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What "Barbie" Gets Right About Male Psychology

Learning to be "Kenough."

Key points

  • Barbie shows how men often translate and funnel existential angst into anger, resentment, and sexual longing.
  • The movie gives a nuanced model of male self-care and self-acceptance.

Watching the "Barbie" movie over the weekend, I was surprised by the relatively nuanced portrayal of masculinity, one which resonated with real issues and concerns that I have seen often in my clinical practice. Two aspects stand out in Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the archetypal Ken.

1. “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”

Near the beginning of the movie, the narrator of the film offers this key distinction between Ken and Barbie, and we see Ken’s face light up when Barbie looks at him, acknowledges him, and shows interest in him. When she doesn’t look his way, however, or when she appears to choose friends over him, Ken slumps dejectedly in what looks like deep shame and self-loathing.

This dynamic and experience is very familiar in a clinical context, particularly in couples therapy. The first concerns the over-valuation of a woman’s gaze and attention on male sense of self-esteem, and even an existential sense of identity. Barbie’s gaze and attention are everything to Ken, and when she does not look or give him attention, it is as if he were alone in the universe.

This feeling is not too dissimilar to the experience that I see in my practice, where men often experience a greater degree of rejection and isolation in a relationship as a result of a perceived lack of attention or affection from their partner or spouse. One area where this plays out very strongly is in the realm of touch and sexuality. Men, in my experience, funnel a lot more "existential value" into their partner’s physical affection, touch, and sexual connection.

When men are having frequent sex, for example, there is often an elated sense of self, masculine assurance, and an overall sense of things being "right in the world." When this active romantic attention drops, however, this can often feel like an existential collapse—where one’s sense of attractiveness, worth, and general self-value can disappear to almost nothing. So much so, that this degraded sense of self can translate into minor resentful behaviours, like grumpy irritation, infantile pleas for sex, or in worse cases, affairs.

The film thematizes this dynamic nicely by showing Ken’s drift into a desire for masculine dominance and "patriarchal" expression; if he can’t have Barbie’s attention and esteeming gaze, he can at least exert his wish for assurance via dominance and other claims of power and authority over other men, women or objects (his mojo dojo man cave).

Clinically speaking, what we see here is the rapid move from shame to anger: Ken experiences deep shame which gets re-routed into resentment and angry expressions of masculinity. If this were couples’ therapy, we would want to give voice to the shame, and instead of indulging the shame through anger, work to find ways to articulate this desire and translate it into perhaps a wooing or seduction that works for his partner and himself. Or, we'd want to find ways to manage and cope with the difficulty of feeling alienated from her gaze. In other words, we'd want to prolong Ken’s capacity to stay with the feelings of shame instead of converting them into a resentment man cave.

2. Sexualizing existential dread and loneliness.

The second case of male psychology that the film enacts well concerns the relationship between shame or existential solitude and the conversion to sex-as-soothing. In the latter parts of the film (spoiler alert!), Barbie decides to take a break from “Barbie and Ken” and he is left feeling alone and adrift. When she approaches him for comfort and conversation, Ken quickly interprets it as an advance and tries to kiss and embrace her (which she rejects).

What I liked about the sequences is how it shows this translation of existential solitude and anxiety into the "quick-fix" of love and sex. In the same way that shame can quickly morph into resentment and anger, here we see loneliness and existential angst being converted into a sexual plea—for sex to solve and resolve these bad feelings.

The cheap solution to this male dread (therapeutically speaking) might be for Barbie to simply give in to his need for an embrace and soothe his feelings of rejection and shame through a kind of pity kiss. From a couples’ therapy approach, however, this would not amount to true and authentic seduction or mutual desire and would, in fact, regress the couple to a kind of maternal relationship where sex is doled out as pity, an act that only tends to reinforce the shame and low self-esteem in the long run (because she ultimately does not desire him authentically).

The clinical “solution” to this need for love and sex is handily dealt with in the film, as Barbie does not negate or absolutely abandon Ken but rather supports him through his tough feelings so he can manage and handle them on his own (she does not presume to resolve the feelings for him).

As a therapeutic technique, I think it is the right strategy, as it does not offer an easy way out of difficult emotions (it does not falsely placate and soothe) but instead turns the emotions inward and gives Ken (that stand-in for a universal male) the opportunity to explore and narrate his self apart from Barbie. In this way, Ken offers a rare opportunity for us to witness a model of male self-care in popular culture, where an archetypal male is able to slowly and independently work towards self-acceptance and self-love, or being “Kenough.”

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