Why are Conservative Men so Mad About Barbie?

Photograph Source: Phillip Pessar – CC BY 2.0

Less than a week after its release, The Barbie Movie has garnered an intense reaction from the Right, from accusations of “delivering more lectures than laughs,” and “the most anti-man film ever made,” to a 43-minute rant by Ben Shapiro, during which he burned a Barbie, Ken, and a toy car, claiming the movie “undermines basic human values.”

In their urgency to crush a perceived feminist agenda, Right Wing commentators are missing the film’s remarkably balanced attempt to mend a rift in the cultural dialogue about gender and identity. Rather than heeding the critics who cry “woke”, conservatives would do well to see the film and judge for themselves.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie explores themes that should appeal to conservatives, championing the value of motherhood — I challenge any parent to not get misty-eyed — refusing to dichotomize traditional femininity and professional achievement, criticizing the ironically anti-woman elements of internet feminism, and even acknowledging the struggle to achieve constitutional equality between groups. As a psychologist, however, what I found most interesting, and certainly most relevant to the right wing “discourse” surrounding the movie, is the film’s interaction with the psychological principle of “precarious manhood”.

Precarious manhood refers to the male tendency to measure their masculinity according to others’ estimation, rather than by personal or objective means. In other words, the respect of being a “real man” is something that is difficult to gain, easily lost, and must be constantly proved. Men who perceive their manhood as being threatened tend to respond aggressively, often posturing and blustering to appear tough and “manly.” This other-dependent masculinity is one of the central themes of the movie — and it’s the reason why many right wing critics are reacting so strongly.

Barbie’s Ken, played with Oscar-winning aplomb by Ryan Gosling, is a man-doll whose identity is entirely tied up in his desired relationship with Barbie. The narrator’s introduction perfectly summarizes Ken’s self-concept: “Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” When it becomes clear that Barbie isn’t interested, Ken’s threatened precarious manhood drives him to embrace “patriarchy,” conquer Barbieland, and brainwash the once-independent Barbies into wearing French Maid outfits and serving the Kens “brewski beers.”

Many across the ideological spectrum, including the American Psychological Association, feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, and even Ben Shapiro’s fellow Daily Wire contributor Jordan Peterson, have all highlighted the dangers of this masculine insecurity. Lack of self-identity mixed with feelings of isolation — in other words, precarious manhood — drives men to dangerous beliefs and behaviors. Although Ken is the antagonist, the film treats him compassionately, and Ken resolves his crisis by realizing that he is “Kenough,” and must anchor his identity beyond his job (which is not a lifeguard, but simply “beach”) or desired romantic relationships. Instead, he must view himself as an individual with innate value. Sure it’s not quite Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” but you’d think this positive depiction of individualism as the solution to a crisis of masculinity deserves some Right Wing approval.

The trouble is many conservative critics are afflicted by the same precarious manhood as Ken. For example, I’d suggest that setting toys on fire like Toy Story’s kid-nightmare Sid is not the behavior of someone secure in their masculinity. Modern conservative media is full of similar examples, from Donald Trump’s constant temper tantrums to supposed masculinity advocate Jordan Peterson’s refusing to apologize for sexist comments about swimsuit models. Testicle tanning Tucker Carlson takes the cake by sympathetically interviewing alleged sex trafficker and admitted sexual predator Andrew Tate as a part of his efforts to address his perception of society’s masculinity crisis.

Clearly there is a crisis of masculinity within our society, but solving it would require admitting that these problems exist, not just blame-shifting or melting down every time someone else points them out. Barbie’s critics are too consumed by their precarious manhood to do this — so much so that a movie affirming men’s need to source their identity in something stronger than female approval has provoked their ire and left them seeing an olive branch as a threat. Were these people more secure in their manhood — if they could only realize that they, too, are “Kenough” — then their response to Barbie would likely be very different. It would certainly involve less burnt plastic.

I won’t pretend that The Barbie Movie is perfect. For instance, I wish the father character had been less buffoonish. However, I didn’t perceive the film’s questions or jokes as a threat to men, but as opportunities to engage in important conversations. Greta Gerwig claims she intended the film as an “invitation for everybody” — men and women, liberal and conservative. The film simultaneously rejects toxic masculinity and extreme feminism, patriarchy and matriarchy, suggesting that answers to our culture’s ideological differences must lie somewhere in the middle. Like Barbie and Ken, the audience is left to work out our answers through our own self-examinations and discussions..

But those discussions can’t occur if we burn Barbie-mobiles instead of building bridges. Like Ken, we should abandon our precarious manhood and instead follow Barbie’s example: “do the imagining, don’t be the idea.” Go see the movie yourself (wear pink!) — you might be pleasantly surprised.

Dr. Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and researcher in Houston, Texas. His research examines issues of culture, leadership, and responses to threat in politics and society. He can be found on Twitter @pompom9211.