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Ken Makes The Patriarchy Look Awesome

Ryan Gosling’s hilarious and scene-stealing Ken backfired on ‘Barbie,’ making the best parts of the feminist film about men.


“Barbie” is the most ridiculous sort of attempt at a feminist morality tale. It’s supposed to be a subversive movie about the patriarchy, but the best part of the film is Ken, who takes the patriarchy to Barbieland and makes it look kinda awesome — at least more fun than the patriarchy in the real world. This is a consistent problem with leftist storytelling, where they seek to elevate women through the politics of respectability and identity and almost always accomplish the opposite.

The movie “A League of Their Own” is both a sacred cow and a perfect example of this problem. It regularly tops lists of best feminist films, and because of that it also must be included on lists of best sports films. It is a great movie about an interesting period of U.S. history, but the men are by far the best part of the film.

The biggest laughs and most memorable lines are all given to men. Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz steal every scene they’re in. That was probably framed as deconstructive of toxic masculinity (though that particular phrase was not in vogue at the time) because the men are jokes, while the women are heroes. That film is rewatchable, and a minor sports classic, because of the male leads. The women are mostly dour and serious.

“Parks and Recreation” was plagued by the same problem. Early on in the show, Leslie Knope is a genuinely funny and interesting character. She’s got more in common with Michael Scott than Hillary Clinton. Then sometime in the third season she stops being funny and starts being successful. After that point, the most memorable characters are all men. Ron Swanson, an out-and-out libertarian, is consistently the standout. Amy Poehler isn’t given much to do for most of the second half of the series because she became a role model for women in politics. On the left sacred cows must be worshipped. They cannot be laughed at, at least not consistently. 

With “Barbie,” Greta Gerwig has placed herself squarely within this grand tradition of feminist storytelling that trips over itself trying to beat the Bechdel Test to death, but instead makes the best parts of the film about men. Margot Robbie is quite stunning as Barbie, but she’s given relatively little to do except look pretty. The few moments of comedy and genuine drama she does have are great, even occasionally meaningful, but Ryan Gosling steals the entire film. His comedic range apparently has no limits as his character is given total hilarious freedom.

The film this is actually most similar to is “Lego Batman,” which is the better pairing for a double feature, not “Oppenheimer.” In “Lego Batman,” Batman is both the joke and the hero. Unlike Will Arnett’s Batman, the whole concept of “Barbie” being meticulously lampooned throughout the film is simply not very funny. Most of the jokes are simple references to ridiculous things Mattel has done with Barbie in the past. To diehard Barbie fans that’s probably worth a grin, but to the average viewer it falls flat.

“Lego Batman” had similar self-deprecating jokes, but mostly the humor came out in the actual writing and performances. Ryan Gosling’s Ken accomplishes just that. The female characters are mostly forgettable, but Gosling as Ken shines the ultimate himbo. Ken journeys to discover his purpose beyond Barbie’s accessory, but unlike Barbie’s dramatic character arc, his soul searching is less self-serious. He just wants to make Barbieland fun — full of horses, brewski beers, and “The Godfather” movie nights.

This is all assuredly part of what writers Noah Baumbach and Gerwig think is a devastating takedown of the patriarchy. One gets the sense that virtually everything in the film is intended to be taken sideways in some sense. Which makes America Ferrera’s character feel completely out of place. She plays a normal mom from the real world and almost everything she says and does is essentially preaching the feminist gospel. In a fantasy film about Barbie, it’s jarring, to say the least. Ferrera is incredibly talented as a comedian, but she’s mostly given lines that were designed to be read from a soapbox.

Despite being a clumsy piece of feminist art, which in itself is the most biting kind of unintended satire, Ken and his fellow Kens make up for it in entertainment value.

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