Spoiler alert: The following interview discusses several plot elements of the film “Barbie.”
Before psychologist Eric FitzMedrud donned a pink tie and joined his wife for a date night to see the summer blockbuster movie “Barbie,” he was all too familiar with the anxiety that the character of Ken feels about his place in the world and in Barbie’s life.
FitzMedrud specializes in counseling individuals and couples on relationships and sexual issues and is set to publish a book, “The Better Man: A Guide to Consent, Stronger Relationships, and Hotter Sex” (Wonderwell, 2023), in September. The book offers men advice on how to get past the conflicting messages they receive about how to be “enough.” On one hand, he writes, men are told that they can’t be masculine enough unless they reject feminism and embrace the “abject misogyny” of certain cultural figures. Or, they worry about how to enter into relationships and sex, with a post-#MeToo awareness about consent.
All along, FitzMedrud says they’ve grown up in a patriarchal society that pushes entitlement, control and performance but hurts them emotionally by not allowing them to show vulnerability. “You want to be a good man, but what does that even mean, when the definition of ‘good man’ keeps changing,” FitzMedrud asks in his book.
FitzMedrud agrees that Ken, winningly played by Ryan Gosling in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” struggles with his what it means to be “a good man.” Sure, Ken isn’t human, but a fictional doll who doesn’t have genitals or testosterone. Still, there’s a reason that Ken’s plight with “blonde fragility” has resonated with audiences and sparked national conversation. FitzMedrud offers some reasons why.
Q: What do you think of pundits who have taken offense at “Barbie” and call it “anti-men?”
A: Any pundit who thinks it is anti-men has confused pro-women for anti-men. I never felt threatened watching it. The closest to that was when Ken said, “Men run the world.” I know that a lot of men on the bottom side of our economic system will feel their experience is not reflected in the absolute statement. Then I remembered this is a movie about Barbie and women, not a movie about men’s liberation. The twinge lasted about 1 second.
Q: Why do you think the film has become such a phenomenon?
A: One thing making this movie so powerful is the skillful blend of feminist perspectives and accessible humor. I imagine that it is tapping into a sense among women and genderqueer folk that despite generational gains, the victory of feminism is not complete, as evidenced by the need for a #MeToo movement, the rise of misogyny and the fall of abortion rights. The movie also appeals to men who know we need to move forward with feminism.
Q: In your book, you talk about how the patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women, but men as well. Do you want to say more about that?
A: Some men have a hard time opening up to feminism because the first messages we hear about it are that we are privileged or we are the problem. We are privileged. But we are also damaged and hurt by patriarchy. The patriarchal lie to men is that if we sacrifice our emotions, human connection, and health to work and (to succeed), we will deserve respect, love, and admiration. … Women have articulated many new ways to be a woman. Men have yet to embrace a multifaceted model of manhood.
Q: In the movie, Ken accompanies Barbie to “the real world” and discovers a place where men are in charge. But after Ken brings the patriarchy back to Barbie Land, do you think he’s really happy?
A: As a man, the most important thing about this part of the movie is that Ken was still unhappy. He still wanted Stereotypical Barbie to want him. When she didn’t, he tried to hurt her feelings and even rubbed it in contemptuously, “Now, how does that feel?” But it is all a sham. When he sees how hurt she feels, we see a flicker in his chauvinistic façade. It hurt him to hurt her this way.
Q: In putting Ken and his journey in the context of your book, I was thinking that the Ken we meet at the start of the movie is wounded. He’s been programmed to believe that he has no purpose other than to serve Barbie.
A: Yes, Ken is wounded. He lacks the ability to enjoy the beauty of the present moment on his beach and has no self-confidence. It isn’t just that he needs Barbie’s glances to feel worthy. He’s also ready to Beach Off with the other Kens to cover for feelings of inadequacy. He recklessly hurts himself trying to gain admiration. Ken had a problem before Barbie ever entered the picture. Maybe a manosphere influencer has been playing with Ken in the real world.
Q: Ken also gets rejected when he tells Barbie he wants to spend the night. She tells him it’s girls’ night and that he can leave. What would be a healthy way for Ken to deal with this situation?
A: I don’t think Barbie rejected Ken. Barbie held her boundaries about what the relationship could and couldn’t be. Ken feels rejected because he is struggling to accept her boundaries, to change his expectations, and to create a fulfilling life separate from Barbie. My prescription for Ken is a five-step process:
- Build awareness of the feeling of rejection in his body and observe its root in his false beliefs about the world and how it works.
- Soothe his feelings of rejection and anger. Deepening his friendship with Alan or the other Kens could help by normalizing his experience and focusing him on what is in his control (hint: it isn’t Barbie).
- He needs to change his expectations and accept reality. Barbie isn’t rejecting him. She’s open to friendship. If he can accept that, he’ll have a new friend. If he can’t, he’ll have to search for a connection elsewhere.
- Build self-confidence. To do this, he could engage in meaningful acts of service to Barbie Land and/or its other residents.
- Seek reciprocal relationships with a Barbie that is interested in the same kind of relationship with him. I hear Weird Barbie thinks he’s pretty hot.
Q: Do you think it also would have helped Ken and Barbie to have an honest conversation at some point – about how each sees their relationship?
A: I thought Barbie was pretty honest after Ken’s awkward attempt at a kiss. Ken didn’t accept her clarification that her house was her Dream House, not his, he wasn’t going to be invited to spend the night, and she didn’t want more from him. He didn’t just have unrequited feelings that caused disappointment. He created more suffering for himself by continuing to focus on what he couldn’t have. Barbie was honest with Ken. Ken wasn’t honest with himself. Nothing Barbie could do would have improved that until Ken grew.
Q: Any final thoughts or advice for Ken? Can Ken be OK?
A: By the end of the movie, Ken has grown. When his attempted power grab fails, he finally feels his pain, sadness and vulnerability. This allows Barbie to see and connect to him for the first time. He admits that he has a derived sense of self-worth when he says, “I don’t know who I am without you.” Ken realizes his individuality, accepts the relationship with Barbie that has been available and turns his attention to defining himself from there. He’s more than OK. He’s Kenough.
Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” amassed a staggering $1 billion globally, in record time. But its most surprising achievement, arguably, comes from its soundtrack — “I’m Just Ken” has become a Billboard 100 single and is a serious contender for meme of the summer. https://t.co/XnZ2oouEFy
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 18, 2023
Q: Even if “Barbie” is a movie and Barbie and Ken’s struggles are presented as comedy, do you think there are lessons all viewers can take from what the film says about relationships, or on how men can be OK?
A: There are four lessons we can take about relationships from the film. First, your feelings are about you. The other person may not feel the same way. This also means that just because you’re hurting doesn’t necessarily mean the other person hurt you. Second, to be a good friend, community member, and potential partner, you must live your best life. Third, the only thing that creates connection is vulnerability.
Fourth, my interpretation, the movie ends by saying the Kens can share power in Barbie Land when women share power with men in the real world. But the Kens were hurt to be told they couldn’t share power. If we want our relationships to improve, we need to dismantle the power structures that create systemic inequality. Relationships are damaged by the winner-loser model in either world.
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