He’s. Just. Ken.
In the lead-up for director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie’s release, the movie’s marketing team deployed the extremely savvy strategy of stating an obvious truth about Barbie Land. Barbies are mermaids, presidents, doctors, diplomats, and Supreme Court justices. The Kens? Only Ken.
The movie’s prolific tagline put it plainly: “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.”
In the context of Barbie Land and Ken and Barbie’s long history together, Barbie’s accomplishments and Ken’s lack of them aren’t bad or good — these are just the facts. Ken doesn’t have a plethora of careers at his disposal, nor is his name on the deed of the Malibu Dreamhouse. They might not even be boyfriend-girlfriend — that’s for Barbie to say.
Ken has a great day only if Barbie notices him. Ken has no bearing on Barbie’s day.
“He’s just Ken” caught fire not just because Gerwig’s movie shined a spotlight on Barbie’s hidden-in-plain-sight feminist dynamic, but also because we — real people — don’t live in Barbie Land. In our world, women are taught that having everything is impossible without compromise and that, unlike Barbie and just like Ken, they should conform to the hobbies, careers, and whims of their heterosexual partners.
A world where men are just Kens, and could be happy just being Kens, is a thrilling fantasy (even if that fantasy is complicated by Barbie herself).
Despite Ken’s designed vacancy, he’s somehow created an exciting conversation about how we think about ambition and companionship, and how we’ve been taught to view those things.
What does it mean to be Ken?
The second you meet Ken — blonde, smiling, tan— you understand all there is to know about him. What you see is what you get. He’ll never be anything more or anything less. Ken is and will always be Ken.
But why is Ken the way he is? Ken debuted in 1961 as Ken Carson, two years after Barbie was created. Mattel made him to be Barbie’s companion, a re-telling of Adam and Eve but in tawny plastic. (The Barbie doll’s last name, for the record, is canonically Roberts.)
“Ken was really viewed as more of an accessory in Barbie’s world, to support the narrative of whatever was happening with the girls,” Michael Shore told GQ in 2017. At the time, Shore was head of Mattel’s head of global consumer insights.
Barbie Land is a place where kids — predominantly young girls — are in control of the story. The narrative, which continues to this day and is alive in Gerwig’s new movie, is that Barbie is the center of her universe.
The world Barbie the toy lives in celebrates the things we associate with girliness — pink, softness, sunshine, friendship. It doesn’t put the same kind of value on concepts we associate with masculinity.
In this world, Ken isn’t centered and, more importantly, he doesn’t mind. There’s no impulse to make him a main character. There’s no angst when he isn’t. He exists outside the spotlight without resentment.
This also means Barbie can be anything that she wants to be: a president, a doctor, a model, a chef, a doggie day care owner, a chief sustainability officer, a makeup artist, a gameshow host, an astrophysicist, a pilot, and everything in between, without sacrificing her girliness. She also can have everything she wants: a car, an airplane, a “dream” house, all the clothes, a best friend in Midge, three sisters — Skipper, Stacie, Chelsea — and according to deep lore, over 40 pets including a panda and a zebra.
Ken’s life can’t threaten that narrative — that’s why it’s Barbie’s Dreamhouse and Barbie’s Corvette and not jointly owned.
If Ken is president, that could affect Barbie’s astronaut adventures. If Ken has a bestie like Midge, he might have a boys’ night that interferes with Barbie’s plans. If Ken has a pet, then that’s less attention for Barbie’s zebra.
Canonically, while Ken was introduced as Barbie’s boyfriend, he’s often portrayed as a “best friend,” which indicates he doesn’t have to be a love interest. They also have never been married, further signaling an openness about their relationship and a freedom that’s in Barbie’s hands.
Ken complements her life, making it better in the only way he knows how, by being Ken. Like Barbie’s multiple jobs, her friends, her pets, her houses, and her vehicles, Ken is just one thing in her life rather than the only thing.
She’s everything and he’s just Ken
“No one really wants a Ken,” Maria Teresa Hart, a Barbie expert and author of Doll, a book about doll culture, told me. Her main gripe with the movie is seeing Ken with the same kind of billing as Barbie, since Ken is, according to Hart and Shore and many others, an accessory. “Ken is a doll that you would get, but never ask for.”
Things that you get but never really ask for include the flu, back pain, pimples, incorrect change, and, apparently, Ken. Hart explains that Barbie and Ken aren’t equals in ambition, power, or even something as minuscule as wardrobe — and it was purposely designed this way. Malibu Ken (a Ken variant that became the signature Ken), she says, only had a pair of swim trunks, “and he never ever got another stitch of clothing.”
In the hope of bucking downward sales trends, Mattel introduced a brand new line of Kens — with different skin colors, hair, and body shapes — in 2017. At the time, it was reported that kids, mainly young girls, had one Ken doll for every seven Barbies. Mattel has continued to release a diverse array of Kens since then, but it’s unclear whether or not this has equalized the Barbie-Ken disparity.
It’s apparently extremely difficult to compete with a woman who is everything.
The movie’s tagline became such a phenomenon because Barbie’s matriarchal dreamland feels revolutionary. It’s in opposition to our own world, where we have plenty of stories about women who are everything — brilliant, buoyant, sparkly — settling for disappointing men (Kens, if you will).
In pop culture, this applies to Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods and her loser ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III; Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen and either of her lackluster love interests; Meredith Grey and McDreamy (the editorial team at Vox is split when it comes to describing McDreamy as “disappointing”); the villains of 2021’s Scream, Shiv and Tom; Ali Wong’s hot, vacant husband from Beef; and the couple in Midsommar. “She’s everything and he’s just Ken” also happens in real life: Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, Taylor Swift and any of her boyfriends — any of them, doesn’t matter who.
Gerwig’s Barbie centers on this tension too, teasing out the idea of what would happen to the Barbie Land’s Garden of Eden if Ken recognized that he’d be treated better in a world created by the patriarchy. Ken even gets a song in the film, “I’m just Ken,” singing “I’m just Ken, anywhere else, I’d be a 10.” Outside of Barbie Land, Ken could be the main character. Ken could have all the ambition. Ken wouldn’t be an accessory.
Ken wouldn’t be just Ken, and Barbie wouldn’t get to be everything. Barbie’s revolutionary power fantasy would be in peril.
Maybe Kens do deserve better than to feel like accessories. Perhaps they deserve a life where they can have their own cars and houses, and don’t have to conform to their partner’s needs and ambitions. But we already have a world where that happens; Barbie deserves a better one.