Barbie’s Ken, men and Jesus

Dunedin Anglican Ollie Alexander heads to the cinema to ponder the state and meaning of masculinity – in response to a challenge from Student Christian Movement Otago.

Photo by Tara Winstead. Powered by Pexels.

Four Dunedin lads took up the SCM challenge to ask what it means to be a man in the eyes of the big Hollywood moviemakers in August 2023.

At first look, Oppenheimer with his cold calculations, conflicting convictions and ever-present pipe seemed like an obvious choice, but we decided that the Barbie movie might offer us the answers we sought. Either that, or we just wanted a good reason to enjoy Greta Gerwig’s pink and plastic wonderland.

Our masculine hero in the Barbie movie is none other than Ken, the beach doll played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling. As one Ken living among many, he seemingly exists to compete for Barbie’s fleeting attention and affection. We soon realise that with or without Barbie, he is still “just Ken” — an afterthought in the genesis of Barbie and her personal utopia.

On his adventures, Ken discovers a social structure based on horses and boy-clubs, horses and beer, horses and toys and easily impressed Barbies. Did I mention horses? Without revealing too much, I’m glad to say that the film provided plenty of laughs, a fantastic musical piece and just enough depth for us lads to dive into at the bar afterwards.

We acknowledged that masculinity is difficult to define and probably looks different across history and cultures, but we agreed that if masculinity represents the dominant version on the internet then we might be better off in Barbieland.

When male “influencers” take to Youtube, Instagram and other internet platforms they preach on what it really means to be a man, which too often ends with dominance, wealth and physical strength.

When people like Andrew Tate — a self-proclaimed misogynist with charges of rape and human trafficking against him — start to become leading voices in masculinity, then we need to pause and work out why.

Do men feel like they are losing control in a world of frequent change? Do we want to hold onto power as women strive for equal rights and income? Has an erosion in real-world communities and a rise in online echo-chambers exacerbated harmful male viewpoints?

“Jesus reveals a masculinity that chooses service over dominance, and calls us to be merciful peacemakers who grapple to love our enemies.”

Looking to Jesus and his followers, we find that Christian culture is not immune to shallow or distorted versions of masculinity. Many men would rather see Jesus with a high-income job, holding a rifle and a beautiful wife, than as a poor, celibate, former refugee who held a towel to wash the feet of his friends.

Jesus reveals a masculinity that chooses service over dominance, and calls us to be merciful peacemakers who grapple to love our enemies. Traits such as physical strength and productive skills are still desirable for Christian men (Jesus was a carpenter after all) but having deep-rooted morals and a sacrificial love for others is paramount.

We discussed the importance of mentors and role models in our own lives who show us good versions of masculinity.

Some of us mentioned fathers, grandfathers, teachers, and church members who have been stable examples for the better. Men who work hard to provide, but whose ego doesn’t need them to be “The Provider”, who respect and learn from the women in their lives as well as support them, who are willing to associate not only with the strong and triumphant, but with the weird and the stragglers, and who are even prepared to look weak or fail if necessary.

By the end of the night, we acknowledged how good it is to grapple with this topic together. Just like Ken we still have many questions, but we were better off for joining him on the journey — horse or no horse. 

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