Why Barbie and Ken Need Each Other

Between the middle of the 1970s and the late 2010s, in their responses to the General Social Survey, American women reported themselves to be steadily unhappier. The trend was not drastic, but it was consistent: Women were less happy in the 1980s than they were in the 1970s, less happy in the Obama era than the Clinton era, and still less happy under Trump.

For men, the trend was more complex. They started out slightly unhappier than women and then made gains in the Reagan and Clinton years, while female happiness declined. But then male unhappiness plunged between the 9/11 era and Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, before stabilizing a bit thereafter. By the pre-Covid period, the sexes were close to parity — sharing more reported unhappiness than either had been experiencing 30 or 40 years before.

These figures are drawn out of a fascinating new paper, “The Socio-Political Demography of Happiness,” from the University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman. They are amenable to various interpretations, but I want to take the crudest reading, which is suggested by a different trend covered in the Peltzman paper: the persistent happiness advantage enjoyed by married couples over the unmarried, which has slightly widened since the early 1970s and now sits at around 35 points on a scale running from -100 to 100.

Over that same period, Americans have become much less likely to be married overall. In 1970, just 9 percent of people ages 25 to 50 had never tied the knot; in 2018, it was 35 percent.

So right there you have the simplest possible explanation for declining happiness: For women maybe first, and for men too, eventually, less wedlock means more woe.

The world is probably a bit more complicated than this. But just roll with me, because I want to talk about these findings in the light of the running debate about the true ideological perspective of the billion-dollar box-office juggernaut “Barbie.” (Fair warning, some spoilers to follow.) The internet wants to know: Is the Greta Gerwig movie proudly feminist, crypto-conservative or somewhere in between?

The simplest reading is the feminist one. The movie depicts a dolltopia where Barbies occupy every important job and office (with their Kens as arm candy) and tell themselves that their example has solved all of women’s problems in the real world, too — only to discover, when Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical Barbie” goes on a quest into our own contemporary reality, that sexism still exists, the patriarchy is disguised but maybe still resilient, the board of Mattel is proudly “feminist” but all male, and early 21st-century women are being asked to do it all for meager recompense.

This realization culminates in an extended monologue, from a mother in the real world, about the impossible demands placed on contemporary women, which is easy enough to read as a #MeToo-era brief. Throw in the plotline where Ryan Gosling’s Ken becomes besotted with the dream of patriarchy and runs a macho, steppe-warrior putsch in Barbieland, and how could anyone get the idea that “Barbie” has, as Michael Knowles of The Daily Wire claims, “conservative, anti-feminist, pro-family, pro-motherhood” themes?

In part, the conservative spin comes from the sheer fun of Gosling’s performance, which makes Ken’s masculinist awakening delightful enough to unleash a thousand memes. (Not to mention scolding headlines about “how men are watching ‘Barbie’ wrong.”)

But some of the conservative themes that Knowles describes are, indeed, right there in the film. Barbieland itself is a female-first utopia that looks fundamentally dystopian — plastic, denatured, death-denying, cut off from love and procreation. The way that Barbiedom marginalizes images of pregnancy and motherhood, to say nothing of literal baby dolls, is a running preoccupation of the film. The movie parodies manosphere gurus in its depiction of the Kenergetic revolution, but Ken’s plight is treated sympathetically — he’s mostly running his coup to impress Barbie, and what are men for in the post-sexual-revolution landscape, anyway? And Barbie’s own arc is away from the female-dominated dystopia and back toward embodied womanhood, the real world with all its patriarchal holdovers, the end of the plastic pelvis and the possibility of motherhood.

I think Knowles and other conservative interpreters are wrong to see this material as trumping the aspects of the movie that rehearse liberal and feminist arguments. Rather, “Barbie” is a movie with a feminist default, but also complicated and sometimes muddled feelings about what the sexual revolution has done and where feminism ought to go.

It’s against the resilient patriarchy, but wary of the girlboss alternative. It wants womanhood and motherhood, but it doesn’t want the Kens back in charge, and it doesn’t really know what purpose men should serve. A guy can literally organize a revolution and it still isn’t enough to make Barbie see him as a lover, a romantic partner, an erotic object, a husband or a father.

And so the movie ends — again, spoiler — with Barbie out of Barbieland but on her own, seeking out some sort of reproductive destiny at the gynecologist with a mother-daughter cheerleading squad beside her and no Ken in sight.

There’s an interesting parallel to the ending of Lena Dunham’s series “Girls,” another formally feminist story with a reactionary subtext, which graced its antiheroine with motherhood but left her in a kind of quasi-matriarchal limbo. In each narrative, the one way that the current dissatisfactions of women and men can’t be resolved is with the happy ending that even stories about the battle of the sexes used to take for granted — not a rearrangement of political power but a romantic partnership, not one sex’s rule but both sexes’ contentment.

My official position as a writer and a part-time movie critic is that sequels are bad news, that a wildly successful original movie should be allowed to stand alone rather than being rolled into Hollywood’s franchise machinery. But in the case of “Barbie” I might make an exception, if only to see what Gerwig and her co-writer and romantic partner, Noah Baumbach, think could actually bring their Barbie and their Ken together.

In the movie they made, “Barbie and Ken” is a statement of reverse subordination, female rule and male eclipse. But in reality, nothing may matter as much to male and female happiness, and indeed, to the future of the human race, as whether Barbie and Ken can make that “and” into something reciprocal and fertile — a bridge, a bond, a marriage.

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