Barbie Ken Ryan Gosling Masculinity Advertising

Question of the week

Is adland doing 'Kenough' to represent modern masculinity?

In light of the Ken-mania that took the world by storm this summer, we explore the ways in which ads are addressing toxic masculinity

By conor nichols

‘Harnessing Ken-ergy’ and ‘You are Kenough’ are phrases that have been ringing around every form of social media in recent months. Ryan Gosling's portrayal of Barbie’s counterpart has received widespread acclaim, with some punters dubbing the performance as Oscar-worthy.

But looking beyond the scene-stealing acting, what does the portrayal of Ken and his character arc say about men in culture today? When the sidekick character leaves ‘Barbieland’ and enters the real world he is filled with admiration towards patriarchal structures. He then ventures back to Barbie's world and transforms it to 'Kendom', instilling the other Kens with traits of toxic masculinity. Towards the end of the film, however, he drops the 'macho' act and wears a t-shirt that reads 'I am Kenough'.

What does all of this say about how men are reflected in wider culture today - specifically in advertising? How are men being portrayed and is advertising helping squash toxic masculine stereotypes? Is advertising doing enough to represent modern masculinity? 

We gather the opinions of some industry experts to find out.

Asad Shaykh, head of strategy, Grey London

What Barbie did was a bit of a miracle.

Rather than taking a finger-pointing approach towards Ken’s toxic masculinity, it swapped power between genders to show two imbalanced worlds. Kens were discounted in Barbie’s world and Barbies in Ken’s. The only way both found harmony was through equality.

But it’s difficult to unlearn privilege.

This was Barbie’s journey towards understanding Ken, and from him to her - to find a balance.

What we can do as ad-people is just that. Show balance. Show both men and women as human-first. Trust me, there is tremendous humanity in both, that goes deeper than any superficial, pre-biased, first thoughts that have been fed into our heads since we were children.

I don’t believe in modern masculinity. Only basic humanity. If we can write that into our work, we can play a part in undoing its toxicity.

Sara Denby, head of the Unstereotype Alliance Secretariat, UN Women

Although the Barbie movie is a satirical take on male and female stereotypes, I welcome the new awareness and heated debate on topics that have not previously been in the zeitgeist, let alone mainstream entertainment. We won’t stamp out stereotypes – gender-based, racial or otherwise – until we’re aware of the damage they cause.

Stereotypes are a barrier to progress in any society, with real life consequences. They reduce entire communities of people down to simplistic representations of who they are, and what they are capable of being. Women are very familiar with this. We’ve experienced gender-based stereotypes – including how we’re depicted in movies and advertising – for a very long time.  But the reaction to Ken’s story is not just a case of the (plastic) shoe now being on the other foot.

It’s important to distinguish between masculinity and the patriarchy – although I love that ‘patriarchy’ is now a prolifically searched term by those who had not heard it before. The patriarchy has always been a tool of oppression. Masculinity is not. There are many ways to express masculinity – and we need to see those alternate portrayals to drive real change, which is ultimately a point the Barbie movie delivers in a very empathetic way.

Portrayals impact perceptions. The Unstereotype Alliance and UN Women conduct the biennial Gender Equality Attitudes Study and, in recent years, we have seen a concerning regression in the attitudes of young men. Worldwide, their views towards gender equality have slipped backwards including on women in leadership or political positions, roles in the home and, most disturbingly, a growing acceptance of violence towards women.

UN Women works with the advertising industry because we recognise the power of progressive creative content to influence positive social norms. Unfortunately, portrayals of masculinity in advertising have become monolithic. Just as unrealistic beauty standards were leveraged against women for decades, representations of 'the successful man' in ads have drastically narrowed. And through the work of our Alliance members like BBD Perfect Storm’s New Macho and Movember, we know the impact is significant – notably on the mental health of men and boys. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for men under 50.  Stereotypical portrayals of what it means to be a successful man are harming our young men – who are in turn harming themselves and those around them.

