In the Symbolic World of the Deeply Gendered Barbieland, Allan Is Nonbinary

I’ve been thinking a lot about Barbie’s Allan. Most of the commentary on Allan published so far celebrates him as understated, funny, relatable in his awkwardness, a moral center, an ultimate ally (to the Barbies), and/or gay. And Allan the Doll who Lives in Barbieland may well be all of these things. But I want to argue that Allan the Character in the Movie Barbie (played by real human Michael Cera) is something else. Within the gender paradigm of Barbieland, Allan is (symbolically) nonbinary.

When we engage with fiction, it’s easy (and fun) to treat characters as real people we get to know through the story, giving them traits and personalities and feelings outside of what is presented in the work of art. This is what makes headcanons and fanfiction possible, and it’s the form of engagement that happens when art sparks our imaginations. It’s what happens when we take the information given to us in the work of art, try to understand its internal logic, and extrapolate from there. We do this through identifying with characters and imagining them as full beings. This is the form of engaging with fiction that leads me to believe Hari Nef’s Barbie isn’t trans because she was assigned Ken at birth within Barbieland and then transitioned, but because somewhere in the Real World, someone is playing with a Barbie and decided “this Barbie is trans.” This is also the form of reading that got me in trouble in literature classes in college, as teachers told me characters couldn’t think or feel or want anything that isn’t presented on the page, because they aren’t real.

In this form of engaging with fiction, I don’t think Allan is nonbinary in the sense that we humans in the real world understand the term. I agree he’s gay-coded for viewers, and I think within the universe of Barbie, Allan probably doesn’t actually experience romantic desire like the Kens do, because he was created to be Ken’s Buddy, not to be anyone’s boyfriend, and the dolls’ lives are completely shaped by their function as dolls.

But Barbie is a movie, and that means it can also be read/viewed symbolically. Each of its characters are representations, and the film is a work of art that says something (or many somethings), even if we disagree about what exactly it is saying. The symbolic mode is extra acute in a movie like Barbie, in which “Barbieland” is explicitly a world entirely made of representations (as Grace Lavery elaborates on in her thread on Barbie and allegorical narrative) — an extra layer of abstraction in an already fictional film.

Within Barbieland, there are two primary types of people: Barbies and Kens. Some of the Barbies have other names (like Midge), but they are still Barbies, and they still operate within Barbieland’s social structure as Barbies. Even Weird Barbie, who lives far away from the others, is still named Barbie, and she plays an important role in the community — fixing the malfunctioning Barbies. The discontinued Kens who live with Weird Barbie don’t hang out with the other Kens, but they do exist in relation to Weird Barbie, as her companions. Barbies and Kens are aligned with the real-world genders of women and men, but as my friend and colleague Sandra Goldstein Lehnert has argued, “Ken” is a gender that is similar to but not identical to “man” (and the same goes for Barbies and women). Even so, the Barbie/Ken binary is presented as a fantasy version of a women/men binary designed to appeal to girls who play with dolls, and the film uses this binary to discuss issues relating to real-world gender, both in the sense of “The Real World” presented in the film and in the sense of our world outside the film.

So, in this dichotomy, where does Allan fall? How does he function within this narrative, and within the gender system depicted within it?

Allan is not a Ken. Nor is he a Barbie. Nor is he a type, like Barbies and Kens are types — there is only one Allan. He’s excluded by the Kens, doesn’t seem to interact with the Barbies particularly, and generally serves as an oddball comic relief. While Ken is an accessory to Barbie, and this is the center of his crisis, Allan doesn’t even have a relation to Barbie — he exists only in relation to Ken. Allan is the Waluigi of the Barbie universe, an accessory to an accessory.

We first meet him also on the Barbieland beach, but in typical fashion for a Michael Cera character, he seems uncomfortable, out of place. Everyone forgets him, unless he speaks up to remind everyone that in addition to Barbies and Kens, there is also an Allan. When the Kens learn about patriarchy, Allan isn’t interested, but he also doesn’t become brainwashed like the Barbies. Instead, he tries to escape from Barbieland. Later, he’s among the core crew at Weird Barbie’s house plotting to stop the Kens from overturning the Constitution. Allan isn’t just an ally helping out Barbie and the humans — he’s his own being, already ill at ease with BarbieLand from the very moment he’s introduced (noting that he’s confused about why there are not multiples of him), consistently forgotten within the Barbie/Ken binary unless he reminds people he’s there, too.

Allan’s discomfort creates an identification point for viewers who are also uncomfortable identifying with either the Barbies or the Kens, a third option in an otherwise binary Barbieland. Viewers don’t need to identify as an Allan in order to identify with Allan, and this possibility creates a release valve for some of the unresolved political problems Lavery references in her thread.

For instance, the “resolution” of the Kens’ distress is that the Kens need to discover who they are on their own, not in relation to the Barbies. But if Barbieland is a reflection of the Real World (which it is — as soon as the Kens take over, Mattel is suddenly already selling hundreds of Mojo Dojo Casa Houses), what would that mean? That children need to start playing with Kens differently, treating them as more complex characters in their imaginative play? Wouldn’t that undo the intended purpose of Barbie/Ken? Must Mattel change who “Ken” is and center new marketing around the Kens as individualized, empowered beings? Surely that’s not the movie’s intended argument. And surely the intended argument is not that systemic inequality is fine as long as oppressed people develop individualized identities.

