Ryan Gosling fans have spent the past few days ferociously defending his role as Ken in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. An understandable position, although if you take a closer look at how this discourse unfolded on Twitter, you may notice it’s surprisingly one-sided.
Under Elon Musk, Twitter’s attempt at a TikTok-style For You Page repeatedly shoves high-engagement tweets onto people’s feeds. This most likely explains the perception of a widespread anti-Gosling backlash, because after the Barbie trailer came out last week, a handful of tweets went viral for criticizing Gosling’s 42-year-old appearance as Ken. (For example: “ryan gosling is too ugly and too old,” “im genuinely terrified wtf is this?!??“)
Coupled with other people suggesting alternate casting choices for Ken, these tweets sparked headlines about ageism among younger viewers. It was the perfect set-up for a Gen-Z vs. Millennial conflict, as older Twitter users rushed to Ryan Gosling’s defense, quickly outnumbering the haters. In turn, this argument over whether he’s “hot enough to play Ken” developed into something deeper: A debate about Ken’s purpose as a character.
In both the trailer and the viral marketing slogans last week (“She’s Everything/He’s Just Ken”), the Barbie movie is extremely clear in how it positions Ken. Echoing the way most children play with these toys—and how Ken is marketed as a product—Barbie is exciting and multifaceted while Ken is basically an accessory.
As Ryan Gosling himself put it, “Ken’s got no money, he’s got no job, he’s got no car, he’s got no house.” Recent Barbie cartoons characterize Ken as a supportive, ineffectual himbo, and it’s pretty typical for kids to own like five Barbies and one Ken—or no Kens at all. He is not a leading man. He holds less conceptual appeal than Barbie’s outfits. Ryan Gosling is already promoting his role on these terms, cracking jokes about Ken being a forgotten toy that nobody plays with.
So the reactions to the Barbie movie are split between people who understand this on an instinctive level, and those who think Ken is meant to be an attractive hunk.
But while there are plenty of actors who look more like a Ken doll than Gosling, there’s a reason why so many people are defending this casting choice. Harking back to the vintage Feminist Ryan Gosling meme, he’s the quintessential self-aware heartthrob. He’s a millennial dream boyfriend, cast in a film directed by a millennial woman, whose trailer is one big meta joke about Barbie lore (She’s a physicist! She’s an author! She’s a Supreme Court Justice!) and the way kids interact with these toys.
In that context, it’s crucial to cast a Ken who is both a great comic actor, and capable of being sensitive and vulnerable without hogging the limelight. So: Ryan Gosling.
It’s interesting to note how the reactions to Barbie differ from, say, The Lego Batman Movie or Super Mario Bros. Right now, Hollywood is overflowing with movies based on children’s toys and vintage nerd-culture franchises, capitalizing on childhood nostalgia. They’re mass-market products that must also cater to loud, opinionated fandoms, and Barbie is the first example explicitly marketed to girls.
Despite Barbie’s ubiquitous cultural footprint, this trailer revealed that some people don’t really understand what Barbie is. They don’t understand that Barbie has lore, or that there’s very little relation between Barbie’s stereotypical brand (i.e. hyperfeminine and embedded in traditional gender roles) and the way little girls actually play with her in real life. This is not a story that requires a sexy alpha male romantic lead.
All the best parts of the Barbie trailer are conscious riffs on familiar Barbie tropes: Her inflexible feet, her absurd number of careers, Kate McKinnon as a Barbie with her hair hacked off and sharpie on her face, the way Ken’s “‘Cause we’re girlfriend-boyfriend” line echoes the naive tone of a child enacting a conversation between two dolls. Greta Gerwig clearly has a solid handle on how Barbie and Ken resonate as characters. But some viewers just don’t get the joke.