Advertising has a huge role to play in changing this narrative. It presents an opportunity for brands to engage young men by creating positive depictions of healthy masculinities, at scale. We need to open the aperture and tell new stories, with fresh visual narratives, and new ways of showing what success can be. We now have examples across the Unstereotype Alliance of brands building authentic partnerships with new role models who provide alternate perspectives on masculinity – in all its fantastic diversity.

Mike Alhadeff, senior strategist, AMV BBDO

Like most things, understandings of masculinity have changed drastically, not only in the time I have been alive (roughly 30 years), but also in the time I have been in the industry (roughly 10 years.) A point worth bearing in mind.

Gone are the days where only white straight males featured in ads who only seemed to be interested in women, beer and cars. We have had single parent dads (John Lewis), gay partners (National Lottery) and disabled lovers (Virgin Media.)

Representation therefore looks very different, which always should be one of the aims of advertising, however does that mean all the complexity around masculinity, including male toxicity, has been tackled? No.

Both advertising and wider society need to continue along that journey where they can say ‘I’m Kenough.’

Charlene Chandrasekaran, joint executive creative director, The Or

I need to make it known that I loved the Barbie Movie. It was joyous, nostalgic, and camp. The popping pink and gigantic versions of tiny objects was the Sad lamp I so needed right now. I walked out feeling good that my 'weird' Barbie circa 1989 did not have her hair hacked off in vain. However, what I feel weird about doing is giving Barbie, and thus Mattel, credit for igniting a poignant conversation around gender and the representation of men in culture. I'll be the first to admit though, I thought Ryan Gosling as Ken was an odd choice, but in reflection he was a ridiculously perfect casting decision.

But did his character arc in the movie genuinely, cleverly and helpfully make the audience reflect on what it is to be a man in 2023? I’m not sure it did. And nor should it in my opinion. It was a heavy-handed attempt to be provocative and insightful, throwing around trendy words which probably went over most people’s heads in the audience, if they weren’t mentally bludgeoned to death with it first. I’m just not sure it is a useful source to reference in the search for better representation of men in advertising.

Jonathan Brown, Strategy Partner, McCann London

Barbie is iconic.

And part of being an icon is that they can provoke cultural conversations that others can’t.

Think Madonna. Think Bowie. Think Banksy.

It’s not about having the answer, it’s about the return on making people think.

Brands won’t and shouldn’t necessarily have the answer.

That’s for us to make our own minds up.

What we need are more brands and cultural properties with the self confidence to question the mores and conventions of modern masculinity.

Take Belvedere.

They created cultural value for themselves by giving Daniel Craig the (lucrative) opportunity to shed his toxic Bond baggage and in doing so made us question what to expect from men.

Likewise take Tommy Lee Royce.

A true icon of toxic masculinity.

Explored with brilliant nuance and eye catching appeal, but with an ending that offered a touch of vulnerable redemption.

We needs more brands to be more Barbie, more Daniel Craig and more Sally Wainwright.

And to provoke culture to explore the subject rather than give them straight forward answers.

Connie Marshall, senior planner, VCCP London

The Barbie blockbuster playfully explores the 'battle of the sexes'. And in many respects, the film creates a universe where women succeed over men. 

When VCCP set about our research into Representations of Masculinity, we did so with a ‘Gender Agenda’: for all genders to succeed, men must succeed too. According to writer and historian, Rebecca Solnit, “women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some zero sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.” 

Advertising has come a long way since the days representing women as cleaning-obsessed housewives. Ads like 'Dove Real Beauty' and 'This Girl Can' quite rightly ushered in an era in which marketers and regulators meticulously ensure diverse, authentic, empowering portrayals of women. But along that journey, where did we leave men? According to Robert Cserni, Programme Director at the Centre for the Study of Men and Masculinities, “Society has changed tremendously in a relatively short period of time and women have been the main catalyst of this, meanwhile, masculinity as an ideology got stuck behind.”