Similarly, the “resolution” for the Barbies is that the Barbieland Constitution is maintained as the law of the land, protecting the Barbies’ status as political and social rulers of Barbieland. But this still positions the Kens as second-class citizens — who don’t even seem to have homes, the ability to own property, or the right to hold most roles in society. The implication of this resolution seems to be that patriarchy is bad because it oppresses Barbies, but matriarchy (or at least Barbiearchy) is good, even though it structurally oppresses the newly self-actualizing Kens. But surely that’s not the movie’s argument for the real world either, even if the movie does need to maintain the social structure of BarbieLand as a fundamental good within Barbieland in order to avoid undermining the entire premise of Barbie.

In a Barbie/Ken binary, the resolution of the film is untenable both for a politics of gender equality and for the continuance of the Barbie universe backstory. Personally, I struggled with finding the ending at all satisfying for this reason — the final joke made me laugh, but I was left feeling uncomfortable. I couldn’t be happy for the Barbies (because their win comes at the cost of continued oppression of the Kens); I couldn’t be happy for the Kens (because what does self-actualization actually mean for a doll whose ongoing purpose in the real world is still to sell products for a corporation), and I couldn’t be happy for Barbie-turned-Barbara, because the real world continues to have all its same problems. But I nonetheless thought the movie was fun, and I didn’t want to walk out of the theater feeling disappointed. I’d had a good time through most of it, and during the final minutes, I was actively searching for ways to feel okay about the resolution.

And that’s where Allan came in: Allan is a character within the movie who still doesn’t fit within any of these solutions. Allan doesn’t get a happy ending, a political or even an individual solution to his own discomforts with Barbieland. He doesn’t get a new position within the social fabric of Barbieland, and he never makes it to the Real World. He remains just Allan (although, in the actual real world, Allan dolls are apparently selling very well as a result of his character’s popularity — so perhaps new Allans have appeared in Barbieland for him to hang out with). Having a character within the movie who is left unresolved, just as I felt unresolved, allowed me to find something/someone to identify with at the end, to find a place to put my emotions within the film’s own world, instead of having to end the viewing experience feeling like an outsider.

And Allan serves this role throughout the film — offering comic relief, commentary that breaks the fourth wall, and relatability (such as his social discomfort and when he struggles to climb over the fence). He’s a release valve for those viewers who feel at-odds with both the Barbies and the Kens, for whatever reason — for me, the political reasons, but also that I never played with Barbies as a kid and that my version queer womanhood doesn’t feel particularly aligned with either femininity or masculinity. Of all the characters, I’m most similar to Sasha, but I also didn’t feel particular identification with the evolution of Sasha’s relationship with her mom. Allan is the oddball one who has the fantasy experience of living in Barbieland even though he doesn’t like Barbieland. I too am an oddball. I’m a queer autistic woman who wanted to have a fun time “living” in Barbieland for the duration of the movie, despite all of my issues with its politics (including criticisms beyond the scope of this essay).

Allan creates symbolic space for everyone outside of the Barbie/Ken binary, suggesting we too can find ourselves in Barbieland. On the one hand, this symbolic function makes the movie more enjoyable — just look at all of the articles and posts celebrating Allan. On the other hand, his character creates ideological and emotional cover for the contradictory (and problematic) political messages about gender in other parts of the film and ultimately, in the actual real world, serves as yet another re-launch opportunity for Allan-as-product to generate new profits for Mattel.

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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Olivia Wood

Olivia Wood is a lecturer in English at the City College of New York and a PhD candidate specializing in queer rhetorics at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work has appeared in the Routledge Handbook of Queer Rhetorics, the Journal of Bisexuality, and LGBTQ+ Studies: An Open Textbook, among other places. Olivia is also a proud union member and a writer and editor for Left Voice.

Olivia has written 1 article for us.


  1. i appreciate this analysis, even though i was not able to get through all the michael cera to arrive at allan and as such can’t take it on for myself- i’m very comfortable not finding any sort of in-film resolution that i personally identify with, but it is interesting to have a non-barbie, non-ken in the mix as someone who reveals the construct everyone else takes for granted by existing outside of it.

  2. Despite the brief acknowledgement at the end of how the whole film is just a marketing ploy for Mattel, this essay is still way too generous. Allan is not non-binary and reading him that way is just doing Mattel’s job for them by giving them credit for something that is not there and contributing to their “Mattel as a hip progressive company” rebrand.

    The film made you uncomfortable because the gender in it is so deeply binary and essentialist – Allan is not a relief from that, he’s an extension of it. Any gender non-conformity in the film is either a joke (on men, including Allan) or corrected (Sasha). An essay on Mattel’s deeply conservative portrayal of gender and the borderline homophobia of the film would be a lot more honest and productive – but I guess Barbie is a huge cash cow now and being overly critical of it wouldn’t work out if Autostraddle wants those sweet clicks. And if you end up promoting Mattel as well, who cares, right?

    “Having a character within the movie who is left unresolved, just as I felt unresolved, allowed me to find something/someone to identify with at the end, to find a place to put my emotions within the film’s own world, instead of having to end the viewing experience feeling like an outsider.”

    Yes, because it’s a shit film and should make queer and feminist viewers uncomfortable! Why are you jumping through the hoops to redeem it?

  3. Interesting – I read Allan as autistic, and his/their gender as autistic/autigender/neuroqueer in the sense that they don’t actually “parse” the structured/binary gender in the way it is supposed to be parsed or understood… or perhaps even at all…

  4. I really appreciate this piece! Allan was definitely the character I connected to the most, even if I don’t personally identify as non-binary. I think the film questions gender *roles*, but not the nature of gender itself; Allan, on the other hand, seems to not only be a way out of the Barbie/Ken binary, but also is unsettled because gender isn’t a settled thing.
    In my own headcanon, I would say that Ken reads books about horses, Barbie reads like, Betty Friedan or a more contemporary equivalent, and Allan is working his way through Gender Trouble with the hope that, someday, a citizen of Barbieland will ask him about it.

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