Ken-ergy barbie

What is Ken-ergy, the force fuelling Ryan Gosling in Barbie?

Barbie is set to rule the box office this July, but she will share the screen with Ryan Gosling’s Ken. What is Ken-ergy and do we have it? 

Barbie is set to rule the box office this July, but she will share the screen with Ryan Gosling’s Ken. We ask, what exactly is Ken-ergy, and do we have it too? 

There are plenty of reasons audiences are getting excited ahead of the release of Barbie this July. The film looks like a bright and breezy summer blockbuster: it’s the latest film by acclaimed director Greta Gerwig, and it’s a nostalgia hit for generations who grew up with the iconic doll. But the film offers another enticing prospect: the casting of Ryan Gosling as Ken, and his unusual promotion for the upcoming film. 

On the press circuit for the July release, the Canadian actor has spoken about how co-star Margot Robbie and director Gerwig helped him to get into character by conjuring his inner “Ken-ergy”. 

Speaking to a Cinemacon audience in Las Vegas in April 2023, Gosling described his initial doubts. “Up until this point, I only knew Ken from afar. I didn’t know Ken from within. I doubted my Ken-ergy. I didn’t see it.”

ryan gosling ken-ergy

Credit: Warner Bros.

Gosling underwent a physical transformation for the film, adopting frosty bleached-blonde hair and fantastically plastic bronzer to get into Ken’s head. The actor sounds invigorated by the experience. 

“I was living my life and the next thing I knew, I was bleaching my hair and shaving my legs and rollerblading on Venice Beach”, all of which helped him fully realise his “po-Ken-tial”. 

ryan gosling kingsley ben-adir ncuti gatwa

They’re all just Kens. Credit: Warner Bros.

But what exactly is “Ken-ergy”? Where does it come from, and can we harness this power for ourselves?

Gosling’s own views on Ken are revealing. “He’s an accessory, and not even one of the cool ones,” he told Jimmy Fallon in an interview last year. He’s simply another accessory to Barbie, like the car or Dreamhouse.

To understand Ken, we first need to understand Barbie herself. 

The story goes that the doll’s original designer Ruth Handler of Mattel, was inspired after watching her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, giving them adult roles in her games. Noting that toy dolls in the United States tended to only depict infants at that time, Ruth designed Barbie to fill that gap, debuting her at the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959.

“It provides for millions and millions of little girls an important play experience; it gives a little girl the ability to dream about her future. A girl can interpret the adult world around her with this doll as a prop”, Handler once said of her doll design.

READ MORE: 7 films to watch before Greta Gerwig’s Barbie

Ken followed two years later, an addition to help those kids playing grown-up: a partner to go steady with Barbie. Just as Barbie was named after her creator’s daughter Barbara, the new toy boy was christened after Ruth Handler’s son Kenneth, a Freudian knot we can’t recommend thinking about for too long. The first Ken was presented with a simple swimsuit, matching Barbie’s iconic original black and white bathing suit. Rather than a toy on its own terms, he was always presented as an extension of players using Barbie to consider the world around them. Ken exists to complement. 

ryan gosling ken poster

Credit: Warner Bros.

The trailers for Barbie show various Kens – Gosling, Simu Liu, or soon-to-be Doctor Who Ncuti Gatwa – as utterly devoted to getting and keeping Barbie’s attention and approval. Gosling’s blankly grinning version hopes to stay overnight without even knowing why, gets jealous of other Kens, and follows Margot Robbie’s Barbie on her journey – a personal voyage of discovery for her, a fun day out for him.

If there is a thought running through Ken’s pure plastic head at all, it’s about Barbie and Barbie only. The rest is himbo bliss. If Barbie exists to be projected onto, our boy is even blanker than a blank space; pure, vacant, unadulterated joy.

The Warner Bros website adds a little more context to Ken’s place in the world: “To live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place. Unless you have a full-on existential crisis. Or you’re a Ken.” To be a Barbie is beautiful, but it may require you to reckon with perfection; what will you be when you can be anything? What is the ideal tomorrow, was today the ideal today? 

To be a Ken, meanwhile, is pure vibes. No need to worry about anything else. What would Ken actually do if he got to stay overnight with Barbie? He’s actually not sure. Freedom through the inability to perceive pressure. Honestly, it sounds ideal.  

Perhaps to best unpack Ken-ergy, we have to look at the source. Did the original Ken, the real Mattel heir who gave our boy his name display any other traces of Ken’s essence? Kenneth Handler had a conflicted relationship with the source of the family fortune. Towards Barbie, he was outright hostile, calling her a “bimbo” that he really didn’t like at all. For his own namesake, Handler was more struck by how different they were. 

ken dolls mattel

A Variety of Ken dolls. Credit: Mattel

“Ken doll is Malibu,” he once said in a rare interview. “He goes to the beach and surfs. He is all these perfect American things.” But when Ken was at Hamilton High School in Beverlywood, he “played the piano and went to movies with subtitles.” Of his youth, he said, “I was a nerd–a real nerd. All the girls thought I was a jerk.”

That movie geek status stuck with Handler, who grew up to be a screenwriter, composer and director. However distinct he wanted to be from the doll’s image, Handler’s first feature Delivery Boys, is a film teeming with Ken-ergy. A daft 80s comedy about breakdancing pizza boys, one could easily imagine Gosling, Liu and co slotting in to play the film’s enthusiastic stars, airy of head but fancy of feet. 

Scored with innuendo-laden songs by Handler himself about how they always deliver, the Boys get over their heads in sexual hijinks, goof around shirtless under the Brooklyn Bridge, and treat the local breaking competition with just as much misplaced seriousness as Gosling’s Ken threatening to get into a “beach off”. Their clothes are incredible, their dance moves sensational. The film is R-rated but utterly adolescent. Even for lack of trying, Handler assembled a collection of Kens to pose and play with in a joyful, blissfully ignorant oversized playset. 

Gosling is thriving on it, Handler couldn’t escape it, but what about you? Make peace with being imperfect, embrace supporting status instead of today’s push to be the Main Character, and the power of Kenergy is yours for the taking. It’s an uplifting joie de vibe, insulation from the harshness of reality, a mind equal parts open and empty. 

ryan gosling ken-ergy barbie

Credit: Warner Bros.

The Barbie’s tagline puts it, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken”. Embrace being ‘just’, and enjoy the bliss that comes when you let yourself just be. It’s lifting up those around you, often literally. In every guy at a gig with a pal on their shoulders, there’s a Ken. Every boyfriend laying on the ground to get the perfect camera angle for his girlfriend’s Instagram; that’s a Ken right there. It is a spirit through which we are all…Kennected. 

Barbie is in cinemas on 21 July.

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