Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Last October, I attended New York Comic Con as a reporter for the pop culture site Popverse. Generally when it comes to these kinds of pop culture events I tend to stay away from saying too much about the cosplay of it all, because that seems to be the only thing that the media ever talks about, and usually with an eye toward implying just how cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs are those who dress as their favorite pop culture figures.

With Halloween just weeks away, I expected that we’d be seeing lots of splashes of pink as people tried out their Barbie costumes. And there were some great ones. But what surprised me was the packs of Kens that I would occasionally run into. More specifically, the way that they behaved. They were loud and aggressive, not dangerous exactly, but totally self-involved—that is to say, exactly like the characters in the movie. It was like they had stopped watching Barbie after the Kens take over and understood its message to be male empowerment.

Then at Christmas time, Ryan Gosling released a music video of himself singing the Barbie track “I’m Just Ken.” In a long opening section, he “arrives” in the recording studio and noodles away on a piano for a while as he supposedly talks off the cuff to writer/producer Mark Ronson about how to approach one section of the song, before he and a weirdly large band launch into their rendition. While Gosling is known for his playful “with it” sense of humor and internet’s boyfriend demeanor, his performance here is without a trace of irony or humor. He performs the song as the soulful ballad of a man struggling to understand his place in the universe. (Ironically, the visuals of the video consist entirely of the camera circling him round around, underlining just how much at the center of the universe he is.)

On January 23, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences revealed their nominations for the Academy Awards. While Barbie’s America Ferrera was nominated for her truly glorious performance as Gloria and the film itself for best picture, Barbie herself, the brilliant Margot Robbie, was completely overlooked. Director Greta Gerwig was nominated along with Noah Baumbach for her work on the script, but ignored for her direction. And the only other major award nomination for the film went to Gosling. 

As you might imagine, people are not having it. And a lot of their focus is on the fact that the Academy would nominate Gosling, who is playing the kind of manchild Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and a hundred other comic actors have done a thousand times (and without similar accolade), and ignore Gerwig and Robbie, who together took what was literally a plastic character and transformed her into a woman of such incredible depth and poignancy. Gosling himself came out with a statement afterward, saying “To say that I’m disappointed that they are not nominated in their respective categories would be an understatement … They made us laugh, they broke our hearts, they pushed the culture and they made history. Their work should be recognized.”

But I guess the question is: Did they push the culture? Because it sure seems like the men I’ve seen celebrating Ken—including at times Gosling himself—have taken a very different lesson. They revel in Ken’s stupidity and self-aggrandizement, and they use him to further their own agendas. I don’t question Gosling’s desire to be an ally in this moment. But I can’t help but notice, there’s not a trace of Gerwig, Robbie, or the character of Barbie herself in his video. It was clearly intended as Oscar bait. And hey, look, not only did he get nominated, so did the song. 

The nominations as a whole were characterized by a focus on movies that few have seen or heard of, while films that were both popular and extraordinarily well-crafted got the shaft. The fact that Saltburn alone did not receive a single nomination is nuts. “The Oscar nominations and moviegoing tastes have pretty much parted company,” wrote Stephen King on whatever we’re supposed to call Twitter right now—that bizarre name change and the collapse of that platform themselves the work of one of the world’s most unredeemed and self-infatuated Kens. 

Even Gosling’s statement of support and disappointment feels misaligned somehow. Gosling writes, “There’s no Ken without Barbie,” which is both absolutely true and a reference back to the script itself. But very clearly both in the Academy and in reality there is Ken without Barbie. Rather than placing himself in the position of a man standing up to validate the achievements and talents of women, as well-intended and perhaps appreciated as that may be, would that Gosling and others like him would take the men of the Academy and Ken fans to task for their oafish, ham-fisted misogyny, or be willing to sacrifice something of their own. You want to protest what’s happened? Refuse to accept your nomination.

There are other things that actors who are upset could do, too, like putting it in their contracts that half of the crew must be women on every picture they do going forward, as many women have, or that their female co-stars must be paid at the same level as them. 

Mary Testa in Women on Fire (Image Credit: Royal Family Productions)

Recently, I attended Women on Fire: Stories from the Frontline, a series of astonishing monologues about the experience of being a woman today performed by the likes of Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Tony winner Carolee Carmello. I’m haunted by its first monologue, performed by the great Kathleen Chalfant. She has spent her whole life fighting to make the world a better place for her daughter, she says, and instead it is far worse for her, and likely going to be the same for her granddaughter. 

In a fiery rant that shakes the rafters, Tony Award-winning Broadway star Mary Testa puts the experience of many women today even more succinctly. I wonder if her words don’t capture the feelings of so many observers of the Academy today: “#!#%! YOU! !$!$ YOU! *&#% YOU!”

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.