Warning: The following contains spoilers for “Barbie.”
Ironically, the entire story of “Barbie” builds up to a musical number.
Part power ballad, part fight sequence, and part dream ballet, “I’m Just Ken” hits screens like an elaborate piece or an excuse for Ryan Gosling to show off his skills Oscar-nominated vocal cords and reprise his viral dance routines. And yet it’s an absolute head turner that’s as ridiculous as it is ideologically ambitious and visually astute. How powerful monologue delivered by America Ferrera About the impossibilities of being a woman, this five-minute sequence is a sensitive acknowledgment of the pressure on men to express their masculinity (literally), often to toxic levels.
Packed with clever jokes, movie references, and social commentary, the number might seem like a total misplaced mess. (In terms of theater, it’s like the princes of “Into the Woods” performing the battle anthem “One Day More” from “Les Misérables” before “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” features a “West Side Story roars. Yacht, all filmed on a Busby Berkeley sound stage.) So whether you liked it and want to know more about it, or You didn’t understand what was going on at allThe Times is here with #kenough guidance to understand “I’m just Ken.”
The Mojo Dojo Casa House
In the film, Gosling’s Ken – Barbie’s anxious, stubborn beta friend – is resurrected by the real-world patriarchy and returns to indoctrinate everyone in Barbieland. And while he gets everything a man could want (horses! lobsters! mini-fridges with beer!), he still doesn’t get the undivided attention he so desperately needs from Barbie.
Shirtless in the bedroom of his Mojo Dojo Casa House, Ken bemoans its existence as a superfluous accessory created to complement it. “It doesn’t seem to matter what I do, I’m always number two / Nobody knows how hard I’ve tried,” Gosling sings melodramatically to a gentle piano accompaniment. Even though he’s playing what Times critic Justin Chang calls “The neediest, most pathetically insecure Ken of them all,” he does so as intensely as Neil Armstrong in First Man and a tortured husband in Blue Valentine.
“I just knew that he could be really funny, but would also probe the depths of this outrageous mystery that Ken finds himself in as a person,” director Greta Gerwig said the Times to occupy Gosling. “It was the seriousness he was able to bring as an actor that made it all so heartfelt — but also so funny.”
Ken, who learned the ins and outs of patriarchy through real-world media, wears what he believes to be the outfit of a successful and powerful man: a Sylvester Stallone-style mink coat, a fringed black sleeveless vest, and a floral one embellished headband electric studs, a silver chain with horse tag and a belt pouch with his name in Metallica font. (Despite what he’s wearing, he manages to stay shirtless.)
“I have feelings that I can’t explain / that are driving me insane,” he sings with a mad expression on his face and shakes his head in frustration. “I’ve been so polite all my life, but tonight I’ll sleep alone.”
The Beach Off
Gosling’s Ken then embarks on the long-awaited “beach-off” with his archrival: Ken (Simu Liu), who constantly undercuts him in front of Barbie and keeps making him feel inadequate. Gosling’s mob ride into battle on paddle boats reminiscent of ships laden with cannon, while Liu’s crew carries him over their shoulders, turning umbrellas like wheels and holding stick horses as if they were human chariots.
As they approach in hilarious slow motion – and with a menacing arsenal of frisbees, beach balls, tennis racquets and swimming pools – Ken von Gosling continues to contemplate his romantic impotence escalating into an identity crisis. “I’m just Ken / Where else would I be a 10 / Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blonde frailty?” he wails Wolfgang Van Halen on electric guitar and Josh Freese from the Foo Fighters on drums. “I’m just Ken / Where I see love, she sees a friend / What does it take for her to see the man behind the tan and fight for me?”
“You really fall in love with this unfortunate but instantly likeable character” explained Mark Ronson, who wrote I’m Just Ken with Andrew Wyatt. “It felt a little bit emo, like ‘that poor guy.’ He’s so hot, but he can’t tell the time of day.’”
