Desiring to Rule over Him
Barbie world created the male-as-accessory, but women found it deeply disappointing.
Ruth Handler was a girlboss. Her daughter, Barbara, was just a girl playing with baby dolls, to her mother’s chagrin. It was 1959 and tensions over a woman’s role in society were growing.
Inspired by a Swiss sex doll, which portrayed in miniature a full-grown, buxom woman, Handler launched the pop culture phenomenon that would earn the Handlers millions and change the way girls played for generations: the Barbie doll. Named after Handler’s daughter, and intended to empower girls to imagine a future apart from babies, the toy would echo its maker’s sentiments toward homemaking: “Oh, [expletive], it was awful!”
The world Handler envisioned is, in many ways, the world we live in today. Like Barbie, American women have achieved high-level career success, especially in higher education, where their performance has notably surpassed that of American men. Like Barbie, American girls from a very young age have learned to flaunt their bodies and to call this empowerment. And like Barbie, Ken is only an accessory to female success today.
A man, to the high-achieving woman, has become little more than emotionally supportive arm candy. Just ask Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband to Vice President Kamala Harris and the progressive ideal of manhood, whose existence has apparently peaked at “happily praising his wife as he leads the U.S. delegation to the FIFA Women’s World Cup,” as one Politico writer put it. This description of peak manhood comes from a review of the new Barbie movie, released last weekend. The female critic’s conclusion was that Emhoff, like the Ken dolls so easily defeated by their female counterparts in a beach standoff, is “Ken the way the girls would have him be.”
Undoubtedly, this pink world is not so rosy for the guys. Greta Gerwig, director of the blockbuster movie, herself seems to realize this when she includes a character arc in which the sidelined Ken wrestles to overcome his second-class status. As the New York Times explained, “If you are making a movie that is trying to take the contradictions of modern womanhood seriously and you have a character in your movie who cannot define himself or understand his own worth—a character who kicks sand all day hoping just to be looked at by someone with power—you have to take that plight seriously, even if the character is male.”
The implication seems to be, for the critics, that Ken is getting a taste of the perennial female plight of existence. Still, it is a suggestive allowance from a feminist director that, at least in some places, the tables have well and truly turned. This second-class status Gerwig recognized is not limited to the world of dolls. For young men today, the picture looks a lot closer to what Barbie envisions than many care to admit.
In a recent essay for the Washington Post, writer Christine Emba detailed the male problem at length, including her own anecdotal experience with male acquaintances who, she writes, lack friends, ambition, purpose, and even basic social skills. But this is not merely anecdotal: While older men still hold many high-level jobs, young men coming of age today demonstrate little promise of following in the same footsteps. Data from Pew Research Center show today’s 25-year-old women are just as likely as their predecessors in 1980 to work full time (both 61 percent) and more likely to be financially independent (56 percent versus 50 percent). By contrast, today’s 25-year-old men are significantly less likely to find full-time work than 40 years ago (71 percent today versus 85 percent in 1980) or to achieve financial independence (64 percent today versus 77 percent in 1980).
For those who have been paying attention, this behavior is not caused by unexplained, sourceless apathy. As higher education has moved to a model which favors female strengths, men have been leaving it, and with it many of the higher paying jobs which require an advanced degree. For those already in the workforce, expanding H.R. departments—overwhelmingly staffed by women—and the politically charged sexual politics typified by the Me Too movement, have meant that formerly healthy male behaviors have been routinely coded as “toxic.” It is not an exaggeration to say that culture, writ large, has declared masculinity unwelcome. Men are being told to kick sand.
Are these men on the margins “Ken the way the girls would have him be”? Perhaps on its face, but female social behavior, especially in romantic relationships, suggests another conclusion. After all, men being “in their flop era,” as one Substack writer put it, is not an isolated problem. Indeed, for the vast majority of American women who hope to date and marry one of these males, the problem is theirs as well. Whether they blame male chauvinism, male inadequacy, or merely rising standards of acceptable relational behavior, women are incredibly vocal today about their dissatisfaction with the dating pool, yet unwilling to admit the causes.
Men, meanwhile, may be beginning to reject the paradigm. The response of young men to living in a Barbie world has been a mixed bag, especially on social media, with some following unsavory media personalities like Andrew Tate to embrace a kind of Hugh Hefner “masculinity” that consists more in flaunting material wealth and injuring women than any thoughtful critique of a world after feminism. (The Romanian government has charged Tate with rape and human trafficking.) More probing responses have come from online pseudonymous communities, like that on Twitter around the poster known as Bronze Age Pervert. While some of these reactionary personalities are better than others, and esotericism can make it hard to tell which is which, the women who critique them in magazines or TikTok clips are missing the point: The so-called manosphere exists because of an excess of feminine naysaying, and will not be answered by more of it.
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As the culture Handler and others dreamed of plays out, it is worth asking who is better off. Men are obviously not. What about the women?
In 2014, a study of child play habits found girls who grew up playing with Barbie dolls could imagine the future Barbie promised, with women as astronauts, doctors, and pilots. However, they did not imagine themselves in that future. Indeed, even within Handler’s lifetime, girls were clamoring for a Ken for Barbie to marry, a pregnant Barbie, and a Barbie with a baby. (Mattel responded to the latter wishes with a babysitter Barbie and, eventually, a pregnant Midge doll, but Barbie herself never had a child.) The promise of a successful career, it seems, was not enough to overrule many women’s desire to raise children.
Unfortunately for those women who have followed the Barbie model, many now find themselves childless and unsatisfied. Emasculated men, apparently, don’t father many children.