Can You Feel the Kenergy?

I was discussing the Barbie movie with a friend who grew up socialized as a boy. I’d heard plenty on the internet from women who were overcome with the ending, with the talk of mothers standing still, daughters, childhood, the montage of girlhood. My friend told me about how it was filling them with deep thoughts about all the ways the women in their life, in their family most especially, were so systematically sidelined — not in the most malicious ways, no those were obvious — but just by their everyday environment. It was, for them, deeply, troublingly reflective.

The discussion was, for me, eye-opening. I didn’t realize that, for all my experience on this earth, that the boxes, so to speak, the way the environment we inhabit is specifically geared toward cis men, were not as visible as I thought they were. To be honest, I’d for the most part, cynically assumed that people favored by misogyny see its effects, even the smallest most mundane ones, and deliberately and consciously decide they’re not going to do anything to go against the status quo. Barbie handled that visibility / invisibility of privilege and oppression in a way that was clear and accessible. I was just taking that for granted, and yet, when I thought deeper about the politics of visibility / invisibility in that film, there was something that kept needling at me.

On the night of my trip to the movies itself, I went with a friend who’d embroidered their own Ken jacket, who was, honestly, most excited by the “Kenergy” of the movie. I’d dug out a pink, burgundy and black sequined 80’s vintage top I’d gotten at some thrift store or other, paired it with a vintage clip on earring, pleather dress underneath, steel-toed 11 eyelet black leather boots, and a ton of glitter and black lipstick. It was me going for Barbie, but giving Tank Girl. A part of my seeing Barbie, a private moment that people definitely didn’t see, was the brief few minutes where I considered a different look for the night. I pulled out a teal button down shirt with pink flamingoes on it. It would go just as well with the pink clip-on earring and maybe some shorts and the boots. It was très Ken. I put it away for the night. Maybe later. Maybe later, I’ll dress like Ken.

There’s a certain way I feel when I wear femme clothes. There’s a process, the way they highlight certain features, the textures and the shapes and the attention. While wearing masc clothes makes me feel like the fabric is sinking into my skin, femme clothes sit on top of my body, a mask on top of my person. As welcome as they are at times, and as much as gender is a performance no matter where you are located on any spectrum of gender identity and presentation, there is something that feels especially performative to me about dressing high femme — add to that doing it in a social context where a ton of people are doing the same, and the element of role-playing became a combination of fun and fraught.

Was it the distance and the dissonance I felt between what I looked like and did and wore as a kid, and the clothes provided for my Barbies? While my fingernails were crusted with dirt and my shorts grass-stained, my skin unevenly tanned and my shirt whatever 80’s hand-me-down I’d put on that day, Barbie wore high heels and form-fitting dresses in perfect 90’s style. Those clothes felt a portend of my future, a promise of adulthood to come.

Ken, on the other hand, was never meant to be the role model. He was, as the movie makes clear, a kind of accessory. “He’s just Ken.” He’s a part of what a successful life for Barbie looks like, but he isn’t his own person. You’re not supposed to want to be Ken. After all, “Ken only has a good day if Barbie looks at him.”

From his first introduction, Ryan Gosling’s Ken is a creature of longing. He desperately wants to be seen: by Barbie, as a man, as an individual, as someone with his own identity and agency. Yet, he’s distinctly invisible. His masculinity is invisible. It doesn’t matter if he feels it, it aches with rejection every time Barbie’s eyes glance off of him.

That’s what was relatable. As I sat in the theater with a hunger winding its way underneath my sequined top, it wasn’t that I was particularly moved about the bleak, gray, misogynistic real-world or that I was sobbing (like the stranger next to me), at the montage of mothers and children. No, the former was familiar, already deeply thought about — and not portrayed in the Barbie movie with the kind of nuance that I feel a lot of us need to really dig in. And the latter, well, I have mommy issues and attempting to conjure up memories of a loving mother doesn’t lead to much for me. No, it was the intense, bro-y choreography, the guys-just-being-guys of it all that made me long for a boyhood I never had and a kind brotherhood I’ve only ever been able to trace the edge of. Attempting to understand what it might be like to be a part of that boyish masculinity feels just about as fruitful of a quest for me as it would be to understand what actual genitalia might look like by staring at the smooth bulge of a naked Ken doll. There’s something there, sure, but there’s knowledge withheld.

