'Kenergy’ has hit the zeitgeist like a massive plastic doll falling to earth. “He’s got Kenergy”, “big Kenergy”, “You’re kenough!” has suddenly entered online vernacular, with men being praised for having this mysterious quality.
Before watching Barbie, marketing had led us to believe that ‘Kenergy’ was a synonym for Himbo, a loveable-idiot of sorts. Ryan Gosling’s Ken is definitely those things, as the dolls all possess a naivety and childlike sense-of-self (pretty crucial for the plot), but ‘Kenergy’ is so much more than that. It’s about masculinity, self-discovery, and finding yourself under patriarchy.
As a sea of pink descended on every cinema in the country over the weekend, choruses of ‘Hi Barbie!’ echoed through the streets as people rejoiced at the film-event of the summer. Barbie is a certified hit, with Greta Gerwig making history scoring a £293m opening weekend around the world, making it the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman. You’d be mistaken for thinking the eponymous film was all about Barbie, but for a lot of us, Ken’s plot was the most poignant and symbolic.
Barbie and Ken embark on a journey to ‘fix’ Barbie’s new-found existential dread, as the real-world and Barbieland become linked, flooding Margot Robbie’s character with thoughts of death. On this adventure, Ken is overwhelmed and surprised by humanity’s centering of men - something that never happens in Barbieland - and is initially thrilled by this discovery of patriarchy. After a taste of this power, Ken returns to Barbieland and changes it into a childlike reenactment of the patriarchy he’s witnessed; his pink shorts are traded in for a floor-length fur coat, a biker-esque outfit, and Barbie’s Dreamhouse is transformed into his very-own Mojo Dojo Casa House - full of beer, flat-screen TVs, and horses (a misunderstanding of Ken’s is that patriarchy has a lot to do with horses).
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His tyranny over Barbieland crumbles in a musical number “Just Ken”, where Gosling asks: “Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?” before making amends with Barbie. Ken’s journey of self-discovery cuts ties with patriarchy, as the film leaves him pondering his worth and identity without it being wrapped up in what Barbie wants, or the human-misogyny he picked up in the real-world.
Meltdown excluded, the Kens are sensitive and progressive; they care about the Barbies, they have deep friendships with one another, they wear fun clothes and, generally, aren’t caught up in the modern pitfalls of masculinity. Eliza Hatch, founder of the feminist multimedia platform Cheer Up Luv, tells Marie Claire UK “I was surprised after watching Barbie that I actually felt more moved by Ken’s story arc, because of the current climate of masculinity clashes we are seeing in the (sadly) real world today.” She explains that this sympathy was because of a “combination of seeing an alternate (if not comically over exaggerated) version of masculinity represented on screen, and also Ken’s existential battle of finding himself and becoming ‘Kenough’”.
We’ve never needed ‘Kenergy’ more than right now. From a rise in incel culture - in just one year the number of incels referred to Prevent (the UK’s anti-terrorism scheme) has risen from 3 to 77, to figures like Andrew Tate popularising extremely damaging ideals like ‘alpha’ masculinity. Moreover violence against women is rife amongst even the Met Police, and our reproductive rights in the UK are increasingly under threat.
‘Kenergy’ feels like an antidote to this intense misogyny that we currently face in society, reminding us that masculinity is not any of these patriarchal inventions but something that can be self-defined. Eliza agrees, saying “We need more ‘Kenergy’ in the real world, in the way that we need men to go on the same journey of self discovery and questioning that Ken does in Barbie. Who am I? Why do I like this? What do I like? Am I beach? All very serious questions that we need to encourage more men and boys to ask, rather than just going along with the limited version offered to men of ‘alpha’ masculinity and the traditional stereotypes of what it means to ‘be a man."
Leaving the Cinema, I jokingly told my partner that he has ‘Kenergy’. The more I sat with the film, the more I realised this wasn’t a joke but a very big compliment. ‘Kenergy’, to me, is about respect for women (or, Barbies), it’s about throwing out reductive ideals like ‘beta’ and ‘alpha’, it’s about not being afraid to celebrate the women (or, Barbies) in your life. Ken is more than beach, more than just Barbie’s companion, more than a floor-length fur coat; he’s just Ken. And being just Ken is enough. I hope the men watching Barbie take this message away, too.
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Chloe is a London-based freelance journalist and poet, who specialises in gender equality, beauty, and culture. She is a contributing editor at Glamour, and has written for the likes of Dazed, Refinery29, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Vice, and many more. In 2017, she founded the feminist platform FGRLS CLUB.
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