Watch out! This post contains spoilers.
In Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie, which released in theaters in July and is now on VOD, Barbie (Margot Robbie) goes on a transformative journey, turning from a Barbie doll into a human. As part of that journey, she inadvertently helps Ken (Ryan Gosling) learn about the patriarchy. He ends up embracing it, briefly (and hilariously) turning Barbie Land into Ken Land. Barbie and her allies (including human Gloria and Sasha, played by America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt) eventually make the Barbies wake up to what’s going on around them and they take Barbie Land back. But after the Barbies reveal their victory and Ken goes off crying, it’s Barbie who apologizes to Ken, not the other way around. Some viewers have wondered: why does Barbie apologize to Ken when he’s the one who brainwashed all her friends and took over Barbie Land?
I get this perspective on the surface. Gloria basically tells Barbie not to feel bad for Ken when she’s doing her makeup in an earlier scene: Ken did all this bad stuff on his own, and it’s not Barbie’s fault. And Gloria’s monologue about sexism is about the pressures patriarchy puts on women in the real world.
But I think the reason why Barbie is the one who apologizes is encased right there. Ken is not a man, as Barbie is not a woman; they are dolls. Ken isn’t even very good at patriarchy, nor is he very interested in it. As he tells Barbie, he mostly thought it was about horses. Even when the Kens “go to war,” they’re not capable of enacting real violence against each other. Instead, they sing and dance. If Ken and Barbie had a relationship like real life men and women do — where men have benefited from an often violent system of oppression for literally thousands of years in ways so deeply ingrained that they feel impossible to break out of — then yeah, maybe Barbie shouldn’t apologize. But that’s not what’s going on.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the film. Barbie Land is a matriarchy — or perhaps more accurately, a Barbie-archy. As Gosling famously joked about Ken, he has no job, money, or house. Where do the Kens go at night? What do they do when they’re not with Barbie, admiring her and supporting her? When Barbie tells Ken he can’t even stay over at her Dream House at the end of the night, she denies him even the one thing he’s supposed to do — hang out with her.
Robbie’s Barbie realizes all this at the end of the film. In Barbie Land, Ken has no rights, no identity. He was actually the oppressed one, and the way he latched on to his barely formed idea of patriarchy was just a response to that. Ken’s interactions with the real world are, of course, hilarious, but there’s also something sad in the way he so delightedly responds to any amount of attention or respect he gets. Even something as simple as somone asking him for the time feels earth-shaking. That’s because Barbie Land was not egalitarian, but oppressive to all Kens. At the end of the film, Barbie frees Ken to finally unlock what it really means to be a Ken and have a personality and desires of his own.
Ultimately, Barbie Land in Gerwig’s film is a place of play and exploration. Barbie and Ken are not full-fledged people; they’re ideas for humans to twist, turn, and bend, the way countless of kids have and Gerwig does in the film. But the director is explicit that Ken is more a representation of a man than he is a man himself, the same way Barbie is not really a woman. In Barbie Land, he and Barbie have a very different relationship than their real world counterparts do, and that makes all the difference.