After I saw the movie, I said to people that the politics are basic; go for the gay camp. But, at the same time, there’s something political about that camp. Weird Barbie’s a dyke who hangs out with Earring Magic and Sugar Daddy Kens. To deviate from the path of role models for the false promise of an adulthood that contains any semblance of egalitarianism, let alone a woman US president, is to plunge deeper into queerness. Things work similarly in the Real World.

Ken, too, moves into queerness when he perverts his prescribed role. His dress moves from clothes that match Barbie’s to his own clothes — which are leathery, feature cut-off sleeves, and involve a ridiculous mink coat and headbands. He and the other Kens decorate their new world with screens that display constantly running videos of veiny, phallic horses. Ken goes from living nowhere in particular to squatting in Barbie’s Malibu Dream House and turning it into Ken’s Mojo Dojo Casa House. Ken, on his identity journey, finds himself spiraling deeper and deeper into a performance of masculinity that queers itself — much like any leather daddy — for its over-the-top embrace of hyper-masculine aesthetics. Ken doesn’t just dance up against the homoerotic edge, he jumps into its waters.

In their song “Man I Am” for the Barbie soundtrack, Sam Smith intones:

“See, I’m the groove catcher, hottest thing
Six-pack and tight G-string
No, I’m not gay, bro
But I’ve been on that lay low”

But, really, not unlike saying “no homo” too often, this is saying “homo.”

And how I wanted that for myself.

Sometimes, a trans experience or a genderqueer experience isn’t a perfect straight line. It’s a push and pull, it’s a weighing and a series of decisions — what will I challenge myself on and what will I let slide. When will I let myself be led by desires that might ask more of me than I think I’m capable of giving?

In “On Liking Women” by Andrea Long Chu, Andrea writes, “The grammar of contemporary trans activism does not brook the subjunctive. Trans women are women, we are chided with silky condescension, as if we have all confused ourselves with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as if we were all simply trapped in the wrong politics, as if the cure for dysphoria were wokeness. How can you want to be something you already are? Desire implies deficiency; want implies want. To admit that what makes women like me transsexual is not identity but desire is to admit just how much of transition takes place in the waiting rooms of wanting things, to admit that your breasts may never come in, your voice may never pass, your parents may never call back.”

What leaves me in that waiting room of want? The answer takes us somewhere darker, out of Barbieland and firmly into the desaturated color palette of the Real World. For one, there was the topic of a conversation I had on a rooftop Monday night with a queer person who was repulsed by Ryan Gosling’s Ken’s response to rejection. We stared at the supermoon, occasionally made eye contact, and talked about rape and sexual assault and Ken’s candy-colored violence.

Because if Barbieland was the Real World, what would Ken have done? What would have happened to a Barbie who never felt a smidgeon of unease when brushing off Ken’s advances? What’s happened to me when I’ve turned down a man? A kick in the jaw, being locked in a room, late night phone calls from a stalker, and having “no” not matter. Did Greta Gerwig intend for the Kens to be so sinister in this moment, for Gosling’s Ken to embody some of our greatest fears around toxic masculinity and the entitlement that men feel to everyone else’s time, personhood, attention, bodies? Did Gosling dance enough to negate the fear screaming through the trauma that lives in our bodies? We were discussing it, so I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.

The scene that revolved around “Push” filled me with unease. The words out of Ken’s mouth are exactly the last thing I ever need to hear from the mouth of a man ever again, let alone be forced to sit and watch or listen while a man does a thing.

And yet as unsettling as all of the Kens singing, in unison, “I want to push you around” to a circle of Barbies was — the compelling nature of Kenergy remains swirling around me. I’ll almost certainly watch the movie again, clasp my hands at the dance scenes, smile at the absurdity. His potential for violence is counterweighted intentionally with his himbo goofiness, his lack of self-consciousness.

There’s a specific kind of trans masc quality to the way that Ken dresses and takes up space if I’m being honest. That’s the siren call, the Kenergy, the alchemical reaction unintentionally put into motion by the various elements of the movie. I won’t say that was intentional, it’s just a thing that happened, just something you can see if you’re looking through the right rose-colored glasses, if there’s a want in you that’s strong enough to sharpen your vision.