“See you on the beach in Malibu!” Gosling suddenly shouts with the conviction of Mel Gibson in Braveheart or Russell Crowe in Gladiator. The two sides charge at each other, screaming and with raised weapons. The Kens twist each other’s nipples, swordfight lacrosse sticks, and shoot suction cup darts – one of which Gosling rips off his chest in hurt disbelief. The whole scene is a living, silly mess – toys fighting toys! — but the actors all play it clear as if these Kens are willing to end life and lose their own.
Meanwhile, Ken von Gosling continues his melancholy monologue about his purpose and self-esteem, now at a more upbeat pace. “I want to know what it’s like to love, to be the real thing,” he sings, eyes hungry. “Is it a crime? Aren’t I hot when I’m in my feelings?” That inner interrogation — vulnerable questions he’s probably asking himself for the first time — is hilariously contrasted with stereotypical “male” actions, such as giving another Ken a noogie with his fingerless, leather-gloved fist and repelling an attack by mere display para.
The Dream Ballet
Gosling and Liu’s ken-on-ken fight induces a collective trance and transports the action onto a pink-and-blue soundstage. Paying homage to the stylized dream ballets of Golden Age musicals like Oklahoma! and Singin’ in the Rain – both by Gerwig presented for the cast during filming for inspiration – a total of 44 Kens wearing black outfits and Barbie pink socks absurdly hitting each other with aggressive dance moves choreographed by Jennifer White and Lisa Welham: flexing biceps, throwing up claws while making cat noises, pretend they will rip your shirt off like a superhero and hit the ground on the downbeat.
After hurrying into full-fledged ’80s synth-pop in symmetrical formations, Gosling’s Ken is revealed once more. He sings the chorus again, but this time he’s standing tall and staring straight at the camera with a knowing smile. He helps his colleague Kens up off the floor and giggles after they kiss his cheek in gratitude. He is no longer threatened by other men or the expression of affection among them.
“I’m just Ken and I’m enough / And I’m great at doing things / So hey, check me out, yeah, I’m just Ken,” the Kens sing in unison as Guns N’ Roses shreds Slash the guitar in a final solo. “My name is Ken (and so am I) / Put that manly hand in mine / So hey world, look at me yeah I’m just Ken.”
Shortly after the end of “I’m Just Ken,” Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Ken tells the crowd, “We only fought because we didn’t know who we were.” Although the song’s title begins negatively, describing Ken as nonessential , the group escalates it into a chant of self-affirming affirmation that keeps them from arguing with each other and themselves. (It’s a profound realization expressed in simple terms. He’s still Ken, after all.)
Gosling’s Ken later denounces patriarchy and learns from Barbie not to define himself as “beach” just by his possessions, his relationship or his job. He’s just Ken and he’s Kenough.
What it means
In just over five minutes, I’m Just Ken resolves the narrative and emotional arc of Gosling’s Ken, transforming him from a vengeful little villain into a man caught up in society’s toxic masculinity – a taboo subject for many men in real life. (That might explain why “Barbie” was so popular rejected by right-wing experts as “possibly the most anti-male film ever made”. Of course, this reasoning doesn’t take into account the fact that a long, layered climax is offered to the male characters in a film about a girl’s doll.)
“Life is hard for everyone,” Gerwig told The Times. “I think men, too, have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can match. And they have their own contradictions where they walk a tightrope. I think that’s something that’s universal. Just like women are bogged down in how to do everything. I see it that way for men too. For each. We equally beat ourselves up.”
Oscar pundits are already eyeing possible original song nominations for Ronson and Wyatt, who previously won for their work on the ‘A Star Is Born’ hit ‘Shallow.’ Gosling’s name is also credited for his performance. But he doesn’t directly claim the credit, especially for “I’m Just Ken.”
“Ken sang that song,” he told the Times with a straight face. “I’ve never sung like this in my life. I don’t know why or how that happened.”