While Barbie is allowed to take on a number of different forms and body sizes, all the Kens in the film are perfectly chiselled. And perhaps that’s deliberate. There are exceptions to the rule, but in her series on Modern Masculinity, Iman Amrani identifies that “a successful man in an advert [...] is strong. Stoic. Isolated and solitary.” 007. Tommy Shelby. Don Draper. The impossibly sculpted forms presented by Calvin Klein. Can it be argued that male diversity in media and advertising hasn't progressed as much as its female counterpart? The resurgence of the discontinued Allan doll, following the Barbie film, suggests people are seeking an alternative to Ken-like masculinity. 

In its hilarious way, the Barbie film satirises ‘toxic masculinity’. While striking a more sincere tone, ads like ‘Have a Word’, ‘Not Her Problem’ and ‘The Best Men Can Be’ by Gillette also tackle ‘toxic’ male behaviour head-on. There are two sides to this coin, but it raises the question: while advertising is building women up, is it beginning to define men more according to what they shouldn’t be? 

Ken’s discovery of ‘patriarchy’ resolves with the idea that he is ‘Kenough’, just as himself. This theme of ‘celebrating individuality’ came through strongly in VCCP’s research, run in collaboration with The Nursery, as a way for brands to challenge expectations. Departing from hackneyed representations of male strength and beauty, campaigns like ‘Find Your Magic’ celebrate the joy of individuality. Guinness shines a light on new, trusted male role models with personal stories to tell. And beyond pure comms, brands like Nivea are taking action to create spaces for men to speak more openly. 

Advertising isn’t here to solve all of society’s troubles or inconsistencies, and ambitions to shape culture should always feel relevant to the product being sold. But perhaps there is still room to ask - is advertising doing ‘Kenough’? In a world where we only succeed if we all succeed, and where it’s important to be careful about who and what we portray, are there more opportunities to find both humorous and sincere ways to explore what modern masculinity looks like in a positive sense, as opposed to what it isn’t? 

Luke Rigg, junior planner, VCCP London

The five main actors playing Ken were presented as stereotypically handsome, with chiselled jawlines, athletic physiques, youthful (despite an average age of 36) and tall. Portraying a less diverse array of body shapes and sizes than that of the Barbie casting, I thought maybe it was a strict portrayal of the real-life Ken Doll product. However, from research, I found there are diverse body shapes available for the Ken Doll. The film has a fantastic body-positive POV with the Barbies, who can be who they want to be. It even calls out the patriarchy and ends with the message of loving yourself for who you are, but I’m left with the question: While there has been a positive movement to right our wrongs when it comes to the representation of women - where is it for men?

Looking wider than the Barbie movie and at broader media generally, I found that production companies make Tom Cruise look tall even though he’s 5 ft 6 and always taller than his female counterparts. I also found that Tom Holland was targeted on social media for being shorter than his partner, Zendaya. Both points reinforce damaging societal expectations of men being big and strong.

Applying this idea to the world of advertising, I hoped I’d find some examples of big brands giving honest portrayals of males, but there was not much to be found. Yes, Lynx, Gillette and others have done some work to tackle ‘toxic masculinity’. But while the body positivity and diversity movement has, quite rightly, addressed representations of women, has it had the same effect for men? You could draw a timeline from Greek statues to today's Barbie movie, and the promoted idea of what men should look like has never really shifted. Tall. Chiselled. Abs. Strong.

Meanwhile, the research CALM did in 2021 shows us we need greater acceptance and representation of male bodies. In the UK, 26 per cent of men said they weren’t happy with their appearance, and 58 per cent said the pandemic negatively affected how they felt about their bodies.

The message at the end of the Ken narrative is about being at peace with who we are. We need a body diversity movement for everyone, in order to truly embrace that sentiment. And there is still, particularly when it comes to men, a meaningful opportunity for brands to lead the way.


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