Hello! Dev here. I spend too much time reading about ancient religion and theology. The students I work with think I’m a monk, but if you know me I’m just some Zoomer who thinks he knows it all. Beneath the intellectual persona is a hopeless romantic who just wants to drink tea and watch sunsets with my friends.
Here’s the scene: I’m 12 years old, staring wistfully out of my grandpa’s dusty truck window at the passing scenery of the Sierra National Forest. I have a cup of DIBS and a portable CD player nestled in my lap, tears gently streaming down my face as I listen to the Kidz Bop cover of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fergie.
I was terrified. We were on our way to an annual all-boys summer camp which, for most, was an idyllic masculine paradise of fishing, wrestling, Bible-thumping, tent-pitching, and shower-avoiding; for me, it was a nightmare being confronted by everything I wasn’t.
I’m not a guy’s guy — at least not in the traditional sense I’m supposed to be. To this day, my eyes still glaze over if someone tries to bond over sports, cars, barbecues, or a (wrongly assumed) shared interest in attractive women. The 12-year-old me preferred singing in choirs, and keeping my clothes clean, my hair long, my friends female, and my crushes male.
My family probably knew I was gay long before I was able to confess it to myself later in high school. They took me on various ventures into masculinity — fixing cars, watching baseball games, going camping — in an attempt to make sure I “turned out okay.” But all this did was reinforce an existential dread: I’m not masculine enough. I’m not male enough.
I’m not enough.
This complicated relationship with masculinity has followed me throughout my life, especially as I’ve gradually come to terms with what it means to be a gay man following Jesus. Even now, I struggle to use the word “man” to describe myself — I’ve tried editing that sentence a hundred different ways to avoid it.
I can come to terms with the word “gay” or the word “Christian,” but “man” doesn’t feel like something I am.
Luckily for me, Greta Gerwig has given me a solution to my angst: the Barbie movie. I’m not kidding, either. I think this movie is repairing my relationship with masculinity. I’ve watched it three times now, and each time I’ve walked away more at peace with my masculinity than any forced camping trip or agony-filled read-through of the NIV Bible for Teen Guys.
Barbie is a lot of things. To some, it is a piece of misandrist woke media (I’m looking at you, Ben Shapiro). For others, it’s a deeply resonant story full of memories of girlhood, a commentary on what it means to be a woman in a post-patriarchal world, or simply a fun movie to watch on a Friday night.
For me, Barbie is a masterpiece that helps me live at peace with what it means to be a guy when I feel alienated from how most men around me experience their masculinity.
Barbie begins in a feminine paradise of pajama parties, extravagant dances, and women empowerment. Stereotypical Barbie, our lead character played by Margot Robbie, enjoys this plastic, picture-perfect world until the illusion is shattered by flattened heels, cellulite, and existential dread.
To fix this, she travels to the edges of Barbie Land society and consults Weird Barbie — a Barbie who has lost all semblance of dollish femininity after being played with too hard. Weird Barbie sends Stereotypical Barbie into the real world to confront the human whose emotions are bleeding into Barbie Land. Ken, played by Ryan Gosling and our supporting lead “male” (if you can call a genital-less doll “male”), tags along for the ride, compelled by his undying love for Barbie.
In the real world, Barbie’s illusion of feminine power and beauty is shattered even more. As it turns out, she is not the feminist icon she thought herself to be; her beauty is seen as unrealistic, and she experiences the predatory male gaze for the first time. Ken, on the other hand, discovers the concept of patriarchy and masculine aesthetics.
Inspired by horses, gym-bros, and stock traders, Ken brings the patriarchy back with him to Barbie Land. He inspires the other Kens, brainwashes the other Barbies, and establishes his Mojo-Dojo-Casa-House — a monument to everything good and masculine.
My stomach literally turned while I watched Barbie Land fall to the Kens. There was something so viscerally unappealing about the Mojo-Dojo-Casa-House and the general demeanor of the Kens that I squirmed in my seat for the majority of that Kendom sequence.
I realized halfway through that the Mojo-Dojo-Casa-House embodied everything I was insecure about: the masculinity that I could never enjoy, always encroaching on me in male spaces. I also realized that I was resonating a lot more with Barbie. Her experience of verbal and physical harassment mirrored some of my own experience. Her tea-time sanctuary with Ruth Handler (Barbie’s creator) reminded me of gentle conversations with the women in my family at the dinner table.
When Ken played the guitar at Barbie and asked her to be his “long-term, long-distance, low-commitment, casual girlfriend,” I remembered vivid memories of high school as well as college situationships with straight friends, including fireside serenades they’d perform for me (I think I need to talk with my therapist about this one). And yet, I’m not Barbie. I’m not a woman.
