Why #notmyken Completely Misses the Point on Greta Gerwig’s Upcoming Barbie

With Greta Gerwig’s hotly anticipated adaptation, Barbie, a little over a month away from its July 21st release the marketing has been ramped up considerably, and with the increased visibility of any beloved franchise there is often undue outrage. In the case of Barbie, it’s the casting of Ryan Gosling, who, at 42, many deem too old to play the famed love interest to Barbie, consequently leading to the circulation of #notmyken on social media, to which everyone else responded, “Have you seen the guy?!” His first promotional image for the movie almost broke the internet. He looks better at 42 than I did at 25! Nonetheless, there is delicious irony to be found here, as the very people circulating the hashtag are completely overlooking Gerwig’s nuanced approach to the material.

We have seen a similar trend with the recent live-action adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but instead of ageism, it was just straight-up racism, with #notmyariel trending due to Halle Bailey, an African American actress, playing the lead role of Ariel, a white animated character. However, the film’s release quickly silenced her problematic critics as Bailey received universal acclaim for what many consider her breakout role, while noting that she is the best part of an otherwise by-the-numbers Disney live action rehash. There are, of course, notable differences between the irrational reactions to the casting of Bailey and Gosling, but what they both share is talent that can trump the harshest of critics, particularly the seasoned Gosling, who has earned a reputation for being a consistently brilliant performer. We have been here many times before, where others criticise a performer’s role before the movie even sees the light of day, with the most prominent example that comes to mind being Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and we all know just how wrong they were about that.

However, Gosling himself actually struck right at the heart of the point I am ultimately making here, cheekily responding to the online movement by saying, “If people don’t want to play with my Ken, there are plenty other Kens to play with.” When it comes to a Barbie adaptation, most would immediately jump to the conclusion that it will be a by-the-numbers affair that cashes in on the intellectual property without having much to say. Not Greta Gerwig, who has become a revered, multi-Oscar nominated filmmaker with her dramedy Ladybird is one of the most acclaimed films of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. It was initially difficult to gauge how Gerwig would approach the material, but with the announcement of the cast, as well as the release of the trailer, it became clear that she is opting for a progressive approach to a somewhat problematic toy, with representation of the individual being a key part of her adaptation.

To Gosling’s point, there are various versions of Ken in the movie covering different races and backgrounds, with fellow Canadian Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans, and John Cena all playing the famed doll. The same can be said of Barbie, who has an even wider variety of versions, ranging from Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie” (I totally see it), to Issa Rae’s “President Barbie”, and trans actress Hari Nef’s “Doctor Barbie”, amongst many others.

The longstanding image of Barbie is the young, white-skinned, blond-haired bombshell with a figure that many envy but is quite literally unattainable. Nobody seemed to be thinking about Ken until Gosling was cast and ageism started rearing its ugly head, which the actor himself pointed out, saying “It’s funny…this kind of clutching-your-pearls idea of, like, #notmyken. Like you ever thought about Ken before this?” Yet, Gerwig is trying to challenge and reorient our perceptions of these dolls and deliver a message that such cultural icons are for any and all, not just those who closely fit Barbie’s historically narrow concept of beauty and femininity, embodied by a story where Margot Robbie’s own Barbie must leave Barbieland because she is “less than perfect”.

So, if you’re going to criticize Gosling for playing Ken while in his early forties, then you are totally missing the point of what Gerwig and her cast are going for, possibly even siding with the viewpoint of the movie’s villain, however unintentional. Just saying.

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