We Need to Talk About Ken

by Gary Barker, Equimundo President and CEO

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Of course the Barbie movie would set off a firestorm – most of us laughing and nodding as Barbie and her friends take on the patriarchy and win. But some conservative commentators say that it trashes men. Some men refuse to take their sons to see it. That’s a shame because hyper-product placement, talking dolls, and fake backdrops aside, there is someone we must talk about in the movie.

That is Ken – forlorn, purposeless Ken. He wants Barbie to see him, to love him, to take him seriously. And he’s utterly lost.

For much of the movie, Ken follows Barbie around, vying for her attention, declaring how much he wants her to see him. He is reduced to second-class status. He is, as women were for so long, a shadow of a person. It is painful and sad to see him so bereft of personhood.

I’ll skip the plot sequence of the rise and fall of patriarchy, and how easily it collapses on itself. Even Ken and all the other male characters in the movie see how ridiculous patriarchy is. It is harmful to themselves, unfair to women, and makes Barbieland worse.

Out with patriarchy! Duh! But what to do about Ken? And by Ken, I mean all the young men for whom Ken stands. Because, like Ken, Gen Z and Millennial men are in trouble. They are falling behind in school, failing to launch, often not finding meaningful relationships, and spending more time online than any generation before.

Equimundo’s State of American Men offers clues about why Ken wears the sad face. The younger men, ages 18-23, are more likely to be alone, to feel no one knows them, more likely to think about suicide, and the least likely to seek help when they need it. As they fall behind, they are also more likely than past generations to believe that women’s advances come at their expense. They are too easily drawn into online conversations that enjoin men to – like Ken – reinstate the patriarchy.

Ken realizes that he has a problem when all he knows how to do is “beach.” He’s not a lifeguard, or a surfer. Without something more than “beaching” all he can do is sit around. Sound familiar? Among young men, 48% say their online lives are more engaging and rewarding than their offline lives. Only 22% of men have three or more people in their local area they feel close to, and 30% of younger men reported not spending time with anyone outside their household in the past week.

Our survey also found that more than a fifth of men are not looking for partners, can’t find them or have given up on finding a sexual partner. Of the nearly half that have used dating apps, they are looking not to hook up, but to find a committed relationship. Love me, Barbie! Six in ten visit porn sites at least weekly; about one in three attempted to reduce porn consumption but failed.

The study found that men aged 18-23 display the lowest levels of optimism about their futures. Additionally, it revealed a paradox embodied by characters like Ken: those who adhere to rigid, conservative views of manhood exhibit a higher sense of life purpose. However, men who believe in outdated forms of manhood are more likely to drink excessively, use violence, and consider suicide.

To conservatives who would say the movie trashes men, it presents a highly accurate picture. Which is why we should be worried about Ken. Because in real life, we haven’t written the next pages for this generation of young men. For years, women have necessarily and rightly called out the patriarchy, a system that gives lots of power and wealth to a few men, and leaves all men feeling they have to conform to a version of manhood that says they can’t have deep emotional lives, can’t ask for help, should use violence to resolve conflicts, and lots more. The Kens in our world are literally dying early trying to live up to an old version of manhood.

What would help Ken find happiness and life purpose? How can we help Ken find purpose in friendship, in caring and caregiving, in being free of a version of manhood that measures worth by money and consumption? What causes will engage Ken?

We need more Kens in care professions: Kens as nurses, teachers, coaches, as home care workers; we need Kens that care about the planet and we need Kens who learn to love and to care for others, to be emotionally open, to communicate with respect, to be able to listen, to be both vulnerable and to find power in their relationships with others. Ken needs to bust his box open as much as Barbie refused to return to hers.

We need fathers to go watch Barbie with their sons and talk about it. We need our kids to know that we can do much more than just “beach” and look up to the hollow leaders who say women and others are to blame for our problems. That we can live a version of manhood that doesn’t destroy our own lives, our relationships and the planet.

Let’s help Ken write the script of the new and better manhood that we all need and emerge affirming: Sublime.

 

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