As much as I resonate with Barbie’s experience, I’m profoundly aware of both my biological sex and gender identity. I am not a woman, and I don’t desire to be — their world feels comfortable to me, but I’m just on the outside of that world.
Instead, I live in a world of Kens but can’t stand the kind of masculinity the Kens want to create.
Eventually, the Barbies take back Barbie Land. Ken, stripped of his symbols of masculinity, spirals into an existential crisis. Without the symbols of girlfriends, clothes, and Mojo-Dojo-Casa-Houses, who is he? Can he prove that he is Ken enough, and if not, is he enough at all?
Ken realizes he doesn’t have to live up to being a Ken — Ken is him, he’s just Ken, and that’s (K)enough. This is the part of the movie where I suddenly began crying.
Up to this point, I looked down at Ken and his desire for the masculine. But I realized I was maybe a bit jealous that he desired that world and could participate in it so comfortably. Then he had the audacity to admit that most of his masculine parade was just a show he felt like he had to participate in, losing interest when he realized that “patriarchy isn’t about horses.”
Ken’s just like me. I find it significant that the restoration of Barbie Land didn’t remove every trace of the Kendom. Barbie kept a horse-themed lampshade and saloon doors. One of the Kens gets the girl of his dreams, and the other gets to wear his macho mink coat.
The traditional symbols of masculinity aren’t bad. They have their proper place. However, having these masculine symbols (or not having them) does not add or subtract to who a person is.
Barbie finds herself dissatisfied with the idyllic world of Barbie Land. It’s a feminine paradise, but it’s a plastic one too. She goes on a walk with her creator and asks her if she can become a human, and the two have a dialogue that has cemented itself into my psyche:
“Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever,” warns Ruth. “Being a human can be pretty uncomfortable. Humans make up things like patriarchy and Barbie just to deal with how uncomfortable being human is. And then you die.”
As Ruth says these words, my heart is racing. After a moment of thought, Barbie responds:
“I want to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that’s made. I want to do the imagining, I don’t want to be the idea. Does that make sense?”
If I wasn’t choking on my own tears at this point I would have yelled, “YES, Barbie, that makes sense!”
You see, ideas are the identities we can imagine for ourselves and pass down to one another. Ideas feel safest when they’re timeless, enduring. I can point to a platonic ideal of masculinity and tell myself to live up to it, and blame my failure to do so for any misery or alienation I feel in life. When we challenge the timelessness of these ideas, we end up with documentaries like What is a Woman? scrambling for some transcendent identity we can use to understand ourselves and each other.
Greta won’t have it this way. Womanhood isn’t some idea to be lived up to — it’s an experience that is passed down and shared between every woman who’s ever lived, and every woman contributes to its definition by the actions they take. When Ruth Handler passes on what it means to be a human woman to Barbie, she doesn’t pass on a definition. She passes on memories, experiences, hopes, and dreams, the stuff that transcends words and categories.
This is the truth of Barbie that is setting me free. There are so many identities that have been handed down to me: gender, faith, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. There are times when the stories of those identities have rung true with my own experience, but others where there’s a profound disconnect. I haven’t connected with the story of masculinity handed down to me, and up until now, thought it would be this ideal I will never live up to.
For once, I’m realizing that manhood isn’t some idea I need to live up to — it’s an experience that is passed down and shared between every man who’s ever lived, and that includes me. Simply by existing, I contribute to masculinity’s definition and create its meaning.
My masculinity isn’t an aesthetic, or a skillset, or a character: it’s me, my memories, my experiences, my hopes, and my dreams, the stuff that transcends words and categories.
Maybe this is part of why Paul says, at the end of the day, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul isn’t stupid. He knows that there are meaningful differences between how members of each group will experience reality. Yet, Paul is wise enough to recognize that none of these distinctions can meaningfully define who we are; instead, our identity becomes wrapped up in the identity of Christ, the human par excellence.
I wouldn’t call Gerwig an expert in Pauline anthropology, but I am grateful for the way she has reminded me of this important truth. My identities are important. I experience the world differently because of them. Yet, no combination of these secondary identities can meaningfully tell me who I am or who I am supposed to be. I have to discover that as I go.
Chances are, I’ll still struggle with feeling masculine enough tomorrow. The moments swoop in like vultures: moments of self-consciousness at the gym, conversations about when I’ll get married or have kids, or situations where I need to pass as straight for one reason or another.
The temptation is to prove that I’m masculine enough, or to despair in my lack of masculinity. This time, though, I’ll remind myself: I’m just me. And that’s enough.
Did you see Barbie? How did the film make you consider your own masculinity or femininity? Have you felt not masculine enough or feminine enough for this society?