Guys, go see Barbie but watch Ken

Everybody is raving about how woke and feminist the Barbie movie is and either loves it or hates it. I can see why, but I think few people pay enough attention to a very positive and powerful message it holds for men:

You Are Kenough

Yeah, I know the movie has been out for ages. What can I say, it’s summer and I’m driving around the Balkans. Sue me.

I have to say that when I first heard about the Barbie movie, I thought that it will be just another crappy attempt at capitalising on nostalgia, kind of like live-action Asterix and Obelix or Dumbo. Whatever.

Then I started hearing about it from friends, saw a couple articles on Medium and thought — what? A film men don’t want to see? Too woke for its own good? Well, I need to see what’s all this controversy about!

My partner and I went to see it together, sneaking delicious crisps and juice into the cinema. Criminal, I know. We are partners in crime. Also, screw paying a fortune for greasy popcorn and coke.

Cinematically, I think Barbie is nothing revolutionary, but it’s well made, the directing is good, the sets are very clever, and the camera work and editing are spot on. But most of all, it’s just really fun.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

The main story follows Barbie, who lives in the Barbie World amongst all the different Barbies, Kens and other characters from the franchise. Accompanied by a Ken, she travels to the Real World and back, meets humans, challenges her views, establishes her identity, finds her courage, and retakes her own world from Kens.

The plot offers a great excuse to talk about women’s rights and sexism. And whether you like this or not, I think it does communicate some things in a very accessible way. It’s fun and it manages to have a serious talk with people without an off-putting serious-talk vibe. Nice.

Plenty of people have discussed this main story, its themes and its value. I don’t want to take anything away from it. But I’d like to do something slightly different. Something nobody ever does.

I would like to invite you to pay attention to Ken.

Who is Ken?

Well, exactly. What’s even the point of Ken?

The film starts by making one quip after another about how Kens are pretty much superfluous in the Barbie World.

All Kens yearn for Barbies’ attention. All they do, they do to impress them. In fact, Barbies’ attention is their only currency. They show off, quibble, get into fights and dance-offs, anything for a Barbie’s smile.

But this never works. The Barbies only ever see them as some guys on the beach. Kens want relationships, Barbies don’t seem to even notice. Kens want to stay over but it turns out it’s Girls’ Night. Every night.

As the main characters’ story progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Barbie’s attention and validation are the only things that matter in Ken’s life. It’s the basis on which he judges himself and other Kens. Yes, he might be great at Beach, but it only matters if she sees it. He doesn’t care if he hurts himself as long as she notices. One look from her melts his heart, her disinterest breaks it.

Even as he goes rogue and takes over their world, it is clear that he would give it all up in an instant if only he could be with Barbie, if only she would see him the way he wants to be seen. In the end, the way Barbies regain control is by pretending that they do in fact give Kens the attention and validation they crave, and thus making them drop everything else.

To Kens, being seen by Barbies is everything. To Barbies, Kens are mostly a nuisance.

If Barbie was at all hard to watch for me as a man, it’s not because the socio-political power dynamics in the Barbie World are an inversion of the real world. It’s because the emotional and relationship dynamics are its mirror.

Photo by shark ovski on Unsplash

Living to impress

Many men see exactly how pathetic this is. Many decide to check out, but most do it wrong.

They view the world as a place where they need to constantly fight for the slightest bit of female validation. Where they perfect their profiles and swipe for weeks yet get nothing, while women get a match every other swipe. Where they give loads of compliments but get none. Where they pay good money for female company while women would only pay to get rid of them.

A world in which women’s attention, desire and company are worth everything, but men’s are nothing.

These guys start asking themselves: Why are we doing this? Is it even worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to not need all this female validation and live your life going your own way?

Ken agrees: men should not be dependent on female validation. We shouldn’t judge ourselves or other men based on our dating success. We shouldn’t have to do all the desperate, stupid and dangerous things to impress women and we shouldn’t feel so heartbroken, defeated and angry when we fail to do so.

Men should do all the awesome things and become better people for their own sake. Not to impress women.

But I think that while many guys say it, they don’t live it.

How do I know that? It’s easy.

I don’t need a llama, but I don’t go around telling everybody how much I don’t need a llama.* But these guys seem to constantly obsess over women and tell everyone how much they don’t need them.

The truth is: most of them are going their own way out of resentment. They feel hurt and cheated, they feel it’s unfair. They think they deserve better and they blame women for denying it to them.

But if female validation was never such a valuable currency in the first place, then why all those strong emotions over being denied it? Why be so angry over something that’s not such a big deal?

Well, because it is a big deal after all, isn’t it. It’s because these guys might be denying that it matters and professing the superiority of their Own Way, but deep down they still feel incomplete, they still need it. They don’t feel they themselves are enough without a woman.

But not Ken.

Becoming Kenough

None of this is new. History, literature, and cinema are littered with male characters who are crestfallen because a woman won’t notice them. It’s how half of the adventures start, it’s a trope in everything from hero’s journeys to romcoms.

How many stories do you know where the male hero proves himself, defeats the monsters, fixes the system, averts the disaster — but the real reward is not that the world is a better place now. The real reward is that she has noticed him.

From the moment boys start consuming any cultural messages at all, we learn this one thing: without a woman, we are nothing. None of our skills, money or power mean anything if a woman doesn’t appreciate us for them.

And thus, the tropes of women as damsels in distress or hero’s prizes which are so criticised by feminists, are actually horrible for men, too.

Because women don’t want to be treated like prizes for heroes. Women have better things to do than validate men for showing off. But men also have better things to do than show off and go on daft quests to earn validation! It’s all a massive waste of time for everyone.

And Ken, of all people, has figured it out.

You see, Ken was like that, too. Bah! The main reason he goes to the Real World with Barbie is to impress her. His attempt at turning Barbie World into Ken’s World looks very much like going his own way.

But in the end, he realises that this was all stupid. He shouldn’t need her validation. He is not incomplete without it. In fact, her validation only had value because the Kens wanted it so much.

And most importantly, he realises that the reason he felt crap is not her fault. It’s not that Barbies wanted to deny Kens their validation — rather, they just never wanted to play this stupid validation game at all.

He used to feel worthless without it, he felt not enough. But now he sees that this was a silly metric to measure himself by. And once he banishes it from his head, he realises that…

He is Kenough.

You, too, are Kenough

I encourage you to really reflect on this. Do you feel incomplete without a woman? Is female validation a currency in your life? How many of the things you do, you do because you hope to get it? What would you be doing differently if you didn’t feel you needed to earn it?

Because you don’t.

Women’s attention and validation only seem to have so much value because we give it to them. It’s one massive speculation bubble and we need to deflate it.

How? By simply doing the things that make your life better and more fulfilling for your own sake. Who cares if she’s looking?

So stop feeling like without women you’re not enough. To paraphrase a great thinker, a man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle. You are Kenough.

Stop doing things to get women’s validation and start doing them for yourself.

Stop blaming women for not giving you something that you don’t need, they don’t owe you, and it’s not even worth much.

And most of all, stop trying to impress and focus instead on becoming genuinely impressive.

When you do all that, you will notice that dating no longer feels like playing with a deck stacked against you, desperately trying to win something unreachable and feeling worthless when you don’t.

Instead, it is a meeting of equals who can appreciate and respect the genuine awesomeness in each other.

* I stole this from someone on Medium, don’t remember who, but it’s excellent. Identify yourself in the comments and I’ll tag you!

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