I wore the pink flamingo shirt the next time I went out, just that Monday, to that rooftop potluck where I happily bro-ed out with a different group of friends and had deep and long conversations with fellow queers, including the one about Barbie and Ken and men and our pink genderqueer feelings blossoming in a gray, violent world because you can’t keep dreams down, not really. At a party where there was but a single token straight couple, the way that I was seen was a balm for the sharp plastic barbs that’d lodged in my heart while watching Barbie. And some days, some times on some days, really, if we’re being honest — once in a while — I feel like I’m Kenough.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors who are currently on strike, movies like Barbie one would not be possible, and Autostraddle is grateful for the artists who do this work.

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Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.


  1. thanks for this piece, nico. so many parts of it sparked things for me. i went to see barbie with a group of other trans people. i wore a pink barbenheimer shirt and was viscerally uncomfortable about the color but ultimately glad to be part of the mass costume party (in all sincerity, Dressing Up For Barbie was a sweet culturally unifying moment that i’m really grateful for). during the movie, i sat closest to a couple of transmasc friends and the looks and quick jokes we exchanged over the line ‘being a woman is impossible’ made that possibly my favorite moment in the movie. very much agree that the politics as offered by the movie are extremely 101- being able to bring a different, shared lens to the group viewing filled in some gaps that i think would’ve hit harder without that.

    we haven’t stopped joking about ken or sharing ken memes yet. that’s probably partly a gender thing and partly that ryan gosling knocked it out of the fucking park with the character and we’re fond of a lovable dummy. it’s interesting, though, this thing about desire. one of the primary ways i know myself as agender is through a lack of directional desire- i describe this as ‘everything everywhere all at once but none of it is gender’. i don’t feel a wanting for ken’s masculinity. i’m not sure ken even fully feels like a man to me (!). i think i want his freedom, though; his not having to think about it. which i guess means i want his cis privilege- the luxury of exploring what his gender identity means and how he wants it to look while consistently having it endorsed by everyone around him, without anyone ever questioning its validity.

    i could, alas can’t, be here all day with the nuances of all of it and further thoughts- appreciating the space to think at least some of this out.

    • hihello, I loved this and thank you so much for sharing it. And yes! An extended experience of seeing this movie was also, somehow, that just about every queer person I ran into (including the one I went with) had seen it and had thouhgts, feelings, opinions, reactions. From dressing up to discussion, it’s been this whole community experience where we’re able to have conversations with each other about a variety of like – social / relational topics with the movie as some kind of shared reference point? Wild.

      And, uh, YES to the cis(het?) privilege of Ken. He has no shame. He just moves forward, seeks, experiments and doesn’t think too hard about it.

      If you DO have more thoughts and nuances to touch on, I hope you’ll come back and let us know.

  2. It is rare for me to contribute to an online debate but I feel there is a PoV that is still sorely missing in the Barbie reviews (and one I hope Autostraddle is safe enough to accommodate).

    I will outward own that I was never a Barbie or Ken fan growing up so in that respect I already had some reservations going into this and certainly didn’t embrace the chance to put on my Ken or Barbie persona.

    Disclaimers aside, could be that I was the only one with increasing levels of uneasiness whilst watching this film? I’ll just highlight three points that to me scream of backlash rather than feminist empowerment.

    – Are we really OK in 2023 to have the ‘weird’ Barbie that ‘got played too hard’ be the queer one? Given this is not an existing character she could have been portrayed/named as anything (I’d personally go for the ‘enlightened’ or ‘free’one) and really represented as the one that’s already broken free from the stereotypical roles without being labeled the weird one;

    – Is it not disturbing that all the Barbies could simply be gaslight literally overnight just by being told patriarchy is better? And they all just were so happy to serve instead and take a rest for their brain? Why are we still portraying even utopia Barbieland (questionable as either version is highly unequal) as a place where women will just roll over at the first opportunity whilst men will need to be pushed out if they’re to give their power over?

    – Of all the possible endings that being / becoming a ‘real’ woman entails, choosing to link that to a gynecologist visit is just fraught with issues (cis and trans alike). Especially given current debate, to so bluntly link ‘real womanhood’ to crude biology requires some questioning.

    Thanks for your time.

    • I will say, as a post-op trans woman, the gynecologist line, as problematic as it is, resonated deeply with me–because I’ve *had* that experience, more or less.

      (I will say, though, the novelty wore off *real* damn quick :-D )

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