of how things work in the real world brings the patriarchy to the newly christened Kendom. That instantly relegates women to a subservient position in society.
The patriarchy initially seems to give Ken everything he wants. No one ignores him or patronizes him anymore because he’s in charge. Yet power, control, respect, and (the appearance of) adulation does nothing to bring him real happiness. In fact, it brings him strife. Just as Barbie predicted, “Kenland contains the seeds of its own destruction,” because the patriarchy is not simply built on the premise men must subjugate women. It’s built on the idea men must also subjugate other men. (That’s why they call it a “patriarchy” and not a “brotherhood.”) And since a Mojo Dojo Casa House divided cannot stand, the Kens brief reign quickly collapses on itself.
If that had been the only sympathetic message the film had for men it would be a powerful one. Barbie might be a feminist film, but its ideas and compassion are not only reserved for women. This movie shows why the patriarchy hurts everyone. It makes life a zero-sum game of winners and losers. No matter what you have someone else will likely have more. And even if you are on top others will always try to take your place. Greed and jealousy are self-destructive foundations for society. They lead to paranoia and a never-ending need for more. Only in a world built on equality and mutual respect for everyone can we find real joy. (Horses help, too.) That’s not an anti-men idea, no matter what some partisan hacks would have you believe. It’s a pro-men/pro-women/pro-human/pro-civilized society idea.
The film partially undercuts that message by having Barbieland return to a full matriarchy rather than a more equitable world. (Like I said, there are fair criticisms of this movie.) But it does not equivocate in its empathy for some of its most vocal critics: men who believe they don’t have value if they don’t have a woman’s love.
Ken’s entire reason for existing is defined by Barbie noticing him. He only has a good day if she merely looks at him. That remains true even after he creates the patriarchy. Everything he does while in charge, from acting aloof and being a jerk, is done to impress her. He doesn’t want to be President or sit on the Supreme Court. He simply wants her validation and approval so he can feel good about himself. That’s a goal society told him he must achieve to feel good about himself. He must make a woman fall in love with him to matter. His entire sense of manhood depends on that. Without it he’s nothing. It’s why he sings a power ballad about what it will take for her to recognize his value.
There’s an entire generation of men who feel the same way, and not without reason. Our patriarchal society has raised them to believe they must find a woman to love them. Not only that, it has led them to feel entitled to a relationship. The impact of not getting what they feel they both need and deserve is having a dangerous and tangible effect on everyone. That danger is only getting worse as bad-faith actors, looking to profit off the disillusionment of these men, further feed their resentment. Those opportunistic, shortsighted ghouls tell vulnerable people that feminism causes women to not want them. They say movies like Barbie—despite also being incredibly pro-family and pro-motherhood—cause women to ignore them and stay single.
It’s all part of the absurd and amoral weaponization of what is ultimately an issue of loneliness. And the more bad-faith analysts, misogynists, unethical politicians, and greedy opportunists feed off that very human sadness and disillusionment, the more it turns people bitter. Who doesn’t want to hear they aren’t the problem everyone else is?
But no matter how much those very people are inclined/told to hate Barbie, the film doesn’t hate them. Barbie doesn’t want them to feel worthless. The movie is kind and understanding to those men in a way their biggest “advocates” never will be. When Ken tells Barbie that he’s nothing without her because it’s “Barbie and Ken,” she tells him that’s not true.
“Maybe it’s Barbie. And it’s Ken,” she says, because she knows he shouldn’t only find self-worth in how she feels about him. Just as she shouldn’t find her worth in how others feel about her. Instead he should “discover who Ken is” because he has value unto himself and that’s enough. Or rather, it’s Kenough.
Ken doesn’t get a happy ending because he finally earns Barbie’s love. He gets a happy ending because he finally realizes he doesn’t have to. In doing so he seems more poised to actually find true love than he ever was before. In having value unto himself he has more to offer another person. It’s yet another message that comes from a place of real compassion, understanding, and love for the very people who want to hate Barbie most, even if they don’t see it.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.